Why do we obsess about University entry standards?

The purpose of a university education and who should have access to such education are always topics of interest. As we discuss future funding models in Australia, the discussion has heightened. Maybe it’s just in Australia, but amid this discussion, it is curious that some continue to focus so intently on university entry standards as if that were all important.

What really matters most about university education is the quality of the education offered and of the capacity and knowledge of graduates and whether they can do what governments and society expect of them, having had the privilege of access to education at that level. It matters much less at what level they start their higher education journey.

Open Universities throughout the world generally work on the premise that anyone can enter, but only those who meet the requisite standards can exit with a qualification. The requisite exit standards at Open Universities are identical to those of other universities. The requirements of professional bodies such as teacher, nurse and engineer registration boards, for example, are the same for all graduates, no matter what the name, status, prestige or location of the university they have attended. You cannot become a certified member of a profession unless you meet these objective standards.

Professional bodies are becoming less interested in what are called ‘input measures’ such as how well a student did in high school, as measured by their numerical rank, before they commenced their three or four year degree. These bodies are now increasingly interested in ‘output measures’ such as whether or not a graduate meets professional expectations in content knowledge, the ability to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team and the ability to continue to learn in a rapidly changing profession and digital and globalised world.

For universities, then, the focus is shifting from validating previous educational achievement of its students – and giving the impression of high standards by primarily accepting students with high scores from secondary school. The focus is increasingly on providing opportunities for wider access to higher education and then ensuring the requisite quality of education and support necessary for all students to have the highest chance of success.

If the purpose of university education is to restrict the high-paying jobs, society’s leadership positions and privilege generally to the elite, we should revert to a primary focus on university entry standards as measured by high school scores. These are highly correlated with socioeconomic status. Such reversion would require us to enforce archaic notions that all the important learning is done in one’s teenage years and the number you are given on exit from high school at 17 years of age determines your lot for life. Oh, and we should probably close all but the elite universities. Too bad if you live in a country without an elite institution, are mature age, want to change careers, are a late developer, or had a rough adolescence.

However, if the purpose of university education is to contribute to an educated society that treats its members and members of other societies with dignity, respect and kindness, while simultaneously advancing economic, environmental and other fronts, then we need to unburden ourselves of out-dated notions of restricting access to higher education and instead focus more closely on how to facilitate success for the many rather than the few.

This does not mean ‘spoon-feeding’, lowering standards or allowing soft marking as seems to be often assumed. As well as ensuring appropriate academic and other support services for university students, it does, however, mean ensuring university teachers know how to teach. Most are still not qualified to do so on entry to their role as a university educator and only a proportion commit to learning how to do so through a combination of professional development and qualifications.

Many universities value and reward research over teaching and advancement and promotion are often dependent on research and not on teaching. While this is changing, it has had slow progress to date, particularly for universities focused on international rankings, which are not derived from teaching quality but from research performance, exclusivity and related measures.

Australia has a way to go in refocusing from university entry to exit standards but a movement has begun and it is welcome. I wonder how the rest of the world are faring on this front.

A version of this article was first published in The Age newspaper in 2015

Devlin, M. (April 20, 2015). Education debate must focus on university exit standards. The Age: http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/education-debate-must-focus-on-university-exit-standards-20150419-1mlihq