The tyranny of the TER?

In the SMH this morning, people were lining up to proclaim the end of Year 12 results as the dominant method of selecting university students.

The University of Western Sydney vice-chancellor, Professor Janice Reid, said the UAI obsession needed to end. “The UAI is a great mass sorting system,” she said. “It isn’t, however, really a good predictor of a person’s capacity to study or complete a degree.”

This is an old complaint. Many years ago – at least as long ago as 1997, when she was dumped as education minister – Amanda Vanstone gave a speech called the ‘tryanny of the TER’. Yet as with many ideas for improving access to higher education, we have reason to be sceptical, because virtually all of them have long been common practice in the higher education sector. Few people realise that less than half of all commencing bachelor degree students are admitted based on their Year 12 results. Even if we pull out of the population those admitted based on prior higher education results – as I have in the chart below – only 56% arrive at university on the strength of their school results.


Even this significantly overstates the ‘tryanny of the TER’. Universities have long been happy to let low SES students in on less than the score required of more advantaged students, and they were also happy to take full-fee students on less than the score required of HECS students.

I have no problems with these practices provided applicants are not being admitted to courses they are likely to fail – or at least not being admitted without appropriate warnings of the possible difficulties ahead.

But because alternative admissions practices are already common, I am sceptical that further alternatives will generate large numbers of new applicants from the target disadvantaged groups. Unfortunately, most people from these groups not currently attending university are unlikely to be suitable for university by any conceivable measure of potential.

14 thoughts on “The tyranny of the TER?

  1. Deciding university admissions based only on the ranking of the results of five Year 12 subjects admits weaker university student, disturbs students’ development and devalues learning outside the classroom in high schools.

    The majority of Australian university degrees are incredibly narrow in their focus. An economics student, for example, is likely to take very few courses outside of economics. Entry into these narrow degrees does not consider which subjects students took in high school. Of course many courses have prerequisite high school subjects, but beyond these and the UAI, nothing is considered. Entry into a degree program is dependent on scores in all subjects, not just those relevant. Vocationally oriented programs do not consider a high school student’s work experience or extra curricular activities. A state representative debater who studied English and history is viewed as less desirable law student than a student with higher UAI but who took mathematics and physics. Similarly a Maths Olympian applying to a mathematics degree, whose English and French scores brought their UAI down, will lose to a higher ranked home economics and PE student.

    Secondly the current system discourages students from taking academic risks, exploring new areas and developing intellectually. Anecdotally, many students simply choose the subjects in which they can predict their results with reasonable certainty. They do not want to risk trying something new lest they receive a lower than expected grade, ruining their UAI.

    The current admissions system also destroys extra curricular activities in high schools. Leadership, sport, even scoring highly in academic competitions or standardized tests counts for nothing. Why should a student pursue something in which they are interested when it will not help them gain admission to university?

    A better solution would be a more holistic admissions process that considers all high school results, not just those from year twelve, extra curricular activities, teacher recommendations and some kind of personal statement or essay about the applicant. This way different programs could evaluate applicants differently, as they should.


  2. Julian – It depends what the university is trying to do. Australian funding and regulation makes anything but the bargain basement model of education very difficult, and for that Year 12 results are good enough, being a reasonable proxy for the intelligence plus effort needed in university study. If on the American model unis wanted to develop the person then including extra-curricular activities would be relevant, but it is not relevant to our current system.

    However, contrary to what you say not being too strict on prerequisites does encourage exploring new areas. Uni choices are not overly restricted by prior school choices.


  3. My bet is that this is simply a smokescreen for UWS to allow them to enroll students that arn’t suitable. At least ACU and UWA were willing to admit that for some courses, they’d simply let anyone in except kids straight out of high school.
    Here’s my bet: For all the high demand courses, the TER or other quantifiable scores like the GAMSAT will still be used. Apart from there being no better method of choosing students for most courses (no matter how poor the measure is), I imagine another problem they have is that if they can’t justify letting one person in but not another, they’ll get into legal problems, and as happened with the medical entries where they used to interview people (which apparently had a zero correlation with future performance), it will simply turn into a scheme to discriminate against various groups and that will be found out, with all its consequences. I believe a similar pattern of things happened in the US in some courses at some universities, and I don’t believe any university where the data pointed to discriminatory practices still does it.


  4. For the thousands of places in big ugrad courses (arts, science, comm, etc..) its too expensive to actually review individual students. Much simpler to just tag them with a number, rank order than apply a cut-off.

    Not the best way, not the worst way, but its too time consuming to have human decisions made at each step. IF those extra factors start to count then people will take up debating because it looks good on the CV, not because they like it.

    Any system is just going to be played by those who are desperate to get in to exclusive courses.


