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Sunday, 29 April 2012 16:39

Univers-IT entry standards plummet


A number of Australian universities have slashed ICT entrance requirements - going as low as Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATARs) of just 45.55 in some cases - as they scurry to boost student numbers. For employers this means graduate crops of the future could prove uneven - a student with an ATAR of 45.55 studying information technology at Ballarat could prove a quite different proposition than a student who scored an ATAR of 91 studying at the University of NSW.

Enrolments in undergraduate ICT courses have been waning for the last decade, but a radical shift in Government tertiary education funding has led to evidence of a slight uptick this year at some universities. However there appears to have been a cost incurred in terms of the calibre of some students.

While students applying to study for a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) at the University of NSW were required to achieve an ATAR ranking of at least 91 to be accepted on the course this year, there are many more universities - Griffith, Western Sydney, Southern Queensland and Canberra for example - offering IT positions to students with a much lower ATAR or equivalent of around 65.

The University of Ballarat, which offers a range of ICT courses - some in association with IBM, where graduates are guaranteed a placement with the computer company after graduating - has a 2012 ATAR cut-off of just 45.55.

Although a report in The Australian newspaper last week cited  Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) data ATAR stating Ballarat's IT student cut-off was 40.75 a spokeswoman in Ballarat's School of IT said that figure was not correct, claiming that the ATAR cut-off for information technology was in fact 45.55 in 2012, although she acknowledged that was 'still relatively quite low.' She claimed that the ATAR ranking required to study IT (professional practice) which is the course conducted in association with IBM was higher although declined to provide the figure.

To set these figures in context, ATARs are ranked measures which pit high school students who have completed their final year of school and final exams against their peer group who all entered Year 7 together. (It is an extremely arcane system - but one which most universities accept as the yardstick against which they select students).

So under the ATAR system 59.25 per cent of all 17-18 year olds would nominally be smarter than someone with an ATAR of 40.75.

It appears that at least part of the reason for the sudden plunge in ATARs in some universities arises from a push to increase the overall number of undergraduates, both to respond to the recently changed Government framework regarding caps and quotas, and also to offset the dwindling number of international students applying for places in local universities.

Professor Janet Verbyla, president of ACDICT (Australian Council of Deans of ICT) and the dean and pro vice chancellor of the University of Southern Queensland explained; 'It used to be that the Government gave quotas on different disciplines. Now they have taken the caps and quotas off - not for medicine or all courses - but most.

'The caps used to mean that if you were over-enrolled then the university would not get any funds for those students. They have been softening that in recent years so that the funding now goes with the student.

'Now we can take students in for any bachelor degree. If the university has a big demand in one area they can enrol as many as they like.'

But what if there isn't much demand for enrolments - like in IT where demand has been dropping off over the last decade?

According to Prof Verbyla the end of the capping and quota system has not have much of an implication for ICT where the demand has 'not been high for some time', although she said enrolments at her own university had increased somewhat.

According to the Australian Computer Society, university enrolments in ICT are less than half what they were a decade ago, and although there was a slight uptick last year they continue to decline as a percentage of the total student body. The ACS also claims that where 75,000 people achieved some form of VET or TAFE ICT qualification in 2000, that number had fallen to 46,000 by 2010.

Most of Australia's 39 universities offer some form of computing degree, although relatively few have schools or faculties of IT, offering ICT courses instead through schools of business, engineering or science.

At Monash University, which is one of the leading producers of ICT graduates - and the only University in the so called Group of Eight to have a dedicated IT faculty - enrolments in ICT in 2012 have been pretty steady according to Ron Weber, dean of the Faculty of IT.

Professor Weber attended an ADCICT meeting in Queensland earlier this month and said that although the removal of the student caps had 'not done very much at all' to encourage students to apply for IT courses, some universities had attempted to drum up business by lowering their ATARs 'with a view that they could get students in under the uncapped system.'

