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Go8 Submission: Go8 response to Senior Secondary Pathways discussion paper

Dear Professor Shergold

I am writing on behalf of the Group of Eight (Go8) with a high-level response to the COAG Education Council Discussion Paper on the Review Senior Secondary Pathways into Work, Further Education and Training that was issuedin September 2019.

Please note that Go8 member universities may each make their own, more detailed contributions to this Review.

As you would expect, the Go8 is closely engaged with the issue of senior secondary pathways given that in 2018 31.1 per cent of Year 12 applicants to university applied to a Go8 institution – the highest of any university group.[1] According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), since 1991 approximately 90% of jobs growth has required post-secondary education[2] and the Government expects this to continue to be the case for at least the next five years[3]. Consequently, senior secondary pathways to university are also an important component of pathways into the workforce.

For university study post Demand Driven System – where there will be an effective rationing of the number of university places – it is critical that senior secondary pathways are both effective and transparent.

The Go8 notes the complexity of the issue of senior secondary pathways given the multiple purposes for schooling in serving a wide range of student needs including pathways to further education, work and enabling participation in an informed citizenry. While necessarily focusing on higher education considerations, the Go8 recognises the importance of senior secondary pathways into vocational education and post-secondary education more broadly.

In this short submission, the Go8 will focus on seven high-level principles in relation to curriculum, and recognition and certification of achievement at senior secondary level. The emphasis of the Go8 is on the design and execution of a curriculum that creates and maintains options for senior secondary pathways, and the recognition and certification of academic achievement in senior secondary school that makes these pathways accessible and effective.

Go8 principles for senior secondary pathways

Curriculum – creating and maintaining pathways

  1. Senior secondary curriculum should encourage students to keep open their future options for pathways into further education and work.
  2. Senior secondary curriculum should have an emphasis on English and mathematics – particularly in creating options and pathways for students who are not strong in these disciplines.
  3. Universities should clearly signal any requirements for success associated with pathways to university study – for instance, by specifying pre-requisite knowledge where the dependence on prior knowledge is strong and by clearly articulating assumed knowledge.
  4. There should be appropriate pathways for high-achieving students – particularly those from outer suburban, regional, rural and remote areas – to engage with university.

Recognition and certification of academic achievement – accessing effective pathways

  • Recognition and certification of academic achievement in senior secondary schools should not provide perverse incentives for schools to increase their perceived performance at the cost of limiting student pathways into future education and work.
  • Universities should ensure that admissions standards and support services not only afford access but also support student success by being clearly articulated and founded on an evidentiary base.
  • Students at outer suburban, regional, rural and remote schools as well as students from low-SES or other disadvantaged backgrounds should have access to the full range of possible academic achievement offered by the senior secondary school system.

Curriculum – creating and maintaining pathways

As noted earlier, the senior secondary school system serves a number of concurrent purposes and amongst these is the inevitable balancing act between maintaining options for academic streams – leading in many cases to university studies – with opportunities for other equally valuable pathways into further education or the workforce. What is critical in this context is that curriculum options do not narrow down choices for students or encourage them to give up on subjects which they may consider too academically challenging but are critical for future pathways.

In particular, the Go8 believes that all students should continue to study English and mathematics to the highest level of which they are capable and that curriculum must support this. Students for whom English and mathematics are not strengths must still build up a maximal degree of literacy and numeracy as enablers of participation in future education, the workforce and the Australian citizenry more generally. Students must be discouraged from the misapprehension that capability in English and particularly mathematics is binary – you either have it or you don’t – and there must be options available to pursue English and mathematics at a range of levels.

The recent Australian results in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) of 15-year old students confirm the need for all students to pursue studies in English and mathematics in senior secondary school. In the PISA assessment Australia rated 12 out of 35 OECD countries for reading and 24 out of 36 OECD countries for mathematics.[4]

High level English and mathematics at senior secondary level are also the primary enablers to keep options open for university study and are important to success in university level study. Other subjects that serve a similar purpose – albeit with less priority than English and mathematics  – are chemistry and physics as enablers of university science and engineering degrees and subjects such as history and languages for humanities, arts and social science related degrees.

More broadly, senior secondary curriculum should facilitate pathways that enable a mixture of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects and Humanities, Arts and Social Science (HASS) subjects, the combination of which is widely expected to essential for an Industry 4.0 workforce.[5]

In order for senior secondary curriculum to enable appropriate pathways into universities there is also a responsibility on universities to ensure that any requirements for success in university studies are signaled to schools, and state and territory education departments. In particular, universities should specify pre-requisite knowledge where the dependence on prior knowledge is strong and by clearly articulating assumed knowledge.

