ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 7, Summer 2012

Vice Chancellor's letter

Quality is a rare irregular noun. I’m quality. You’re a mediocrity. He’s rubbish.

Just now, “quality” dominates every educational debate. You cannot move without confronting a quality enthusiast.

So the expansion of the Universities is queried as diluting quality. Any more students from battler backgrounds and the country will collapse.

Simultaneously, New South Wales Education Minister Adrian Piccoli worries about the quality of teachers, fearing some keepers of the three Rs cannot read or ‘rite themselves.

But the central question in both debates is what is “quality”? How do you tell if someone is clever enough to snog in the Quad, or wield dark sarcasm in the classroom?

The remarkable answer is we have no real idea.

Until now, we have operated under a convenient fiction. Your year 12 rank– your ATAR – is God’s assessment of intellect.

This was convenient for teachers, because it gave benchmarks; governments for the statistics; and Universities because they did nothing. The current debate around allegedly low University entrance standards and teacher quality is largely ATAR anxiety.

The problem is that as a believable proxy of educational quality, the ATAR is as comprehensive as a Lara Bingle swimsuit.

Remember: an ATAR is a rank, not a score. It does not tell you directly about a student’s knowledge, capacity or intellect. Students who get 99 or 59 could both solve an equation and conjugate a verb.

All an ATAR tells you is what percentage of the Year 12 population a student beat in any given year. In Australia’s top-class secondary system, this means a student with a “modest” ATAR of 66 topped 2/3rds of her Australian counterparts, and a correspondingly higher percentage from comparable countries.

So moaning about an ATAR of 51 to 80 is like crying over an Olympic Silver medal. No, it’s not gold, but you still swim faster than most people.

Realistically, Year 12 results always had three fundamental problems. Outside scores above eighty, they are unreliable guides to University performance. Course cut-offs are easily manipulated by Universities. Finally, no ATAR assesses personality and commitment, let alone crippling disadvantage.

An ATAR system would have excluded Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, neither distinguished school students, from university. Likewise Winston Churchill.  This is “quality”?

Of course, it remains in the interests of many to cherish the ATAR. Some elite universities would love student populations culled, to better fund their own well-heeled cohorts. Certain teaching bureaucrats more focussed on professional “prestige than impact, long for teachers with the ATARS of brain surgeons, inconceivable, unless they earn the same.

But if we want genuinely accessible universities, and actually competent teachers, we need a real definition of quality, not a serial number. Here goes.

First, assessing quality is not simple. Sorry. Just as you cannot reduce morals or beauty to a single numeric, you can’t digitize intellectual potential.

Next, true assessments of quality will be multi-faceted. Ideally, they will test not just intelligence, but intelligence married with personality, motivation and commitment, adjusted by disadvantage.

Consequently, alternative entry schemes into University, which now comprise more admissions than raw ATARS, are not aberrations but improvements. Asking whether potential teachers ever actually will care about students is at least as important as an adolescent mathematics score. Fourth, Australians – excepting Collingwood supporters – are not stupid. If 40 per cent of other OECD cohorts can achieve University education, why not Australians?

Similarly, the real test here is how graduates come out, not how they go in. Final quality is about value add, not raw material. Otherwise, why have universities?

Sixth, and critically, education is opportunity, and always has been. Labor and conservatives alike understand this. Arguments based on snobbery and presumed incapacity - but couched as ‘quality’ - should be seen quite clearly as excuses to narrow the potential of Australians.

Such arguments were used to keep flighty women and stupid Irish out of universities in the 1880s. Today, they can exclude the children of Howard’s battlers and Gillard’s working families. And neither Howard nor Gillard would have gone to University had our education system not been prised open to talent, then as now.

Finally, quality is not just personal but national. A country that discards its talent out of prejudice or poor policy fatally weakens its own productivity.

The bad news is that real quality assessment will take hard work by governments, schools and universities. Not slogans. Not simplistic formulae. Just lots more genuine thought and sophistication on the central element of the educational equation.

The worse news is that failure will be disastrous. Surrendering to the glib counsels of elitism – as opposed to reaching the elite – will condemn thousands of Australians to a life of under-achievement, a prospect that would have horrified Deakin and Menzies as much as it would appal Whitlam.

Homework for all parties: define “quality”. Really.*

*This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper

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