Unpacking ATAR: Students are more than just a number

The ATAR is not everything. According to a report from the Mitchell Institute, only 25 per cent of students in 2016 were admitted to courses based on their ATAR.

UPDATE: ATAR is no longer our primary entry requirement. Find out more here.

When Rosanne Arcadi was in high school, she could see her friends and peers choking under the weight of trying to achieve a high Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) score. She knew instinctively that this grade that’s used for university admission wasn’t going to work for her. But, while she gave ATAR the flick for her own wellbeing, she says one of her sisters felt the full brunt of the expectation to do well. 

“My youngest sister did ATAR for her HSC, and I noticed that there was a lot of stress and anxiety. There was the pressure of the teachers and the school for students to get good marks for the school.”

Rosanne’s story is not uncommon. A report from mental health organisation ReachOut shows that ATAR scores create angst among students. In fact, 25 per cent seek professional help to deal with stress and anxiety.

The current education system places a strong emphasis on testing and ranked academic results. But, Torrens University Vice-Chancellor Professor Alwyn Louw believes that focussing solely on the ATAR as the main determinant for university entry can be problematic.

“ATAR is just a snapshot of time as students develop and grow. The problem with ATAR is that there’s so much pressure to get the highest score you possibly can. It gives you greater choice in your career pathways. We also know that students continuously develop at all ages – and that some secondary students mature later on, and as such, they need alternative entry pathways,” he explains.

It’s an experience 19-year-old Kobe Jimenez is all too familiar with. Despite “loving school” Kobe says applying himself to the work wasn’t his strongest suit. He found himself leaning on his older brother for advice.

“He got a trade. He helped me see that the ATAR wasn’t everything. I noticed that I’ll be fine, even without a good ATAR. Like, it’s not the end of the world.”

It’s not the only measure of success

According to Professor Louw there’s obvious pitfalls when education providers only focus on ATAR scores to judge a student’s capability.

“It doesn’t reward people who may be entrepreneurial or creative.”

He also adds that the ATAR “is not a measure of a student’s ability to learn, or an indicator of where they’re going to be in life in 15 years’ time.”

“The world is littered with successful people who by their own admission, were not academic in any way, shape or form. Sir Richard Branson left school very early to sell CDs from a wheelbarrow with nothing in the way of academic achievement. And obviously it wasn’t a blocker to his success.” – Professor Alwyn Louw

Like Branson, success came later on for 21-year-old Rosanne Arcadi. She’s on her way to completing a second degree, yet secondary school remains a dark time in her memory.

“I felt like I had only a limited amount of options because I didn’t do ATAR, and I did struggle in high school.”

“At the time, lots of male friends left in year 10 because it was just too much pressure. For my mental wellbeing, I chose to do it a little bit easier and do non-ATAR for the HSC,” she recalls.

“I actually have no idea what I would have been doing if I didn’t find Torrens University.”

Daring to dream big

The “hard nose final score” of ATAR “is getting less and less valuable in defining where you want to go as a student,” states Professor Justin Beilby, Torrens University Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research, and a long term advocate for ensuring access and pathways for students to enter university.

“Most people can find the careers that they want now by looking at alternative pathways – whether you do it part time, as micro-credentials, or short courses. And aligning them with what you actually have a real passion for.” – Professor Justin Beilby

In Kobe Jimenez’s mind he had no doubt that he would follow a career path in sports. Being named after American basketball legend Kobe Bryant meant that sports was sort of in his DNA, and he had big shoes to fill. 

While Kobe toyed with the idea of training in physiotherapy during high school, his low ATAR was always going to be a deterrent. But he eventually found his way to a Bachelor of Business in Sports Management at Torrens University.

Despite business not being on his radar, Kobe says being able to combine his love of sports with business was “like finding a hidden treasure.” And he’s dreaming big. He has aspirations for “being an owner of a team,” ideally a basketball or NRL team, which are the two codes he’s most passionate about.

For food lover Rosanne, a career in gastronomy seemed to be her calling. The Italian-Australian says she grew up “making homemade salami and tomato sauce,” with her grandfather being “a really big influence.”

These days, the challenges of secondary school merely simmer in the background, as she cooks up plans to make her mark in the culinary world.

“Having the culinary degree and the Bachelor of Business, I’m hoping to launch my own little business of cakes and desserts, as well as a catering business.”

