The ANU spins its enrolment problems

Andrew Leigh is blogging on the Australian National University’s decision to offer school leavers with UAIs (ENTERs for people in other areas) that won’t get them into the university a separate admissions test.

The ANU is selling this ‘as a way to provide greater access and equity’. But when it comes to anything that can affect university status, such as the quality of the student intake, the first assumption ought to be that every university statement is shameless spin.

In this case, a more interesting place to start than the university’s explanation might be the NSW/ACT university application statistics (pdf). Though overall the number of applicants is up, for the ANU first-preference applications are fractionally down. That spells trouble for the ANU, because this year the ANU was about 200 places under-enrolled (less than their quota, that is). Given part-time enrolments, that would translate into more than 200 persons. If that was caused mainly by weak commencing student numbers in 2006, they have double trouble: not only do they need to make up lost numbers, but they have a ‘pipeline’ problem in that their second year cohort will be slightly smaller than they had originally planned.

An obvious solution is to fiddle with the entrance requirements, and enrol people who would have liked to go to the ANU but whose school results were below the minimum ENTER of 75 the ANU otherwise requires.

If this was a genuine equity and access measure, why did the ANU wait until now to publicise this option? Why is it not more finely targeted at ‘equity’ groups? – most universities have schemes that let people from disadvantaged backgrounds in on lower ENTER scores than normal, but with proof of disadvantage.

There is nothing wrong with using alternatives to Year 12 results for admissions. In fact, across the higher education sector less than half of bachelor degree admissions are based directly on Year 12 results. But in this case, ‘equity’ is being used to hide declining interest in the ANU’s courses from the brightest school leavers.

26 thoughts on “The ANU spins its enrolment problems

  1. ‘In fact, across the higher education sector less than half of bachelor degree admissions are based directly on Year 12 results.’

    That’s interesting. What are they based on? I had assumed that almost all admissions would be based on Year 12 results.

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  2. The Parkos Education Brochure

    Reasons for passing on an ANU study offer:

    1. The university administration is now bogged down by a Confucian layer of Asian bureaucracy in addition to the gumtree version of Kafka that existed before. It is worse than Telstra for everyone on the payroll having a different version of what they think proceedures are.
    It is nothing compared to Brussels which now ranks up around 90% on the Kafkameter some days. However, at least you can get into a Euro-style swing there whereby the tape occasionally gets cut through and the yartz and turkz get funding.

    2. It is in Canberra, which is 200,000 (approx) people in the middle of nowhere stretched out over a vast area in the most remote inhabited continent, with piss weak overpriced internet to distract them from the worst television on earth (after Malaysian Borneo). It still manages to more expensive than cities 10 times its size.

    Overcome these hurdles and install a surf beach with warmer nights and the students will flock.

    It does have fine forests, good bicycle paths, a reasonable range of employment, clean air, and the chance to get your ideas heard by the big ears of government and the Chinese secret service.
    What is the sound of one multimedia art exhibtion in suburban Canberra if there are only three visitors a day to hear it after the opening night?

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  3. “by a Confucian layer of Asian bureaucracy in addition to the gumtree version of Kafka that existed before”

    For example, you can get an email that reads “offer to PhD.”

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  4. I thought the minimum ENTER for a university was derived in a ‘price clearing’ manner – that is, the score of the lowest accepted student. Even a monopolist knows that you can’t set both price and quantity.

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  5. I think i agree with you on this Parkos. Perhaps someone needs to start a petition to move Canberra east about 200 kilometers, in which case people might actually want to live there.

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  6. Jeremy – The latest figures I have are 2004, but they were as follows: school – 43%, incomplete higher ed – 15%, complete higher ed – 10%, TAFE – 9%, mature age – 8%, examination or assessment by institution – 6.5%, plus sundry other minor methods. This is the diversity people miss when they fixate on full-fee students just below the usual ENTER score.

