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Australia: Universities lowering the bar for top courses

Entry standards for elite courses are plummeting as universities juggle status with government-imposed equity and growth agendas.

This year, 62 per cent of the students that Deakin University accepted into its law degree, with an advertised Australian Tertiary Admission Rank cut-off of 94.4, achieved a score below that. At La Trobe University, 70 per cent of admitted students scored less than the 94.1 cut-off for the double science degree, while 60 per cent of Monash University’s environment engineering intake scored less than the 90 cut-off.

Even Melbourne University’s elite biomedicine program, a traditional pathway into its medical degree, enrolled 56 per cent of this year’s intake with ATARs less than the 99 cut-off. Details of the low course entry scores came after The Australian revealed this week the number of student places available was almost outstripping demand, with a 16 per cent rise in the number of offers in the past three years.

The Gillard government has removed caps on the number of government-funded places universities can offer as part of a strategy to increase university participation and expand the country’s skills base. The government targets are to increase the proportion of young people with degrees to 40 per cent by 2025, and have 20 per cent of disadvantaged young people with degrees by 2020.

Cash-strapped universities have quickly responded to the targets, outstripping government projections. Initial 2009 estimates of 458,000 undergraduate places by this year were almost met a year early and the government was forced to upwardly revise the numbers to 517,000 places next year, at a cost of $4 billion over five years.

Concerns are increasingly being raised about the ability to maintain quality when expanding so quickly, with the biggest new source of students those with ATARs scores of less than 70. Research by the Group of Eight universities shows that the greatest increase in demand has been in health-related fields, with a fivefold increase in applications for dentistry; 110 per cent increase for nursing; 65 per cent increase for medicine; and a 50 per cent increase for other fields.

“The shift towards more expensive fields, on top of bigger than expected growth, increases the potential cost of a demand-driven system,” a policy paper from the Group of Eight says. “Current (per-student) funding levels are less than the cost of delivery in all disciplines, with the biggest shortfall in the more expensive fields.”

Vin Massaro, a consultant and honorary fellow with the LH Martin Institute at the University of Melbourne, said frantic growth, especially among lower ATAR and equity students, would make it hard to provide adequate support and maintain quality. His main concern was that the quality assurance agency set up to monitor standards was unprepared for the growth that had already taken place.

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans has attacked the questioning of falling ATARs as “elitist”. He said there was less of a correlation between ATAR and intelligence than between ATAR and family and educational background, and the government had provided $750 million in funding to support these students.

But Professor Massaro said how well universities were supporting such students when their numbers were in such rapid growth remained an issue.

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