You might have noticed that the ATAR has been copping some attention in news headlines recently. It started a few months ago, when Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute released a report that detailed some problems with the ATAR.
The key finding was this: only one in four students get into university through their ATAR result. The rest get in through the back door, which is to say that they use alternative entry schemes, including early offers, STAT results or they move over from a VET course. The report concludes, “This is at odds with the message reinforced by schools, families and the media–that the ATAR is everything.”
This is something that so many high school students can relate to–you’re put under so much pressure to score a high ATAR and are focussing so intently on this goal, that you never even hear about the alternative entry schemes to university. And now we know that actually, three-quarters of students use these schemes to get into uni. It’s like this secret that nobody tells you until it’s too late. Meanwhile, students are more stressed and anxious and depressed than ever before.
People are taking notice
This whole debate isn’t really a new one–people, including Year13, have been saying that there’s too much importance placed on the ATAR for years. But never the less, the relevance of the ATAR is under fresh scrutiny.
The Vice Chancellor of Swinburne University, Linda Kristjanson, followed up the report with an article describing the ATAR as “a blunt and imperfect instrument, a crude measure of a student’s engagement at a particular point”. Her argument was that the ATAR has to improve but until then, options such as the Alternative Tertiary Education Program offered by Swinburne will help students to find a less stressful entry point to university.
Essentially, Swinburne’s program allows high school students to participate in first-year university classes alongside undergraduate students. After completing these courses and getting a taste for how the university operates, they’re eligible to enter university without the hassle and stress of the ATAR.
While many education leaders are interested in finding new solutions to the ATAR, some are still in support of the system and question why the ATAR gets such bad press.
The most obvious answer is stress. An international research paper from 2015 found that Australian students suffer from more exam anxiety than students from 72 other nations. “Even if I’m well prepared for a test, I feel very anxious” was a statement that 67% of Australian students agreed with.
Research by Year13 backs this up. When we asked our readers about stress, 55% of students said their school cares more about their ATAR than them as students and 51% said they felt a need to see a mental health professional.
The VET route
With such a heavy emphasis on achieving a high ATAR and getting into university, Vocational Education & Training (VET) often gets overlooked as a viable post-school option. But it’s an avenue that provides an alternative to the ATAR entry scheme, as VET providers (such as TAFEs) don’t require you to have one to apply for their courses. Many VET courses also provide a way into uni, and often TAFEs will partner with a local university to offer pathway courses that direct you into a specific uni degree. You can see an example of how previous students have used VET as an entry point into university here and here.
There’s also the option of completing a bachelor’s degree qualification through TAFE and bypassing university altogether. These degrees offer the exact same level of qualification as a university degree, but you don’t need an ATAR to apply. Plus, in many VET courses, you don’t have to stress about one big theory-based exam at the end of the year, as you’ll likely be marked with smaller and more practical competency-based assessments.
Navigating your own ATAR
While the discussion surrounding the ATAR seems to indicate that changes are necessary, there’s no concrete plans to actually change the system. And even if there were, making changes to the national rank for high school education could take years to implement.
For you, the students who are affected by this right now, there are a few things to remember:
- All education pathways are created equal and no particular option is better than another. Whether you choose to go do a VET qualification or go to university, it all depends on what you want to study and how you like to learn.
- If you really want to go to university, there are plenty of different ways to get in besides the ATAR–check the alternative entry options.
- VET students report being happier than high school students–you could always take up a VET course and find a pathway into university that way, or start a career without having to go to university at all.
- Your mental health and wellbeing is way more important than some rank.
- You are more than just a number.
This article was written in partnership with the Australian Government Department of Education and Training’s ‘real skills for real careers’ initiative to raise the profile of vocational education and training. If you’re keen to see what VET qualifications are on offer, jump over to the My Skills site here.