At the same time, at Orientation Weeks around the country, a new cohort of students is embarking on what will be for most a life-changing experience.
On recent trends, only half of all those new students would have come to university through the ‘traditional’ pathway of an ATAR-based Year 12 completion via a tertiary admissions centre.
The rest of the students at O-Week have travelled many different roads.
Some would have been awarded bonus ATAR points because they live in rural or remote areas, they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or they have a disadvantaged background that has masked their potential.
Some will have had prior university experience or a vocational qualification.
Older students may have left school years before, but have demonstrated through post-school employment that they are capable of successfully completing a degree.
Others will have been given special consideration because even the most capable school student can be rocked by unforeseen circumstance.
The shared common factor is that in all cases – ATAR based or not – their university made the calculation that they all have what it takes to complete their course and graduate.
Not all of them will do so – for a variety of reasons around 1 in 7 will not – but their university has reason to believe that, all things being equal, they have the aptitude and the potential to succeed.
Universities have decades of experience in selecting students based on potential, and have become quite proficient and sophisticated at it.
In most courses across the country, the ATAR – designed to be a rationing mechanism in an earlier time when enrolment numbers were rigidly controlled – is only one of many indicators that can be used to assess this potential.
A diamond in the rough is still capable of sparkling. It’s in the crafting that its lustre is revealed.
Students who – on paper at least – look to have less academic achievement will have three or more years of polishing by the university before being placed in their settings. It is this, the quality of the final product, which should be central to the debate.
The fact that more students from more backgrounds are enrolling and graduating doesn’t mean that standards are falling or that quality is reduced, as some commentators have suggested.
It does mean that universities are responsible for making sure that the less well-prepared students are properly supported.
This is not cheap, and it is not easy in some cases, but the benefits to the individual and to Australia are great.
What the recent commentary and debate on ATARs has revealed, in stark black and white, is that there is a widespread lack of understanding and awareness of university admissions processes.
Universities are responsible for providing future students, and the community at large, with clear information about how the admissions process works, and guarantees that it is operating fairly and consistently.
A commitment to such a fair, consistent and transparent admissions process is the first item in the new Higher Education Standards to apply from January 1 next year.
Minister Birmingham last week instructed the Higher Education Standards Panel to investigate ways to enhance the admissions process.
Universities Australia welcomes the Minister’s direction, and offers our assistance to the Panel towards the goal of increasing the transparency and efficiency of the admissions processes.
In the end, the students at the O-Week stalls need to know that, however they got into university, they deserve to be there.
Universities Australia wishes them every success.
Belinda Robinson is the Chief Executive of Universities Australia
Originally published in The Australian on 17 February 2016