It should be noted in this context that in addition to a Selection Rank (discussed below) there are many examples where Go8 universities require a specific level of academic achievement in designated senior secondary subjects for admission – that is where prerequisites are applied.[6]

At the very highest level of academic achievement at the senior secondary level the Go8 believes that there is a need to increase pathways for talented students to access university level material. Go8 initiatives such as the ANU Extension program[7] and the University of Adelaide Headstart scholarship program[8] allow students to study courses containing university level content which is assessed as part of the senior secondary curriculum. These subjects articulate into university courses with credit for university level material already studied.

Go8 principles for curriculum – creating and maintaining pathways Senior secondary curriculum should encourage students to keep open their future options for pathways into further education and work.Senior secondary curriculum should have an emphasis on English and mathematics – particularly in creating options and pathways for students who are not strong in these disciplines.Universities should clearly signal any requirements for success associated with pathways to university study – for instance, by specifying pre-requisite knowledge where the dependence on prior knowledge is strong and by clearly articulating assumed knowledge.There should be appropriate pathways for high-achieving students – particularly those from outer suburban, regional, rural and remote areas – to engage with university.  

Recognition and certification of academic achievement – accessing effective pathways

Much of the public discussion and confusion around senior secondary pathways into university revolves around the use of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). There is an inherent tension between the simplicity and utility of the ATAR as a ranking tool for tertiary admission places and the use of the more detailed study scores for individual subjects in constructing fit for purpose student pathways into university studies.

In practice, when considering the application of a student transitioning from school to university for a particular course of study Go8 universities combine the ATAR with other factors to establish a Selection Rank for a particular student applying to a particular degree[9]. These adjustment factors – often known as “bonus points” – may include personal circumstances of the student – for instance financial hardship, a medical condition or geographic location – as well as the subjects studied by the student.

In 2016 the Go8 released its admissions transparency principles[10] as a commitment to transparently explaining this hybrid system of ATAR and other academic and personal factors in determining admission to Go8 universities.

Nevertheless, the ubiquity of the ATAR can potentially provide perverse incentives to schools if their role is interpreted to be the maximisation of each individual student’s ATAR and there is an actual or perceived institutional KPI related to the overall performance of their student cohort in relation to the ATAR. This may result in an incentive for schools to direct students away from difficult subjects – particularly in mathematics – that are essential to keep pathway options open but may be viewed as contributing to overall lower school performance.

Having said this, the Go8 believes in the need for consistent measures of academic achievement and so is not advocating for the removal of the ATAR but rather a more nuanced use and understanding of the ATAR in senior secondary pathways.

For senior secondary pathways into university to be effective they not only must be accessible they also must lead to student success. As such, universities have a responsibility to ensure that admissions standards and support services not only afford access but also are clearly articulated and founded on an evidentiary base.

Finally, even if senior secondary curriculum supports appropriate pathways there is also the issue to consider of whether all students have effective access to courses to provide the certification of academic achievement required to support these pathways. This is particularly the case for courses that contribute to ATARs (and again particularly in mathematics) where as a matter of equity the Go8 believes that it is important that students from outer suburban, regional, rural and remote areas and students from low-SES and other disadvantaged backgrounds have access to these subjects and the pathways they support.

Recognition and certification of academic achievement – accessing pathways Recognition and certification of academic achievement in senior secondary schools should not provide perverse incentives for schools to increase their perceived performance at the cost of limiting student pathways into future education and work. Universities should ensure that admissions standards and support services not only afford access but also support student success by being clearly articulated and founded on an evidentiary base.Students at outer suburban, regional, rural and remote schools as well as students from a low-SES or other disadvantaged backgrounds should have access to the full range of possible academic achievement offered by the senior secondary school system.  

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the review discussion paper. If you have any questions on the Go8 response or would like to follow up on any of the points raised, then please do not hesitate to contact me at chief.executive@go8.edu.au or 02 5123 6700.

Yours faithfully,

VICKI THOMSON

CHIEF EXECUTIVE


[1] Department of Education, Undergraduate Applications, Offers and Acceptances 2018, https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/undergraduate_applications_offers_and_acceptances_2018.pdf

[2] See, for instance, Group of Eight, Priority Directions 2, http://go8.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Go8-PriorityDirections2.pdf

[3] https://joboutlook.gov.au/future-outlook.aspx

[4] https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/pisa-2018-results.htm

[5] See for instance https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/03/here-s-how-art-activates-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/

[6] As two examples see the mathematics prerequisite required by the University of Sydney https://sydney.edu.au/study/how-to-apply/undergraduate/mathematics-prerequisite.html and the range of prerequisites at Monash University information on which can be accessed at https://www.monash.edu/study/courses/entry-requirements

[7] https://extension.anu.edu.au/

[8] https://www.adelaide.edu.au/headstart/home

[9] Note that there are exceptions to this general rule, such as the University of Adelaide subject-based admissions route  – see https://www.adelaide.edu.au/study/undergraduate/entry-pathways/recent-secondary-education/

[10] https://www.go8.edu.au/oldcontent/sites/default/files/docs/publications/transparency_in_admissions_at_go8_universities_-_25may16_0.pdf