Access schemes changing the face of universities

Mar 3, 2016 by

Kate Nancarrow –

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform as well at university as students with higher ATARs and access programs are ensuring they get the chance to.

Who needs a 90-plus ATAR, anyway? 

Three of Victoria’s largest universities have transformed their entry programs in recognition that students from disadvantaged backgrounds “outperform their ATAR” once they reach university.

We have many decades of data showing that, while the ATAR is highly correlated with success at Monash, the original ATAR achieved by students from under represented schools generally underestimates their likely success at Monash.

Professor Sue Willis, Monash University

Monash, LaTrobe and the University of Melbourne all have long-established access schemes designed to admit talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds or under-represented schools.

Now, those schemes – all slightly different – are admitting hundreds of students on either lower ATARs, adjusted ATARs or on special entry schemes. It is part of a slow but steady change to the dominance and importance of the 90-plus ATAR and these changes haven’t escaped the notice of school students who, on discussion forums such as ATAR notes,  discuss ways of gaining admission to their university of choice on a lower ATAR.

Melbourne University’s Access Melbourne program was established 31 years ago by a law professor to encourage applications from students from schools then under represented at the university. These were, then and now, mostly rural state secondary schools and city schools from poorer suburbs.

The scheme prescribes that a minimum of 20 per cent of all undergraduate offers must be made through Access Melbourne and students may apply under several categories, including living in a rural or remote area, being from a financially disadvantaged family or attending an under-represented school.

Professor Susan Elliott, Deputy Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International), says the minimum of 20 per cent has been exceeded in the past five years and there is no cap on the number of students who can access the program. An Access Melbourne student successfully applying for Arts in 2016 needed an ATAR of 80 while other students required 88.85.

“There has been 125 per cent growth in offers over the 2009-2015 period resulting in more than 11,000 enrolments through the program. In 2014, for example, 40 per cent of all commencing domestic undergraduate enrolments were through Access Melbourne.”

Professor Elliott says students admitted under the Access program perform well, “generally within two points of those admitted through the general selection process”.

But, given that the university caps overall undergraduate numbers, the increased percentage of Access students means the university is slowly shifting away from its historical base of independent and selective state schools towards a more mixed student profile.

It is a similar story at Monash University. Professor Sue Willis, Vice-Provost (Education Programs), says its Monash Guarantee is designed to ensure talented students are admitted to the university, irrespective of socio-economic circumstance – and that results show this approach is justified.

“We have many decades of data showing that, while the ATAR is highly correlated with success at Monash, the original ATAR achieved by students from under represented schools generally underestimates their likely success at Monash and this tends also to be so for other disadvantaged groups.”

Professor Willis says disadvantaged students who enrol at Monash perform well; “their first-year university achievement will be as good as those of other commencing students who have ATARs five or so points higher”.

Monash’s admission scheme involves an adjusted ATAR; students apply via VTAC’s Special Entry Access Scheme (which may be used for all universities) and receive an adjusted ATAR. If they apply for entry to a Monash course, they are assessed for the Monash Guarantee and may receive special entry if they achieve a certain specified ATAR which may be 10 ATAR points below the standard admission level.

Like Melbourne University, Monash’s list of under-represented schools is updated regularly.  Most rural and almost all urban state schools are on the list, except the selective state schools, those from affluent suburbs and the well known high-achieving schools such as McKinnon and Balwyn high schools.

Still, anyone thinking the large, long-established universities are just opening their doors to anyone should think again. Monash’s minimum ATAR is 70 and students may receive a maximum of 10 points in adjustment … so the absolute lowest original ATAR a student could enter Monash’s undergraduate degrees is 60.

Data from 2016’s first round VTAC offers to Monash shows, of the 6331 students to receive an offer, half of them had a raw ATAR of above 90 and 86 per cent of them had a raw ATAR above 80.

Only 72 students, or 1 per cent of those receiving a first-round offer, had a raw ATAR of 60-69.95.

Professor Willis says students admitted via special admissions schemes “consistently perform as well, and are retained as well, as the broader student body”. Students from under represented schools, for instance, achieved almost exactly the same marks as the rest of the student population, were retained at almost exactly the same rate and had a slightly better progress rate.

But it has long been known that rural students and students from poorer backgrounds face significant financial pressures while studying and are at risk of dropping out. Monash has set in place ways of supporting such students. First-in-family students, who make up about 3000 of the university’s intake each year, are contacted by senior students (dubbed Student Success Advisers)  at five key transition times in the academic year. Students are also offered academic support.

Across town at La Trobe, its early admissions program is open to year 12 students who volunteer in their community and are recommended by their schools. The Aspire program rewards successful students with a university offer in September, with offers conditional on students meeting the minimum  ATAR. Last September, 1683 early Aspire offers were made to local students, (mostly in Victoria and NSW) and, after VCE results were received, 686 students received formal offers through VTAC.

This is  up on the year before when 491 students gained places at La Trobe under the program.

Other universities, such as the Australian National University, have a similar early-admissions program but La Trobe, which has many allied health courses, focuses on involvement with community groups such as the Country Fire Authority, Duke of Edinburgh program and St John Ambulance.

The program, while not allowing admission to students below the required ATAR, includes an enrichment program offering  VCE revision lectures during the September school holidays, mentoring from a La Trobe student, access to university libraries and welcome events.

Almost 42 per cent of the 491  students who gained Aspire places in 2015 had an ATAR in the 50-69.99 range, with 58 per cent above.

These programs are part of a wider cultural shift: reducing the emphasis on the 90-plus ATAR and helping disadvantaged but talented students have access to higher education.

Source: Access schemes changing the face of universities

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