On the 1st of August, marking the ANU’s 70th Anniversary, Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt announced reforms to undergraduate admissions and from 2018 will no longer consider ATARs the sole requirement for entry, but will also weigh one’s co-curricular and community commitments. While this has been lauded for its potential to increase the diversity of ANU’s undergraduate body, its capacity to accommodate students with a low socioeconomic background has been questioned.
High-school students living with financial difficulties could find it harder to commit to volunteering opportunities or co-curricular activities such as debating and sports. In some cases secondary students may have to sacrifice these opportunities in order to find paid work to support themselves or their families.
The change also occurs concurrent to debate in the United States where holistic admissions have been charged as overly subjective and opaque, allowing potential racial bias to influence the selection process. Earlier this year, the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a contentious complaint against multiple US universities for allegedly discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions, which also de-prioritise standard testing scores in favour of a holistic approach.
ANUSA President Ben Gill outlined the effects the changes may have on future student bodies. He told Woroni that the de-prioritisation of ATARs “does not necessarily reduce ANU’s academic standing,” but would rather increase the potential of the student body. He reasoned that the ATAR was limited in measuring university performance, and that volunteering and co-curricular experience may better predict a student’s potential at the university.
Yet, he held reservations about the process, particularly about its capacity to serve financially-pressured students and the transparency of the admission process. The admission reforms displayed ANU as “thought leaders” but implementation would remain challenging and resource intensive, according to Gill.
Gill questioned how selection criteria would be compared for low socioeconomic-status students, and if their possible paucity of extracurricular commitments would work against them. He asserted than in many cases low SES students would be more academically committed, and would have a wide array of skills from part-time work.
For Gill, the concern was “consolidating [the] process… how transparent are these processes, and how easy are they?”
Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), spoke to Woroni and attempted to address these concerns. She recounted how many students meet the academic requirements to study at ANU, but couldn’t afford to relocate to Canberra. Over time, demand grew for ANU and pushed up entry standards, while “diversity has gone down.”
“We’ve needed to make a bit of a change… to provide more financial support into admission so that we can actually get a more diverse student body,” she said.
Over the four year decision-making process behind the change, and through the Tuckwell scholarship program, she said “it’s heartening to see how many students from regional and low SES Australia want to come to the university – they just don’t have the financial support to make it possible.”
She also noted that the initiative could be expanded to international students in the future, as there were also many international students who want to study at ANU, but lacked the financial means to do so.
When asked if there were certain criteria that would be prioritised in admissions, Hughes-Warrington replied that a formal system would be in place, and that ANU would be “more transparent” than other world universities in their selection. She said that in the end it “would be difficult not to meet the criteria.”
“We’ll include things like part-time work, caring for a family member that might be disabled, belonging to a club, leadership, volunteering. A whole range of things we’ll be taking into account, and particularly the financial situation of students who won’t be able to access co-curricular activities.”
She concluded, “Our university education should be open to those who have the potential for it, and that should be open regardless of your financial circumstances or where you come from.”
Despite his reservations, Gill was also hopeful for the reforms, predicting “greater diversity if we can pull it off.” He believed that the changes would yield small improvements with great benefits over a long period, but that other measures, like improving scholarships, would be needed to consolidate continued diversity.
“Money is one aspect, but mentorship and support services are not where they should be to support large numbers of low SES students at the ANU… I’m hopeful, but waiting to see what happens.”