  5. ‘People will take up debating because it looks good on the CV, not because they like it’.

    Regardless of individuals’ motivations regarding extracurricular activities, it is still better for development to do extracurriculars. Also, a high school at which many students are trying new things, even just to get into university, sounds like a more interesting place than one where few do anything but their UAI subjects.


  6. What is wrong with being focused. When I studied electical engineering we had a broad number of topics to cover, from static and dynamic analysis, discrete mathematics, complex maths, electronics, control theory, chemistry, technical drawing, power systems, physics, vector analysis, computing, digital and analogue communciations and on and on it goes. This was all reasonable enough but it drove me bonkers that we were also forced into studying second rate ideologically based “general studies” topics such as environment and the community, ethics (looking back the ethics subject was almost entirely left wing political polemic) and suedo theological philosophy. I have nothing against a broad education but some of us what to be a specialists or want to purchase a specialist education. I have other interests but I don’t need the education offerings in life to be always broad and bundled. Being narrow isn’t necessarily bad. And being broad isn’t necessarily good.


  7. TerjeP, it sounds like you studied at the University of New South Wales. The general studies component has been a feature of every UNSW degree since it became a university. You should have looked more carefully at what you were signing up to, and studied engineering elsewhere if all you wanted to study was engineering and its foundational sciences. (At some universities, breadth means making engineering students study both ordinary and partial differential equations.)

    PS Even at UNSW, you could have economics subjects in lieu of general studies.


  8. a nitpicking question, andrew. does that graph include forweing students (at a guess, I’d think so because of the extraordinary 20% or so in “Other basis”). If it does, it would actually give us a better picture if you could exclude them.

    nitpicking aside, on your larger ppint I think you’re right. If a kid does fairly poorly in the TER but has the capacity and a strong desire to go to uni they’ll usually get there eventually. Mind you, the vagaries of our Youth Allowance system means its likely to be later rather than sooner.


  9. My point with extra-curricular activities is that if they count for uni entrance a lot of the participation in them will be a sham. Schools will run token versions of them just to manipulate the entrance criteria. I’m skeptical that there will be much depth or quality in involvement in extra-curricular activities, just enough hours to put it on the CV/application. Many teenagers are only interested in meeting the minimum requirement (whatever their family pressures them into), those who are truly self-motivated will continue to do the extras.

    Non-elite private schools will be pressured into running programs which will take resources away from actual classes. This could actually widen the divide between have/haven’t.

    However the current, fundamentally exam based, system has major flaws. I know several people in their late 20s/early 30s who are crap at jumping through the exam-specific hoops of memory recall, process and abstract learning. They still carry internally the stigma of being dumb and not as smart as everyone else because they didn’t do well at school because the TER they got had less than an 8 at the start.


  10. “If a kid does fairly poorly in the TER but has the capacity and a strong desire to go to uni they’ll usually get there eventually. Mind you, the vagaries of our Youth Allowance system means its likely to be later rather than sooner.”
    If you want to go to university but don’t have the TER, for most courses except the most exclusive, the simple solution is to go to TAFE first, where you can get this allowance.


  11. DD – It’s a domestic students only chart. Apparently (for reasons I don’t understand) some universities classify TAFE students as ‘other’, so the TAFE bar is too small. In this category would also be students coming in via the diploma programs at private feeder colleges, the various aptitude tests, and I imagine the various systems dreamt up to get Indigenous students admitted.


  12. “Few people realise that less than half of all commencing bachelor degree students are admitted based on their Year 12 results.” Unless you are counting year 12 completers gaining entry via interview/folio etc, I thought 56% was more than half, but it’s been a busy week so I won’t hold it against you.

    From a recent post – “Recent University of Melbourne analysis showed that students with a range of characteristics suggesting potential disadvantage performed fractionally better than other students in their studies if they met the normal entry criteria, but somewhat worse – with lower grade point averages and higher subject failure rates – if they were admitted on lower school results. This is again consistent with the finding that SES affects school results, but does not do further harm at uni level if good school results are achieved.”

    On this basis, TER may not be the key indicator of “capacity to study or complete a degree”, but it does function as one indicator of potential for higher levels of academic performance. In many respects relative concern with TER will depend on which part of a stratified higher education sector you are associated.


  13. “I thought 56% was more than half, but it’s been a busy week so I won’t hold it against you.”

    44% of all bachelor admissions in 2006 were school leavers, but because 22% of admissions were based on prior higher education results I thought this could be a misleading figure – people get into uni on their school results, then switch courses based on their first or second year uni results, and get counted as another commencement in the process.

    So, as noted in the post, I decided to take this group completely out of the population and only count those likely to be entering higher education for the first time, or the first time in a long time.

    It has been a busy week, but not so busy that I have forgotten that 56% is more than half:)


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