Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham warns universities over ATAR entry standards

“I will defend the defensible but if I need to act, I will”: Minister Simon Birmingham. Photo: Daniel MunozGaming the system: The beginning of the end for university admissions
Nanjing Night Net

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has warned the nations’ universities that “he will act” if the university sector fails to address falling entry standards after a Fairfax Media investigation revealed the practice of admitting students below minimum entry cut-offs was endemic.

Speaking to the Universities Australia conference on Wednesday night Mr Birmingham criticised universities for defensively claiming there was “nothing to see here” and said that entry requirements are seen by students as “opaque as a double frosted window”.

“I will defend the defensible but if I need to act, I will. I don’t want to micro-manage. I don’t want to be sitting in your Chancellery building negotiating on every place and mission change,” he said.

“Students need to have every confidence that they know what the real requirements for admission are, not some artificial measure that bears no resemblance to reality.”

Mr Birmingham also indicated that the government may pursue some form of fee deregulation – requiring students to pay a greater sharer of their degree costs – and reduce subsidies to universities.

“We do to reconsider the balance between public and private contributions and versus public and private benefits,” he said.

“People who participate in higher education still enjoy a significant wage premium over those who don’t.

“Those with a bachelor degree are likely to earn 75% more over their lifetime than someone without one.”

The government has twice attempted to deregulate university fees and cut course funding by 20 per cent, but its measures were rejected by the Senate.”

Mr Birmingham said: “Our government continues to believe that reform is necessary.

“Reform is necessary to support innovation, both within our universities and beyond.

“Reform is necessary to support the provision of pathways that enhance equitable access.

“Reform is necessary to protect our reputation for high quality – and yes, reform is necessary to support federal budget sustainability.”

Mr Birmingham said he would continue to consult with the sector, but did not say when the government would announce its higher education plans.

“I want to ensure that the next time we seek support of the Senate for a package of reforms they are not only generally supported amongst vice chancellors, but that the reasons for reform are well appreciated, the vision well enunciated and the implications well understood,” he said.

Labor higher education spokesman Kim Carr said the perception the government had abandoned deregulation was wrong.

“The government’s policies are not in abeyance, pending consultation,” he said.

“The consultation process serves a convenient political purpose – the Government can hope to get through the election without saying anything of substance, while maintaining its formal position of deregulation and budget cuts.”

In January, confidential data obtained by Fairfax Media from the top universities in NSW revealed that up to 60 per cent of students were being admitted to courses despite not scoring the required marks, while students were being accepted into courses with ATARs as low as 30.

At Western Sydney University 99 per cent of students offered places in their Bachelor of Construction management course failed to make the ATAR of 85, while at UNSW’s prestigious Bachelor of Laws course, 90 per cent of students failed to score the minimum entry mark.

He said that it was not enough for the sector to be happy with the processes it has in place.

“If the wider community lacks confidence or fears these processes may erode quality, then there is a role for all of us to address it.”

The warning comes as student numbers rise to record highs of 1.2 million under the demand-driven system. Since 2012 universities have been able to enrol as many students as they want, pushing out the total cost of university funding to $16 billion this year and driving down minimum entry standards.

Mr Birmingham has previously stated that there were no plans to reinstitute a limit on student places, despite the threat to the budget bottom line.

He has promised to keep a “watching brief,” as total drop-out rates reach the highest level in a decade.

On Wednesday he reiterated his instruction to the Higher Education Standards panel to examine methods for improving transparency in the sector.

“I will await considered views from the Standards Panel on what could and should be done to improve transparency,” he said. “In the meantime I expect all universities to take responsibility for the students they enrol, to ensure they are appropriately supported to succeed and complete their course”.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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