Eleanor Hall: Some Australian universities are offering places to school leavers whose scores are way below the required course cut-off. Critics warn this will have dire consequences for the skill levels of our future teachers, lawyers and engineers. But the peak body representing universities say the scores are not the only measure of a student’s potential success at university, and that the latest numbers show that more socially disadvantaged students are taking up tertiary studies.

Penny Timms has our report.


Reporter: An Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, also known as an ATAR, helps universities to select students for their courses. But if you’re school leaver with sights set on becoming an engineer and don’t make the grade, that may not necessarily mean the end of your university dream. Skye Kinder is a former Young Citizen of the Year and a rural health officer from Bendigo, and knows that feeling all too well.

Skye Kinder: Ultimately I didn’t get the ATAR of my dreams. I was always hoping to study medicine, and to get into medicine you really need to have a 90-something, probably realistically a 99.9-something, and I didn’t achieve this. But I was able to access schemes that were there for equity purposes, that recognised the fact that I did go to a disadvantaged school; the fact that I was from a low socioeconomic background; the fact that I was the first person in my family to go to university; the fact that I did have difficult family circumstances, and that all those things contributed to perhaps why I didn’t get the same score that somebody who wasn’t facing those barriers might have gotten.

Reporter: In 2012, a cap on student numbers was scrapped, allowing universities to offer places to as many students as they see fit. Even before that happened, some Australian unis were well known for accepting school-leavers who didn’t meet the benchmark ranking. Belinda Robinson is the chief executive of Universities Australia, which is the sector’s peak representative body.

Belinda Robinson: When we’re talking about these low ATARs we’re really talking about a miniscule number, something around less than three per cent into university with an ATAR of below 50, and around three quarters of those do graduate. We’re not talking about huge numbers here.

Reporter: Senator Simon Birmingham is the federal Education Minister. 

Simon Birmingham: It’s important that any increased intake does not come at the expense of the final quality of graduates from our university system.

Reporter: But he doesn’t believe a student’s ATAR should be the only consideration for university acceptance. Figures released today show the number of disadvantaged students going on to tertiary studies is on the rise, with many requiring access streams other than tertiary ranking to get in.

Simon Birmingham: It is pleasing, in terms of closing the gap between indigenous graduates and non-indigenous graduates, to see a significant lift in the number of indigenous students – up some 7.6 per cent over the last 12 months – as well as strong growth over a period of time. The number of students from rural and regional Australia, again providing a greater equity in terms of access for those students, as well as a lift of 3.8 per cent for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Reporter: Belinda Robinson.

Belinda Robinson: With the statistics, that’s a fantastic reflection, I think, of the fact that students, even students from disadvantaged backgrounds, have the opportunity to transform their lives through one of the highest quality higher education systems in the world. 

Reporter: The Government says Australia’s tertiary education system generates billions of dollars in revenue for Australia each year, so protecting that is paramount. 

Skye Kinder: I think it’s great that we’re getting a more diversified student population into university. So Australian education is really, you know, it’s important for everybody to be able to have access to that, not just the people who happen to live close or who happen to be able to afford it. It’s a key for everybody to be able to achieve what they want to achieve, and the more that we can do to recognise that and to continue to improve on that system the better.

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Eleanor Hall: And that’s former Young Citizen of the Year Skye Kinder ending that report from Penny Timms.

Senator Birmingham’s media contact:                    James Murphy 0478 333 974
                                                                                    Nick Creevey 0447 644 957
Department Media:                                                    media@education.gov.au