    Rajat – Universities can take a gamble that setting a guaranteed entry score won’t cause excessive enrolments. Usually, it would be close to the expected clearing score. Melbourne does it for full-fee courses, but that’s more flexible in the sense that full-fee students bring resources that cover costs, where over-enrolments of government-supported places at best bring in inadequate revenue, and can even result in penalties.

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  7. Andrew,

    Thanks, I had no idea there was such diversity in admissions.

    Also – I haven’t heard any complaints about ‘dumbing down’ resulting from students from disadvantaged backgrounds with lower-than-cutoff TERs being admitted to courses – and nor should there be either.

    But as soon as someone with money wants to pay their own way in such a course, the ‘dumbing down’ argument gets wheeled out.

    More irrationality! I don’t think your work will ever be finished.

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  8. Soory to go off topic Anbdrew. But I feel like I need to defend my “home town”!!! Personally, I like Canberra just the way it is!!! While I currently live in Melbourne, I grew up there. It is a great place to live. It has all the advantages of a big city but the feel of a small cvountry town. In terms of population, I think you’ll find it is more like 300,000 people or more than 200,000 people.

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  9. Now to get back on topic. Why do you suppose it is that ANU is struggling to fill its HECS places? After all, it is clearly one of the best universities in Australia. Is it just the particular programs to which the places have been allocated by the Commonwealth Government?

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  10. Andrew, is this not an example of the break from state-imposed uniformity you would wish to see across the university sector? If not this, what?

    If ANU proposed entry criteria that were not strictly academic, such as that operating at the University of Newcastle’s medical faculty, would this be better? Why, and for whom?

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  11. Jeremy – School leavers are closer to 60% of those new to higher education (ie, after taking out the people who have already been admitted to uni before). Most commentators went to the Group of Eight universities, which draw more heavily on school leavers than the newer universities, and so they form impressions that are not representative of higher education as a whole. For example, at the ANU about 80% of their new to higher education commencing students are school leavers.

    Damien – Misallocation of places is probably part of it. Also, demographic forecasts from a few years back predicted a slight drop in the number of later years teenagers in the ACT at this time. This is probably having an effect, though the ANU has always drawn on the surrounding areas of NSW as well.

    Andrew – So far as I know, there has never been direct interference from government in selection criteria, though true to its bureaucratic form the Howard government inserted in the legislation as yet unused power to do so. In the early 1990s, Labor did require places to be reserved for school leavers, but did not set out criteria for selection. And there is a current controversy over application and audition fees.

    There is no universal ‘right’ way of doing selection. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve. Most medical courses now require more than academic excellence, in recognition of the other skills required for successful medical practice.

    My main criticism is that so little analysis of correlation between entry standards and outcomes is published. Given the large time and financial commitments students make in choosing a course, they ought to be told more about how people like them have done in the past.

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  12. Damien,

    I thought Parkos new the reason that ANU can’t fill its places — Canberra is not exactly on the map for a lot 18 year olds, even if you happen to like it (I personally don’t think it is too bad). Also, given the demographics Canberra has and always has had ( = middle class university graduates = low birth rate), I also wonder whether the actual number of 18 year olds is in comparative decline compared to other places in Australia.

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  13. I recognise that there is no universally right way of selecting applicants for courses. In practice, however, entry to undergraduate courses for most students depends largely on the single criteria of the attainment of a particular ranking on matriculation. Any departure from this rigid and narrow system is to be welcomed, surely.

    As an aside, could I say that all spin by its nature is shameless: when was the last time someone was called for spinning and recanted, blushing?

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  14. Andrew – The current system for school leavers has one particular virtue, which is that it piggy-backs on another process, reducing additional costs to students and universities. It’s only worth changing if another system of selection will be a significantly better predictor of success. I suspect that other systems might be better, but this needs empirical testing.

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  15. “It is worse than Telstra for everyone on the payroll having a different version of what they think procedures are.”

