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Alternative university entry: New, fresh, clever and innovative?

There’s a lot of talk about ‘alternative’ entry to university at the moment.  Debate in this area always makes me smile, particularly when arguments about it are presented as if they are new.

The federal government agenda in relation to widening participation in higher education has led to some excited commentary about moving away from the traditional means of selecting students for university based on numerical, relative rankings derived from their senior high school performance.

What makes me smile is that universities have been using ‘alternative’ entry criteria for years but some are only just beginning to cotton onto the idea and are now enthusiastically promoting this ‘new’ notion, describing their own commentary on it as ‘expert’, incorporating ‘fresh ideas’ and ‘clever thinking’.  They urge the rest of us in the sector to ‘think in diverse ways’ and to ‘be innovative’ about this issue, despite many of us having done so for decades.  (You have to smile, otherwise you’d find it slightly irritating and patronising).

There are numerous Australian universities with genuine social inclusion agendas, that is, policies and practices that encourage those from non-traditional backgrounds and university entrance scores under 90 into university that pre-date May 2009 when the new federal agenda was revealed.  These universities have nuanced ideas about how best to design and implement ‘alternative’ selection and entry to university, developed from years of refining their approaches and strategies. They are quietly getting on with it and have been doing so for some time.

The University of Western Sydney in New South Wales is one such institution.  In 1996, I ran a program at UWS that sought applications from people who lived in the region who had suffered severe educational and/or social disadvantage.  Applicants filled in an application form, including a short statement about themselves and their past experiences and future intentions, and were then interviewed by a small panel in an informal setting.  They were engaged in conversation about their circumstances, what interested them in studying at university, how they planned to support themselves financially and in other ways. 

Because I am an educational psychologist, I was able to establish rapport and make each applicant comfortable before making an assessment about their generic reasoning and thinking skills – both necessary for successful study at university.  It’s not rocket science, but some expertise – and resourcing – are require to design and implement such a scheme.

This UWS scheme allowed students who otherwise would not have gotten within cooee of a university without it, to enter, complete a carefully designed foundation program with embedded skill development and support and then enter university.  Because I had the privilege of leading this scheme, I saw first hand that the alternative entry scheme enabled one student, who lived in her car because her parents threw her out of home at 16 years old when she refused to participate in an arranged marriage, enrol in a Bachelor of Arts, a lifelong dream for this determined young woman. 

An unemployed, single mother of five children with a serious kidney disease also achieved her objective of providing a positive role model for her children as she, too, graduated from the foundation program and took up her place at university.  A young man whose parents had been killed in a car crash while he was studying his Higher School Certificate and another who had suffered crippling depression for most of his teen years also gained entry to higher education courses of their choice.

It was somewhat of a culture shock for me to move from UWS to the University of Melbourne, where there was a reliance on ENTER scores and a confidence that no matter what they did, the core market of school leaving children of the elite would be assured (and the Melbourne Model showed them to be right).  There was no attempt to attract nor enrol students that resembled those I had worked with at UWS.  Alternative entry schemes were discussed from time to time at the University of Melbourne, but the extremely high ENTER scores essentially made them a joke.  And as ENTER scores are used as proxies of quality, the scores were unmoveable.

In the current debate in the sector, there is some consideration of the possibility of using tests in place of relying on proxies such as school performance as determinants of success at university.  Going on what happens in the rest of the western world, these tests will typically include a multiple choice component, probably with three aspects: qualitative reasoning questions incorporating problem solving; verbal reasoning; and critical thinking.  With the better tests, responses can be weighted differently depending on the course(s) of choice of the candidates.  This is sensible – qualitative reasoning is more relevant to the maths and sciences areas and verbal reasoning to the arts and humanities (critical thinking is relevant across the board).

I haven’t heard much about the validity and reliability of these tests, which is worrying.  Psychometrics aren’t sexy and don’t make for good media nor good policy-making on the fly (increasingly prevalent) but they are critical to ensure that we are measuring what is important (validity) and that the test reliably measures what is important. 

In addition, the tests are written tests, which is a significant limitation.  Applicants with dyslexia and other conditions that preclude high performance on tests like this will not obtain entry via this means, despite significant intelligence and aptitude.  There is also the issue of a university officer determining an applicant’s intelligence and aptitude from a written test, having never met the test taker.  The psychological literature is full of discussion about such matters but if past policy making is anything to go by, the literature will not be consulted and so-called ‘experts’ will be consulted instead.  It would be heartening if these experts included not only those fond of talking in the media but also those quietly getting on with it out of the media and policy-making spotlight.

Despite the limitations, the widespread introduction of tests of this kind in the Australian higher education sector seems inevitable, at least for a period.  If the test used is valid and reliable, there is some evidence that it can reveal academic potential in some candidates that is not apparent in their university entry scores.  In addition to paying attention to psychometrics, universities considering using such tests would need to carefully decide on a number of aspects related to access to the test. 

For example, in what circumstances the test would be offered and to whom would need careful thinking.  Some of the less complex circumstances include recent year 12 graduates with scores slightly below those needed for entry to the course.  Universities would need to carefully consider whether or not to provide such tests to those in more complex circumstances, such as mature age students who have had numerous years out of study, who have not completed year 12 and/or who have partially completed or graduated from Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses. And where a testing agency, such as the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), is involved, it would be wise for universities to determine up-front who would own, and have access to, the data gathered through the tests.

As we move into widespread debate and discussion about ‘new’ alternative entry schemes for university, let’s try to remember where expertise in this area lies and utilise this expertise for the benefit of the many thousands who will rely on these schemes to access the education that can transform their lives.

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