He acknowledged that departments may have 'been under instruction from their universities' to lower their entrance requirements. 'The downside is that if students need a lot of attention then the universities will need to provide them with more support.

'There could be students with a 50 ATAR that with the appropriate support could do extraordinarily well. But I suspect there will be issues surround their performance,' he added.

At Monash a university wide floor of 70-75 applies and no student with an ATAR lower than that is accepted onto any course. Prof Weber said that in 2012 the Bachelor of IT and Systems required an ATAR of at least 75, while the other three degrees required ATARs of between 82 and 85 which was similar to the 2011 requirements.

'Regarding enrolments, we had an overall decline of 19 per cent in our domestic undergraduate enrolments. This decline can be attributed primarily to a major "hiccup" with one of our degrees-namely, the Bachelor of Information Technology and Systems.

'We had to change the way we described the degree in the VTAC course guide, and we suspect students mistakenly concluded that some of our majors in this degree, some of which are very popular, were no longer being offered. Our domestic postgraduate enrolments are the same as last year.

'In relation to commencing international student numbers at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level, we have seen a decline of about 9.5 percent (mainly at the postgraduate level).'

At the University of Western Sydney, the ATAR cut-off for the Bachelor of ICT at the Penrith Campus this year was 65.10 a little lower than the cut-off for 2012. Since 2009 the university as part of its bid to grow student numbers and become the 'accessible university' has increased its ICT undergraduate headcount by 50 per cent to 1,000 students over three campuses

Certainly the University's reputation for accessibility is growing - largely due to the ATAR bonus schemes which apply at UWS.

Because of those schemes a student who lives in Western Sydney and gets a Band Four or higher in their Standard English exam would only need a ranking of 55.10 to achieve an effective ATAR of 65.10 and get in. Just by dint of where they live they would automatically collect five bonus points on their ATAR when applying to UWS through UAC under the Regional Bonus Points scheme and a further five bonus ATAR marks for their English result.

So even the ATAR results can be a little rubbery when trying to compare apples with apples.

According to Jonathon Tapson, deputy dean of the school of computing, engineering and mathematics UWS numbers have increased by about 5 per cent this year. 'In a regular year that would be significant, but it's hard to tell this year because some people have gone a little bit crazy,' said Professor Tapson, referring to the abolition of caps and quotas across the university system.

For some courses at the University of Technology in Sydney the ATAR requirements actually rose in 2012, according to Timothy Aubrey, associate dean of teaching and learning in the Faculty of Engineering and IT. Dr Aubrey said that ATAR requirements for the Bachelor of Science (IT) and Bachelor of Science (games) had each risen two points to 85 and 91 respectively this year.

He said that the university had made 352 offers this year, and was for the first time offering a mid year IT intake.

'There is not usually one in IT. The university wants to take on more students, I think it's partly in response to the decrease in post graduate international students,' he said.

As to the trends for ATARs to drop in some other universities Dr Aubrey said he was; 'Concerned that the lower level ones will struggle. There is a correlation between ATARs and success.'

He added that less able students might find it hard to get a job on graduating, especially as more and more low level IT roles were offshored. 'Time will show if people get a job,' he added.

Prof Tapson said that exit interviews with UWS ICT graduates showed that last year 83.3 per cent of students left the university with jobs to go to, while the remainder went onto further study. He said that he did not expect ATAR cut-offs would be lowered next year, adding that although ATARs were not a measure of all of a candidate's potential, taking a candidate with an ATAR of 45 through to graduation would likely prove 'very challenging.'

Prof Verbyla was not so sure, saying that some universities were set up to 'deal with students who don't have a very high ATAR.' She also stressed that ATARs were a limited measure of capability, and that a student who attended a traditional school and achieved an ATAR of 45, could in the right setting achieve just as much as a student who had been 'hot-housed' to achieve an ATAR in the 80s.

'It doesn't tell you anything in my opinion,' she said.

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