    I think that the university sector is allot more deliberate in its selection procedures than the image portrayed. Systems exists on a variety of levels, for individuals both consciously and sub consciously; for collectives both overtly and covertly. To really understand how university selection processes operate we need to look at the other end of educational system, that is who ends up in what profession and where did they come from. Further to this, I am beginning to wonder wether everyone had the same curriculum in their high school years. Has anyone ever had an experience of encountering an exam where the questions were completely unrelated to the subject matter taught throughout the year?

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  16. Vivy,
    the other end of a worthy univeristy education is not a profession. After the universities started up, the various professional guilds attached themselves thereby spoiling the atmosphere and purpose.

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  17. How many 18 year old are wealthy enough to move to Canberra (one of Australia’s most expensive cities) after coming from either battler households or over mortgaged mansions which have had to fork out for up to 12 years years of private schools for multiple offspring?

    This is Australia not Denmark where the student is created as a financially independent (of their family) human being with a large grant and given world class free education, thereby able to move to many universities for the course of their choice.

    This is not the UK whereby students can access grants which pay all of the semester’s allowance at once enabling the payment of moving and education costs and freedom from the family home. Access to further future income linked loans for living expenses is also encouraged and available in the UK to a greater extent than in Australia.

    This is not Germany or France which have free education with subsidised international study arrangements as part of the degree. This is not the USA whereby people save and plan for the interstate college years and have done so for centuries.

    This is Australia, whereby the local bipartisan brothel clientele turkeys have put the cart before the horse (at the expense of future generations) and dont exactly know where they are headed if they could get it to move anyway. But they do have a few fee payers from overseas (like the class of genocidal Indonesian generals at MUPrivate) which makes it all worthwhile.

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  18. In 2004, 30% of students enrolled in ACT universities gave their home residence as in another state. In NSW it was 10%, and Victoria 8%. It’s not as high as the US, but higher than people imagine. It’s partly a function of distance and cost, but also of the uniformity of universities in Australia. Except at the PhD level, there are few educational reasons for travelling in Australia for study.

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  19. Yet there are quite a few social reasons to travel for study if you can drag yourself away from the local affluent beachside network that seems to form around many aiming to enter higher ed.
    If Aus/NZ opened up their higher ed access further with information and incentives to travel interstate/tasman for education we could see great things like the theoretical splitting of the atom by Rutherford happening again and those percentages would increase.

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  20. ANU is largely a postgraduate university, whose undergraduate enrolments, I suspect, are not even close to those in other Go8 universities. I don’t think the underenrolment of this magnitude is going to make or break them.

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  21. It would take a lot to break the bank at ANU considering they are currently being supported by the Royal Bank of Scotland which is the biggest bank in the UK. The RBS are building private on campus living arrangements of the type Andrew Landeryou dreamed about at unimelb before it broke him mentally, financially, legally and rabbinically.
    The RBS will make sure the systematic legislation is in place for a corporate raid on Australia’s o/s student market, whilst poor young A. Clyde Landeryou of Brunswick can think of his time in the clink as a lesson in genertaional warfare.

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  22. I recognise that there is no universally right way of selecting applicants for courses.

    In my ideal world, anyone who is willing to pay to undertake a degree would be allowed entry. There would obviously be exceptions, but these would not be government dictated.

    For instance, a private institution might make a decision to exclude all but the brightest students. That is a decision of that individual institution. Others might welcome all who meet the barest of minimum standards, relying on the internal examination system to sort out students. Some might decide the Year 12 scores are irrelevant because they are not a good indicator of a student’s ability.

    Such a situation would certainly be better than bureaucratic decisions to limit entry based on a limited amount of government funded places. Universities would have an incentive to maintain standards due to reputational effects. It would be in their interests to set high academic standards and improve their ranking in today’s global education market.

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  23. Sukrit – There is no legal obstacle to anyone willing to pay being able to enrol in a course, and as the industry develops there will not be capacity constraints either. But in a long ago post on Catallaxy I did suggest that higher education providers have an ethical obligation to advise weak applicants on their prospects, similar to the ethical obligation on doctors not to carry out unnecessary procedures.

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