Better applications needed as well as better uni selection

The Sunday Age‘s letter page had a mixed reaction to last week’s story about widening entry criteria to university courses, especially by using aptitude tests (based on this report released later in the week by the U of M Centre for the Study of Higher Education).

But none criticised the proposal for more aptitude testing. America is the home of aptitude testing for tertiary admission, and there it has long been controversial, accused of socio-economic and cultural/racial biases. The CSHE report is hopeful that aptitude testing might dilute the SES biases of using school results for admission, but they couldn’t offer strong evidence that this was the case, and note that whatever the admission system middle class people are likely to do better. Though aptitude tests are increasingly being used here, I think we are short of the evidence base needed to recommend their spread, rather than continuing to watch as individual universities experiment with their use.

The perspective I thought was missing in the CSHE report – perhaps because it is largely a literature review, and reflects the work of past researchers – is that of the applicant. It’s largely about how universities select students, rather than how students choose which institution to apply to. So it focuses on universities finding out more about students, rather than students finding out more about universities, their academic prospects, and what jobs they might get on completion.

Possibly some of the problems with poor results, drop-outs, or disappointing employment outcomes could be alleviated if we could better inform applicants of how good a match someone with their attributes was for the courses that interested them.

As we move to a system in which there are no limits on the number of places that are available, and in which there is strong government pressure to enrol more students, especially from low SES backgrounds, the consumer advice aspect of the application-selection process will become more important.

The expansionary push is built largely on ideological rather than empirical assumptions. While low SES background graduates are not doing significantly worse than other graduates in the labour market, very large minorities are not making easy transitions to managerial or professional employment. If we are suggesting people incur the significant direct and opportunity costs of attending university, we need to give them quality advice about whether this is likely to produce better outcomes than alternatives such as TAFE or on-the-job training.

18 thoughts on “Better applications needed as well as better uni selection

  1. There’s already a lot of information available to applicants, such as the various publications which compare and contrast the universities. And there are people in schools whose job it is to give this advice. What more do you need?

    On aptitude tests, it needs saying that American universities never really solely on them, the SATs; they are one input among many. Australian universities could do as the Americans do and base entry on exam results, aptitude tests, application essays, interviews and extra curricular activities, but that process, though arguably better, is full of subjective and controversial judgements, and is very expensive to administer.

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  2. S of R – Most of the information is highly aggregated, eg all of institution, all of field of study, so it is hard to know results for a particular course at a particular institution.

    None of it is put in terms of the particular attributes of the applicant; the studies cited in the CSHE report on correlations between Year 12 results and uni results are hidden away in academic journals when they are available at all.

    Though improving somewhat, our long-term tracking of student outcomes is poor and so far only reported in very general terms.

    You’ll get more tailored advice for even relatively minor medical procedures than for a 3 year degree.

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  3. If there is a need for this information, it sounds like something that could be left entirely to private entrepeneurs. For $250, or whatever, they will provide individually tailored advice, rather like financial advisors who will advise you on where to put your money.

    “So you went to Broadmeadows High and your parents are factory workers. Well even though you’ve got the marks to do Medicine/Law at Melbourne I think you will be more doing Leisure Studies, at VUT Footscray.”

    Maybe there is a market for this advice, maybe not.

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  4. S of R – I suggested something like this – I called them education brokers – in my 2002 book on higher ed policy. The main difference I saw with school careers advisers etc is that brokers would generally specialise in a small number of fields, rather than having a superficial knowledge of hundreds of possibilities, the lot of careers advisers.

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  5. You referred to accusations of racial bias with aptitude testing in the US. There seems to be far more “equal opportunity” scholarships and places in US tertiary institutions than Australia. Does this tend to balance out the effects of any perceived racial bias?

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  6. AJ – The two systems are very hard to compare on this measure. In Australia, the ‘equal opportunity’ aspects are built into the core of the system – almost everyone gets a subsidised, price-capped place with fees supported by a soft loan. In the US, many institutions start with nominal fees that are much higher than those charged in Australia and then offer discounts and scholarships to those with various forms of disadvantage.

    I haven’t looked at the racial bias issue for some years, though certainly many institutions have tried to use affirmative action to increase ‘minority’ enrolments. I don’t think I was very convinced when I did look at this issue that racial bias was really a big factor explaining SAT results. On the other hand, I have no fundamental objection to selecting on non-academic criteria. Provided the student has a reasonable prospect of successfully completing the course, there are many factors that could reasonably be taken into account during the selection process.

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  7. “You referred to accusations of racial bias with aptitude testing in the US. There seems to be far more “equal opportunity” scholarships and places in US tertiary institutions than Australia. Does this tend to balance out the effects of any perceived racial bias?”
    .
    I think they were leveled at Australian universities too (successfully), which is why the interviews in some of the subjects you used to have to have were canned, and they went back to pure TER scores (if I correctly remember, that included for medicine at some places).

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  8. Unofficially, one of the reasons for changing the medicine admission system was to reduce the number of Asian swot students who lacked the interpersonal skills desirable in medical practice. But I think this is all tested via UMAT – I stand to be corrected, but so far as I know no universities use year 12 results alone.

