Opinion | Dec 13, 2022

Time to end the arms race of early university offers

By Dallas McInerney, Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Schools NSW

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald 13/12/2022

Australian universities have been major contributors to Australia’s human and social capital. The success and reach of their civic mission over the past 40 years are largely due to a highly effective response to three challenges of universal education: access, equity and excellence.

Some 1980s policy genius, in the form of income-contingent loans for tuition costs (HECS), largely solved the issue of access by lowering barriers to entry. The related challenges of equity and excellence have been met with a history of university admission based on public examinations, common across all schools (the HSC), recently coupled with school-based assessments, which are moderated to support fairness across the cohort.

This approach formed the basis for a predictable and transparent pathway to university for school leavers seeking that option. Evolved versions of HECS and the HSC are still with us, however, there is a major disruption afoot with the growing prevalence of early entry offers . Already, the signs are concerning.

This week, both the Higher School Certificate and ATAR scores (a creature of the university sector informed by HSC outcomes) will be released. They will be accompanied by an explosion in the number of early-entry offers to university for school leavers; thousands of these offers were issued months ago.
The consequences and scale of this unregulated practice are not well understood. There is no obligation on the universities to release early offer figures. Indeed, many refuse such requests from the media.

Nearly 25,000 students have applied for early offers through the state’s admissions centre(UAC), and others applied directly to individual universities, meaning more than half of the school-leaver cohort could have an early offer of some form.

Post-COVID financial pressures are driving the university sector to increase enrolments, and, in the competition to attract students, early offers have transformed from a “first mover” advantage into an arms race. While universities claim these schemes are “holistic” and reduce“exam stress”, the significant financial interest behind them is undeniable.

There might be some benefits to the early offer regime, but they appear to be tilted in favour of universities; they get the planning and operational certainty and income projection. The upside for the students is less clear, particularly in the case of unconditional or low-stake offers, which can come as early as April of year 12.

There are increasing reports that many students with early offers “check out” of their studies, lose motivation, or do not fully invest in final exams. This is not a helpful dynamic for either them or their peers without early offers, who need to remain fully applied. More broadly, hasthe question been asked: why condition students to a consequence-free examination season orassessment or desensitise them from the rigours of the learning experience?

Defenders of the open slather approach to early offers are often the harshest critics of ATAR, who cite wellbeing concerns to push back against assessments. Some early-offer programs ignore the ATAR entirely.

The early-offer university students will inevitably collide with reality and learn that assessments and exams do matter, and maybe their HSC-lite experience hasn’t really prepared them for the next step up. Wait, what? I’m not getting an unconditional, early offer of graduation for my BA?

The critics of ATAR ignore the fact that it remains the most reliable available predictor of university performance. We know that the vast majority of school leavers still use ATAR in their university admissions and that ATAR remains a significant predictor of grades and completion rates.

Obviously, ATAR is an imperfect measure on its own, but there are already adjustment factors(formerly known as bonus points) as well as a host of scholarships (rural, ATSI, dux, financial hardship, etc.) designed to address its limitations.

The explosion in early offers has occurred without a clear rationale in support of students. To its credit, the NSW government has commissioned a review of early offers, with new guidelines being developed. Here are some suggestions. One, early offers should be required to be conditional; a minimum academic requirement is perfectly reasonable. Two, there should be a limit to just how early these early offers can be made (say, September). Three, early offers should be managed centrally through UAC rather than directly with individual universities, thereby allowing regulators to monitor the effects of the various schemes.

The HSC is a world-class credential designed for students pursuing university and vocational and employment pathways alike. Vice-chancellors should respect its role and, more broadly, the symbiotic relationship between schools and universities. All early offers might have a place, but in the meantime, we need to insist on more transparency and standardisation.

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