By DAVID MYTON

Universities have a job on their hands this year as they figure out how to ensure their admissions systems and entry requirements are equitable, transparent and understandable.

They don’t have much choice in the matter.

First, Peter Shergold’s Higher Education Standards Panel on undergraduate entry requirements delivered the not-so-newsy news that what’s been in place is often “confusing, ambiguous, misunderstood and unevenly distributed”.

The Government accepted the report’s recommendations, with Education Minister Simon Birmingham declaring he didn’t want to see “any more stories in future that suggest universities have been fudging numbers or cooking the books to make their course look more exclusive than they otherwise are”.

“The public deserve universities to be held to high standards of accountability through appropriate transparency measures”.

Then the story broke that Australia’s university dropout rate is getting worse, revealing that a third of students who enrolled in 2009 failed to complete their courses within six years.

Now all institutions will be required to report predicted minimum ATAR for entry into a course, as well as the real minimum, median and distribution of ATARs from the previous year and the percentage of students admitted by means such as direct offers or bonus points.

All this will be taking place against a background of intense competition for students. The pressure is on.

Amid all this, to what extent do universities have a moral obligation towards would-be and current students regarding their potential to succeed in their studies?

I put this question to Steven Schwartz, former VC of Macquarie University and other universities including Brunel in the UK.

It was while at Brunel that he headed a major independent review (pdf) into university admissions in England.

One of the review outcomes was a central source of expertise and good practice on admissions called SPA, which is accessible to institutions today.

Steven Schwartz tells me that one of the most important points his review made was that universities should not consciously admit students they don’t believe are capable of completing their degree.

This, he says, is a “moral obligation”.

While entry to the majority of courses at Australian universities is dependent on the ATAR alone, English universities have the ability to look beyond exam marks.

“They just don’t rely on one score, so when they do their admissions they are looking at not just marks – of course they do look at that – but they are also taking into account such things as extra curricula activities, motivation, and the obstacles that student might have had to be overcome,” he says.

“They treat individuals on an individual basis, whereas in Australia we don’t.”

One of the main reasons for not having such a system in Australia, says Schwartz, is the cost: systems such as those in the UK and US are a “big deal” and “very expensive”.

“One of the things in support of the Australian system is that it’s cheap as chips really. It’s all done mechanically and it’s all done by computers.”

He notes that Ireland formerly had an admissions system similar to Australia’s but moved to a more contextual one “because they found that it just led to stupid outcomes”.

“Not knowing enough about your students just didn’t really produce the outcome that most people would think of as fair.”

He says it is time Australia moved to a more contextual system, noting that this already takes place in some universities for courses in high demand and where the institution has the money to spend.

“Most medical courses have interviews and processes by which they try to understand the motivations of the students and their preparedness for success in a medical course.”

But to admit students who the university could reasonably believe were not capable of doing the work – “a grab the money kind of attitude” – has no place in higher education, he says.

Schwartz welcomes the Shergold recommendations for more transparency with universities publishing only the “real scores” needed for entry to a course.

“I think that would be a good thing and a huge step forward in honesty among universities.

“The fact that they didn’t do that in any event suggests that their moral compass might need some adjustment.”

Not publishing the “real scores” privileged the schools that were used to dealing with universities.

“They will know they are fake but schools that are not in the know – perhaps an Indigenous school in outback Queensland – might say to students well don’t apply to UNSW, say, because you don’t have the score.

“That impacts on the people who are not in the know and they are usually the group who we want to encourage.”

Success in school examinations, he says, is the best predictor of success at university.

“If they have done well before you can be pretty well assured that they will be ok. But if they haven’t then they are going to need a lot of support.”

Allowing in students with lower scores could be justified as giving them the opportunity to study – “but along with that comes an obligation to make sure they are supported adequately. They do it to varying degrees at the moment”.

The current high drop-out rate is “probably” an inevitable conclusion of a demand driven system, he says.

“You have to go back to the economics of universities. Their costs go up every year and that’s because of the high labour contribution – they are very labour intensive institutions.

“Salaries go up every year in line with the economy but the productivity is zero –productivity doesn’t gain ever because it still takes an hour to do an hour-long lecture no matter what you do.

“So every year their costs go up and they need more money to pretty much stay where they were. So the tendency for them will be to go for whatever money they can find.”

The moral hazard for universities, he says, is that they have no downside.

“If I take a student who can’t complete a course, even though I know they probably can’t, I will still get the money.

“An income contingent loan where universities get the money whether or not the student succeeds gives them a lot of temptation.”

However, it is the taxpayer who doesn’t get repaid if the student drops out.

“Sometime down the line they will need to look at making universities in some way responsible for unpaid debts. But that’s probably in the far future.”

Further reading:

Higher Education Standards Panel: Improving the transparency of higher education admissions

Australian Government’s response to the Higher Education Standards Panel report

Report finds university admissions system ambiguous and confusing: The Australian

Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice (The Schwartz Review)