How much do you know about the Australian education system?

For starters, the responsibility for education comes under the state government banner, not the federal government. What this effectively means is that the 'Australian education system' is not one cohesive system but eight — one for each state and territory. Certain factors, like the ages for compulsory school attendance, are the same but many others have tiny differences — the names of subjects, what each year level is called, the range of primary school grade levels ... even the actual curriculum.

In fact, the national Australian curriculum was not officially approved by federal state ministers until 2009 and each state was not required to start implementing the curriculum until 2014.

This means that, for 142 years, since school attendance was first made compulsory in Victoria in 1872, Australian students have been taught under 8 widely different curriculum systems. Even now, in 2022, despite a national curriculum, each state is still in control and adapts the curriculum in its own way.

Due to this 'digging in of the heels' of the state governments, in 2008 the federal government mandated a national testing program — National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN). NAPLAN is now conducted annually with primary school and high school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, allowing the government to rank the results of each school in each state and across Australia.

Following the introduction of NAPLAN, the Universities Admission Index (UAI) was replaced in 2009 with the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank — ATAR — in an attempt to standardise state results throughout Australia, allowing universities to fairly rank students for admission into different degrees.

Of course, in true Australian form, not every state is on board with ATAR, however, the alternate Year 12 testing they use is scaled to give an ATAR rank.

Now that you have a little of the historic background, which hopefully will go some way towards at least explaining the confusion you may feel when you look at different state education systems, this article is really all about ATAR.

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At the end of high school, you need to weigh up your options before making a decision on your future | Source: Pixabay - MamaClown

ATAR is certainly an acronym you will have heard if you are in senior high school, or have children who are senior high school students planning on going to uni — but how much do you know about it? Is it really the be-all and end-all of your future, or your child's future? What if your ATAR results or rank is 'bad', or non-existent?

These questions and more will be addressed henceforth.

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What is ATAR?

As previously mentioned, ATAR is the acronym for Australian Tertiary Admission Rank and is primarily used by universities to determine which students will be offered a place in their courses.

'Rank' is the operative word here as your ATAR mark is a number used to rank you against other students throughout Australia. Briefly, if you achieve an ATAR of 80, this means your rank is 20% from the top; an ATAR of 65 means a rank of 35% from the top of the student group.

How are ATAR results calculated?

Generally speaking across all Australian states, the ATAR is calculated based on student performance across a set number of ATAR-approved subjects over two years. Each state and territory, however, requires a different minimum number of subjects. For example:

  • New South Wales — at least 8 ATAR subjects, of which 6 must be 'category A', plus two units of English
  • Western Australia — 4 ATAR subjects plus a satisfactory level of English competency
  • Victoria — 6 ATAR subjects, one of which must be English

Each state also has their own system for awarding the Year 12 certificate, which may or may not involve an exam that contributes to the ATAR score. New South Wales, for example, has the Higher School Certificate (HSC), Western Australia has the Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) and Victoria has the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE).

Each student's raw score is determined by finding the aggregate of their scaled study score for each subject and, if relevant, the exam. Students are then ranked and allocated a percentage rank, which is converted into their ATAR.

Phew!

What are ATAR results used for?

Your ATAR results are used solely by tertiary institutions (universities and TAFEs) to compare student achievements, even if they haven't been studying the same subjects or studying in the same Australian state.

Most universities will set a minimum ATAR for university entry and for each degree. Students who haven't achieved that minimum cannot apply for entry. The minimum is determined according to both the popularity of the course or degree as well as the perceived academic rigour of the degree.

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If you feel that it's time to pack away your study materials, can you still have a successful career? | Source: Pixabay - ElisaRiva

Remembering that your ATAR score is a rank, you can think of it like a queue of people waiting to get into a specific university and degree. The closer a student is to the front of the queue, the more chance they have of admission. Once the degree has reached its capacity, the people left in the queue are denied entry.

This sounds harsh but the university and education sectors are yet to come up with something that is fair to all Australian students, regardless of which state they completed their Year 12 studies in.

Do You Need an ATAR if You're Not Going to Uni?

Tertiary institutions are the only places that use ATAR results.

Controversially, the media likes to get hold of ATAR results to compare each school, in the same way they compare school communities when NAPLAN results are released. This is usually done under the guise of celebrating the students who have achieved the top ATAR for that year and is sometimes even worn as a mark of pride by the relevant school community.

Media aside, though, if you are not going to uni or enrolling in a TAFE course, your ATAR results are pretty meaningless. A low or high ATAR will not determine whether or not you get a job and will not make or break your career as a school-leaver.

So, if I'm not planning on going to uni, should I bother with an ATAR?

If you are absolutely certain you do not want or need to attend university immediately after you graduate from high school then, no, you won't need an ATAR. However, if you happen to have studied ATAR-approved subjects, out of interest, then you will likely get an ATAR anyway — you just won't need it.

On the other hand, what if you change your mind at the last minute and you end up unable to meet the requirements to receive an ATAR? 

Can You Bypass ATAR Requirements?

Previously in this article, you would have seen phrases like 'cannot apply' and 'denied entry'.

This is not untrue in the case where students are applying to enrol in university courses straight after they graduate from Year 12. However, most universities are not going to shut out students based solely on one result, or the lack of said result.

This is not to say that a university will accept anybody no matter what. If a student can prove they have what it takes to successfully apply themselves and work their way through a degree, they will be able to enrol.

A large number of students each year use alternative pathways to enrol in their university degree of choice. Successful students may:

  • have completed a bridging course
  • be mature age entry students
  • have prior experience in the field of study
  • posses a diploma or certificate in a related subject
  • be an international student with an academic record equivalent to Australian Year 12 (plus proven proficiency in English).

The point is, if you have your heart set on going to uni but crashed during Year 12 and didn't achieve the ATAR you needed — all is not lost.

What is an ATAR?
Waiting for your ATAR results can be stressful | Source: Pixabay - JESHOOTS-com

The ATAR system is seen as more fair than a single exam that determines your future and many people prefer it as it means students have to work consistently throughout Years 11 and 12. However, because of the variation in how ATAR is calculated and the individual state requirements, ATAR is still contentious for many people in the education industry.

The biggest argument around ATAR is that it is not necessarily accurate in predicting future success. In fact, the University Admission Centre (which administers the ATAR and advises students on university application processes, among other services) has even stated:

[…] the ATAR is not perfect. There will be instances where the prediction will ‘miss the mark’. Also, there will be cases where selection based on the ATAR alone would not be optimal.

The recommendation, therefore, is that universities take other factors into consideration along with a student's ATAR results. Indeed, many Australian universities do, however, it also reduces student stress to know that there are multiple ways to get into university provided you are prepared to work hard, consider alternative options and perhaps wait a year or so while you gain extra experience and perspective.

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Kellie

Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.