Year 12 and Beyond - other ways and means of getting into uni

In this three-part series ‘Year 12 and Beyond’ we consider ways for school-leavers to get the most out of their Year 12 results. In part one, we look at alternative entry for disadvantaged students, and at the growing trend of universities accepting students on a more personal level.


Beyond the ATAR: Strengths, hardship and the bonus-points ‘myth’

While the pressure of your HSC-year often seems to foster much criticism towards the ATAR ranking system, it also seems to overlook the fact that many universities accept students for reasons beyond their entrance rank. For those adversely affected by personal circumstances, the University Admissions Centre (UAC) provides help to eligible students through strictly regulated ‘bonus point’ schemes. For students who fall short of their preferred degree for other reasons, there is a growing trend among universities to assess individual strengths. Here, extra marks may be awarded for a strong showing in particular subjects, or time spent on the sporting field or on the wooden stage. While nothing beats good old-fashioned hard work, one of the most important insights to be gained here is that a university career needn’t live or die by a student's entrance ranking - which itself never changes (bonus points are specific to each university). With limited places in all degrees, alternative-entry programs aim at putting a face to the ATAR, and of asking school-leavers: what’s in a number?

Doing it tough: Educational Access Schemes

If your HSC has been adversely affected by personal circumstances, you may be eligible for an Educational Access Scheme (EAS). These recognise time lost during Years 11 and 12 by relaxing entry requirements into certain courses. For example, the University of Technology’s inpUTS program each year holds 10% of undergraduate places for eligible students who are then awarded bonus points for entry into most degrees. As with Sydney University’s Broadway Scheme (500 spots) and The University of New South Wales’ ACCESS Program, these typically give a maximum of five marks to your ATAR. Such schemes are open, for example, to students whose results have been dragged down by parents' separation, extreme financial hardship or during a severe illness.

However, the programs have not been free from controversy. In response to false applications, the UAC states that unacceptable conditions include building renovations, truancy, student exchange and bizarrely enough- the use of a ‘shared school library’. Other, more public scandals have concerned the false diagnosis of medical conditions. In 2009 for example, a media storm erupted when it was revealed that shoddy clinics were marketing false and exorbitantly priced diagnoses to willing students.

Here, the UAC firmly addresses those searching for ‘mythical’ bonus points, stating that EAS do not provide a golden ticket into university. Tightened again for 2011, eligibility is strict, requires thorough documentation and is reserved only for students whose academic performance has been ‘seriously affected’ by circumstances beyond their control. Applicants are also required to acknowledge that a fraudulent claim may result in the cancellation of their claim, UAC application and/or even a successful enrolment.

Another path? Leveraging on strengths

Universities are increasingly catering to students who fall short in their ATAR but display strong results in areas suited to their first-choice degree. For example, UNSW’s HSC Plus program automatically awards up to five bonus points to students excelling in subjects relevant to their preferred field of study. Under the program, a student wishing to study a Bachelor of Commerce may be awarded entry marks for a band five or six performance in subjects such as Mathematics. Similarly, points may be awarded for entry into a Science degree to students excelling in HSC Physics. The program has come about based on the belief that, as UNSW puts it ‘there is a strong correlation between Year 12 course performance and preparation for and success in first year university studies.’ Under the same belief, UWS, Macquarie, and UTS have also introduced similar schemes. All of which ‘increase’ your ATAR towards certain degrees.

Institutions also offer alternative entry to students excelling in sport (for example the Sydney University Elite Athlete Program) or performance and leadership activities (such as UNSW’s Alternate Entry Scheme). As with EAS programs, these operate on a ‘time-spent’ basis, where commitments outside the classroom are recognised as placing a drag on students’ eventual entrance ranks. While critics have suggested that the programs unfairly favour gifted athletes or performers, they are also indicative of a pragmatic approach to university entry.

Where to next?

Where the traditional strength of alternative-entry schemes has been to provide disadvantaged students with a guiding-hand towards an undergraduate degree, programs such as HSC Plus reflect a growing trend among universities of looking beyond a potential students’ entrance rank. While a logical (though somewhat rude) fact of the ATAR system is that many capable students fall agonisingly short of their first-choice undergraduate degree, it is hard not to see these programs as a step forward for universities in Australia. While debate will continue to rage over ways to increase the number of undergraduate places offered each year, it seems that the big universities are increasingly willing, and in many cases committed, to looking beyond the ATAR.

By Tim