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  9. I think I can correct you on that, as UQ dropped their interviews, and USyd may have as well by now (I believe there are others too).
    .
    Here is a report in the Australian.
    .
    It would be interesting to know the real reason why they dropped it. One might be they really do have no validity (especially with 18 year olds — although I would have thought people entering into graduate medicine would have been easier to pick, especially those that are not doing all the new “pre-medical” courses). A second might be they are afraid of litigation, especially if that meant claims of racism (just think of what that would do to the OS market for your university if a case became well publicized).

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  10. Andrew I think you have a point about people selecting the right uni for them.

    Its well know amongst computing and engineering grads that the UniMelb degrees are highly theoretical with a reasonable emphasis on management (and often badly taught). Whereas places like RMIT and Swinburne are much more applied and practical.

    However unless you know people in the field, as a high school student you’d have no way of knowing.

    On the Medicine issue. It was becoming and still is a major problem that lots of the Med students were socially inept (we only need so many anesthetists). The other problem was that Asians don’t for the most part go and work in the country. Final issue was that lots of people hadn’t ever thought about what being a doctor was like, they got pushed into it by family due to the prestige factor. Being a doctor is bloody difficult, its incredibly time demanding, often highly stressful and emotionally brutal. Can they handle being on a 4th or 5th year ward placement and have half a dozen patients die in the week?

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  11. Conrad – I don’t know what current practice on interviews is (apart from those mentioned in your link), but I was referring to the UMAT as a selection tool rather than interviews. The one clear use for an interview I heard of was the applicant who was able to tell them that he did not want to be a doctor at all, and only did the tests because of family pressure (the situation M notes).

    Having just done a very quick check on medicine admissions, all schools except Notre Dame and Sydney appear to use UMAT. Sydney has interviews as well, Notre Dame has interviews and other criteria in addition to Year 12 results.

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  12. “lots of the Med students were socially inept (we only need so many anesthetists)”

    They can always become radiologists.

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  13. “It was becoming and still is a major problem that lots of the Med students were socially inept”
    .
    Most specialists don’t exactly need great social skills. I doubt most GPs do either for that matter (I wouldn’t know if mine does or doesn’t). I imagine after, say, a decade, looking at patients must be like the way mechanics look at cars.
    .
    “The other problem was that Asians don’t for the most part go and work in the country.”
    .
    If country towns wern’t perceived as racist dumps, I’m sure lots more people might think about moving there that arn’t white (including other missing professionals). Being someone that isn’t white-looking I certainly wouldn’t move there for that reason — but that’s hardly be a reason to exclude me from a course (or people that look like me as a group) — it seems to me the problem is with those towns, not the people you want to move there. If the government is desperate to get people to move to these awful places, they can use bonded scholarships (which already exist). For that matter, how many white kids from rich families end up working in dumpy country towns?
    .
    “Final issue was that lots of people hadn’t ever thought about what being a doctor was like, they got pushed into it by family due to the prestige factor”
    .
    Since the drop-out rate is small, and most trained doctors work as doctors, I don’t see what the problem is.

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  14. “most trained doctors work as doctors”

    Trapped in a job they don’t want, in many cases.

    (On the other hand, George Miller left medicine to make some excellent movies.)

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  15. Having spent far too much of my life seeing doctors, I think their interpersonal skills do matter a lot. I don’t like rude, cold or indifferent service anywhere, but particularly not when I am relying on them to help with serious problems. One specialist in particular I felt put far more effort into my case than I paid her for, presumably out of a mix of sympathy and vocation. Frankly I doubt I would be alive today except for her diligence. Commitment issues aside, pleasant doctors make a stressful experience slightly less so.

    I think M is wrong about Asian doctors in the country – as I understand it, there are quite a few recruited from Asian countries to fill rural doctor shortages. The real problem is the one Conrad identified – highly-educated professionals generally aren’t keen on living in country towns. With a general shortage of doctors, they can afford to be choosy about where they work.

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  16. “Since the drop-out rate is small, and most trained doctors work as doctors, I don’t see what the problem is.”

    And the suicide rate amongst interns and residents is how many times higher than average?

    Having a system that’s over-balanced with too many people wanting to be specialists is a big problem. A large fraction of the workload is done by GPs. To work in casualty (also known as emergency) requires some people skills. A lot of medical work is an investigation or problem solving approach to diagnosis, not just ordering blood tests and being able to cut straight.

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  17. “And the suicide rate amongst interns and residents is how many times higher than average?”
    .
    Do you mean after removing psychiatrists? I’m not sure, but given that many doctors are obsessive perfectionists, even if it was higher than average, it wouldn’t be a surprise. In any case, the number is going to be so small it’s hardly worth worrying about in terms of how many people do medicine that don’t become doctors.
    .
    “Having a system that’s over-balanced with too many people wanting to be specialists is a big problem.”
    .
    I would think that’s an orthogonal issue to doctors having people skills (and, as noted, I don’t think you even need great people skills to be a GP — dealing with people in terms of a client/patient relationship is much different to having a good time at a party. My GP seems pretty abrupt, for example, but he’s extremely good at investigating what is wrong with me — much better than touchly-feely doctors I’ve had in the past — provably so in fact, as he found something wrong with me that at least 5 doctors before missed).

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