Bending the rules helps unis not students

2 June 2020

By Dr Lee-Anne Perry AM 

Executive Director, Queensland Catholic Education Commission 

(This article appeared on the Courier-Mail Opinion page on Tuesday 2 June 2020) 

The claim by some universities that they are ‘bending the rules’ to help Year 12s stressed by school closures is ill-conceived at best and self-serving at worst.  

In Queensland, as a result of the COVID restrictions, Year 12 students had actual teaching time reduced by one week (the last week of term one) and have experienced three weeks of remote learning. Teaching and learning during this time may have been different and more challenging but was not absent.  

The decision by some universities to use Year 11 results or vocational education certificates in place of Year 12 results and the ATAR, would appear to be simply a means to try to secure enrolments during a time of great economic challenge and competition for enrolments. Not only is it not helpful for ‘stressed’ students, such actions compromise the integrity and rigour of our new Queensland Certificate of Education system.  

To address the disruptions that clearly had been experienced by the current Year 12 cohortthe Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) reduced the number of internal assessments required to be completed by all Year 12 students from three to two. This reduction in assessment was extremely well received by students and teachers and seen as an appropriate and proportionate response to the conditions brought about by the pandemic  

The current Year 12 students, the first to experience the new QCE, undertook their Year 11 studies with the security of knowing that if they didn’t perform particularly well, either because they were taking time to adjust to the increased demands of Senior study, or because they had made the wrong subject choices, or for a myriad of other reasons, this would not impact directly on their final Year 12 results. The QCE system, and the ATAR, are based on results in Units 3 and 4 only, almost always completed in Year 12. Now students are faced with the prospect that their efforts in Year 12 may in fact be undermined by universities offering early entry based on results which were never intended to be used in this way. 

While the pandemic is a new experience for educators, every year some students will experience higher levels of disruption to their learning through illness, accident, family upheaval, natural disasters or other unforeseen circumstances. Schools and QCAA have well developed processes to address such disruptions to individuals or groups of students to ensure they have an equitable opportunity to demonstrate their learning. Universities should rely on the integrity of these processes. 

The other strategy announced by some universities to use vocational education certificates again subverts a carefully planned and comprehensive system which expects students planning to enter university to complete at least four General subjects. These subjects have the level of academic rigour required to appropriately prepare students for university study.  

Vocational education certificates are a valuable pathway to prepare students for further vocational courses or, as the QCE allows, as one of the five inputs to the ATAR. Their purpose is not to provide a method of direct entry into university. What message does this send to students who have chosen the potentially more challenging path of General subjects including STEM, English and Humanities, when results in these are ignored?  

Just as concerning is that universities are potentially setting students up for failure. There is considerable evidence that the attrition rates for students without the expected preparation of the General subjects is much higher.  

 Universities must be transparent as to their real purpose in these early entry schemes. They must also think carefully before undermining the rigour of our senior secondary studies and, ultimately compromising their own academic standards. 

Disclosure: Dr Perry is a member of the Queensland University of Technology Council and sits on the board of the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority.