This article by UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander first appeared in the online edition of The Australian newspaper on April 14 and is reprinted with the newspaper's permission.
The path from secondary school to university is one of the most challenging in the life of young Australians. It should be. The events of this year, the unprecedented disruption of the schooling and the lives of so many of our young people, has turned a challenging path into one that is both unpredictable and strewn with boulders and disappointments.
At The University of Western Australia, we decided that the Year 12 students of 2020 should not be disadvantaged in comparison with those who preceded them. It would not be fair. It would not be right.
So, because we live in unprecedented times, we took an unprecedented step. We decided to accept Year 11 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) results for unconditional entry into our four main undergraduate courses.
We also announced a pathway into UWA for Year 12 students who aren’t sitting the ATAR at all, as well as allowing the consideration of Year 12 ATAR results for those who would prefer that. Fairness will be our guide and our rule.
We developed these pathways in collaboration with some of our leading secondary schools, and we announced them as soon as we were able: to ease the anxieties and entirely reasonable concerns of students, parents, teachers and schools. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Some concerns have been raised, particularly in the light of the government’s announcement that the ATAR will go ahead this year.
It has been suggested that Year 11 results are not a fair reflection of students’ abilities; that students may be discouraged from studying to the best of their ability during what remains of Year 12; and, that it may undermine academic excellence at UWA.
We understand the concern with regard to Year 11 results, but balanced this against the more pressing likelihood that under the extraordinary circumstances of 2020, their Year 12 results might well be particularly unfair.
Secondary school students are not experiencing the disruption of 2020 in the same way. Although study environments are never equal, the education of some is much more likely to be disrupted than that of others.
There has already been strong evidence that schools in wealthier areas with wealthier parents perform better on average in ATAR results, whether or not those schools are public or private.
It is precisely this kind of problem that Gonski funding was designed to address. It is very likely that the impact of COVID-19 on secondary schooling will be much worse in those schools less well set-up to respond, and they are likely to be those in less affluent areas.
We believe that UWA, as a public university, has a social responsibility to do whatever we can to provide equality of opportunity – and to do so imaginatively and creatively.
So we have rethought the ways in which we evaluate academic performance, and the ways in which we support students through their transition to university study.
Our strategy will broaden access to UWA for students from a wider range of educational backgrounds, and we will work with them to ascertain and support their educational potential.
We do so because educational opportunity is vital to our community’s future.
In assessing student ability, we use the best data available to us. For years, the ATAR has been taken as the ‘gold standard’ for this, although questions have been asked about it for a while now. We asked ourselves the new questions suitable for new times, and decided that whatever else students experienced as individuals in Year 11, they had a relatively uninterrupted year of study.
Will students breathe a sigh of relief and decide that they can stop studying now? I hope they do breathe a sigh of relief – they need one. I do not believe that they will stop studying. Perhaps, in their enforced isolation and in the absence of so many other features of teenage life, they will discover that it can be an enjoyable distraction.
Will academic excellence be compromised? Not if we play our part, and we are determined to do so. I believe that, in the long run, it will be enhanced – because intelligence and creativity come from everywhere.
People work best when they work together by understanding each other’s needs and differences. We are reaching out to those who will be our students, and we are proud that other universities, like the Australian National University, have decided to follow our example.
We are showing the young people of Australia that we know they are human beings, with individual lives that present challenges of their own. And we are letting them know that we are on their side.