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.