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ATAR charade: Bring back student caps, says NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli

The University of Sydney. Photo: Victoria Baldwin NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Simon Birmingham, Minister for Education and Training. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Panel to crack down on admission standardsBeginning of the end for university admissionsUniversities take students with low ATARs

NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli has urged the federal government to restrict the number of students allowed to go to university in fields such as teaching where there are limited employment opportunities and an oversupply of graduates.

The call comes after a Fairfax Media investigation revealed that the practice of admitting students with lower than the minimum ATAR into university courses was endemic. There are currently more than one million domestic students studying in Australian universities.

“Where there are a limited number of places, or jobs available, they should be capping places,” he said. “Why are we training all of these people when the majority of them won’t get jobs?”

A cap on places would see ATAR minimum entry cut-offs enforced, as students would have to compete for a limited number of taxpayer funded enrolments.

Mr Piccoli, whose comments put him at odds with his federal coalition colleagues, singled out teaching as an area where student numbers have outstripped demand and quality has suffered.

He has previously accused universities of using students as “cash cows” under the demand-driven system introduced by the Gillard government in 2012.

“I’m not sure I want someone teaching my children who got an ATAR of 35,” said Mr Piccoli. “It’s the same in nursing, there are only a certain number of places in hospitals”.

According to federal Department of Education data there has been a 55 per cent increase in the government’s university expenditure from $8.6 billion in 2009 to $13.3 billion in 2015.

Last year, the Senate rejected controversial reforms that would have seen the taxpayer bill reduced while students faced a steep rise in the cost of their degrees.

At the time former federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne warned that there were only two options left to make university funding sustainable.

“Capping the demand driven system, which is socially regressive; or reducing research funding, which has bad economic consequences,” he said in a speech to industry body Universities Australia.

In October, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham shelved the reforms after negotiations with Senate cross benchers failed.

He has since labelled current funding arrangements, based on uncapped student places, as the sectors greatest challenge.

Last year Mr Birmingham said the opening up of the demand driven system had created an incentive to put more students in to lecture theatres at a fixed flat cost rate, putting funding pressure on taxpayers.

“This growth puts a real strain on our ability to support so many students,” he told an education summitin October, while also highlighting concerns about maintaining quality.

In January, Fairfax Media revealed that more than 60 per cent of students were being admitted to the state’s top universities to boost student numbers with marks below the minimum standard.

Belinda Robinson, CEO of Universities Australia, warned against any move away from a demand-driven system.

“The system has opened the door to university for tens of thousands more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is no longer the province of a narrow elite,” she said. “A move back to a capped system would reduce opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds”.

On Wednesday Mr Birmingham reiterated that there were no current plans to reinstate caps but said that he was looking closely at university admissions standards.

“Last week I requested the Higher Education Standards Panel review university admission practices and standards, particularly around how we can have greater transparency to help incoming students so they are ‘uni-ready’,” Senator Birmingham said.

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