The Adaptation of Tertiary Admissions Practices to Growth and Diversity
Lead University: La Trobe University
Lead Researcher: Andrew Harvey
Research Team: Andrew Harvey, Matt Brett, Buly Cardak, Alison Sheridan, James Stratford, Naomi Tootell, Richard McAllister and Rachael Spicer
Year Funded: 2014
Funding Received: $351,804
Higher education expansion places adaptive pressure on institutional and policy frameworks designed at times of lower levels of participation. This project examined the impact of rising complexity in admissions practices on student decision-making, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the responses of universities and state-based Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs) to challenges associated with rising student participation, diversity and mobility, and complex admissions processes.
- Adaptive pressure is evident in changes to admission and selection practices: universities are increasingly using direct admissions rather than centralised admissions processes; direct entry pathways are being used by some universities to increase their share of equity students; and both centralised and direct admissions pathways are drawing on contextual data on student backgrounds.
- These trends raise two questions:
- What impact is rising complexity in admissions practices having on student decision-making, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds?
- How are universities and state-based Tertiary Admissions Centres (TACs) responding to challenges associated with rising student participation, diversity and mobility, and complexity in admissions processes?
- The study used a mixed methods process, including: analysis of national and international admissions processes for disadvantaged students; an audit of non-TAC selection processes for disadvantaged students across higher education; interviews with key stakeholders in TACs and higher education admission departments; surveys with school careers advisors in two Australian states; and surveys with commencing domestic undergraduate students and Year 11 students at mainly low socioeconomic status (SES) schools in two Australian states.
- The report was structured into sets of major findings and separate implications for each of five stakeholders.
- Internationally, the growth of contextual admissions is substantial, partly driven by a desire to increase student equity by reducing reliance on admissions tests. In Australia, the correlation between Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) and socioeconomic status is well documented and inequality has proven largely intractable. At the same time, university demand from mature age students, many of whom do not have an ATAR, has grown rapidly.
- Centralised admission processes developed by states and territories remain prevalent but are adapting to demands for equity, transparency and competition. Many TACs now administer direct applications and early offer schemes on behalf of institutions; some TAC memberships now include non-university providers.
- For TACs, a challenge is to maintain efficiency and transparency while managing increasing complexity and proliferation of entry pathways. Another challenge is developing greater consistency across states and territories. Differences between school systems and tertiary admissions practices between states are substantial. Admissions processes intersect with education policy set by State and Federal Governments, involving multiple jurisdictions, and universities that have established a high degree of institutional autonomy.
- For universities, the rise of direct admissions and early offer schemes presents a resourcing and evidential challenge. Greater evidence is required to determine which entry pathways are valid, efficient and transparent, but such evidence is often limited by privacy, commercial and governance issues. Primary challenges for universities are to improve their evidence base around admissions and to improve the clarity of their offerings to students.
- At secondary school level, schools must deal with the proliferation of early offer schemes across multiple universities and the task for careers advisors and students is complex. Careers advisors report growing workloads; advisors feel unable to devote time to students in lower year levels.
- Schools, universities and TACs are all adapting to an increasingly complex environment. Nevertheless, the admissions system remains confusing to many students, particularly those from low SES and regional backgrounds. Different awareness levels drive inequities along class and regional demographic lines.
- Some high-level findings and implications include:
- Increasing the evidence base is necessary to develop direct and early offer schemes that are effective and well targeted.
- Universities could clarify their pathways through more transparent communications.
- Developing greater consistency across state-based TACs and sharing TAC-generated evidence could improve national consistency of student equity treatment.
- Better resourcing of careers advisors in schools, and ensuring that tertiary pathways and admissions processes are included in mainstream curricula, would help to inform school students of their potential options.
- The proliferation of new admissions practices and pathways are intended to improve student equity, but students are not yet at the centre of these developments.
Summary prepared by the NCSEHE.