ATAR is not the golden ticket into university

The ATAR is not everything. According to a report from the Mitchell Institute, only 25 per cent of students in 2016 were admitted to courses based on their ATAR.

Professor Beilby explains that “most universities now are beginning to shift to multiple entry material,” and are no longer relying on ATAR alone as a pathway to higher education. Along with this, there’s been a growing chorus of voices championing for students to leave school with a learner profile. This incorporates not just their ATAR score, but also captures their broader capabilities for employment.

Looking beyond academic success, a learner profile considers skills such as communication, collaboration and creativity. Professor Beilby says this approach is important for the future of work.

“Some people are very analytical, others theoretical and some people think through design methodology. Some have good soft skills and they need strength in technical skills. Employers are looking for a mix of soft skills, problem solving and technical skills.”

At Torrens University, Professor Louw says the institution “still maintains the integrity of the ATAR, while acknowledging it isn’t everything.”

“We have a healthy respect for the ATAR, but we do acknowledge that given the kinds of courses and faculties that we have, we need to have a nod towards a student that does not have a traditional academic background or interest.”

Unlocking such alternative pathways at Torrens University, changed the course of Rosanne’s future. Her advice for students in high school right now is to break through the shackles of expectation by doing research and asking questions.

“Ask a lot of questions. Don’t be scared. The main thing is to ask questions and ask for advice, and just follow what you want and just follow your dreams.”

The alternative: non-ATAR pathways at Torrens University

A 2019 research paper claims that focussing on the ATAR in the final two years of secondary school can come at the cost of students developing broader capabilities for the future.

However, Professor Louw asserts that at Torrens University, “We can bring in students from a non-ATAR background and deliver exactly the same expectation of success as a student with a 92 ATAR.”

“We have gone to great lengths to ensure that when we do bring in a student from a non-traditional ATAR background that we have the support structures. It’s always been part of our DNA. We’ve taken great care in making sure that our academic team know how to bring these students through and help them excel.” – Professor Alwyn Louw

Torrens University offers robust and achievable non-ATAR pathways to university Bachelor degrees. The newest addition is the 3 Best Grades scheme, for students with an ATAR below 60. If they have three subjects at band two or above, including one that’s pertinent to the course they wish to study – they’ll be allowed to enter that Bachelor course.

In addition, what sets Torrens University apart is a focus on being industry ready.

“Our courses are geared towards giving people the skills they need to work in industry from day one,” professes Professor Louw.

For Rosanne the best part of the Torrens University experience has been that, “lecturers know you as a person, they don’t know you as a number.”

A career for life is a concept from the past

The skills students need and the careers they follow are likely to change over time. FYA’s the New Work Order Report Series shows that career pathways aren’t as linear as they used to be. These days, students can expect to have 17 jobs across 5 careers in their lifetime.

Based on these facts, Professor Beilby says the ATAR becomes redundant in the long term.

Having worked as a General Practitioner for some thirty-years, he’s already seen this pattern in his own children.

“My eldest son got a reasonable ATAR. He got into one course, and he hated it. He then shifted and went into another course and then finally found his niche in a Master’s place. But he got in through alternative pathways to do that,” describes Professor Beilby.

He believes there can be a disconnect between what you want to do and your ATAR score, even for high-achieving students.

“If you get a high ATAR, you get into engineering, but sometimes that’s just not what you want to do, not what you want to be. Then you have to change and redirect where you go in the future.”

“The bottom line for me is the student must find the job they have a passion for.”

A post-ATAR future

In the Covid-19 era, year 12 students have faced more uncertainty than any other school leavers in recent history. The virus has swept through the education system faster than marbles, Pokèmon cards or mobile phones. In response to forced remote learning, some universities have announced that they will be ignoring ATAR results for 2020 graduates. And in Victoria, all year 12 VCE students will be individually assessed so that the impact of coronavirus can be reflected in their ATAR.

For students unsure about what lays ahead, Professor Beilby’s advice is simple.

“Stop, catch your breath, think through where you want to go next year. And reappraise another pathway to get to your goal in your life.”

According to Professor Beilby, the disruption of COVID-19 is likely to forever change the relationship between universities and the ATAR.

“While ATAR still has a role for certain students, in certain programs, it’s value is beginning to wane. The flexibility now required to assess the whole set of skills for students is where I think we need to move to in the brave new world.”

Consider the Torrens University non-ATAR pathways to University and Bachelor degrees.

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