University chiefs are publicly condemning the ATAR university admissions system, after a Fairfax Media investigation revealed that a policy of admitting sub-standard students was rampant throughout the sector.
Both the ANU and UC have criticised the ATAR as an "imperfect" measure of student ability, while University of NSW chancellor Professor Ian Jacobs said NSW should move away from the ATAR as quickly as possible.
"We need a set of criteria that identifies the most talented students from all backgrounds, not ATAR alone," Professor Jacobs said.
On Tuesday, an analysis of confidential data from NSW universities, including the University of Sydney, Macquarie, Western Sydney University and UNSW showed that universities were disregarding ATAR cut-offs and admitting students with ATARs as low as 30 into degrees in fields such as business, teaching and engineering.
An ATAR (Australia Tertiary Admissions Rank) is given to more than 50,000 NSW high school students and more than 2700 ACT students in December each year. It has become the uniform four-digit rank to measure a student's ability against what universities believe is the minimum academic standard required to complete a course, as well as supply and demand for the degree.
Meanwhile, the ANU has defended its system of publishing guaranteed ATAR cut-offs as one of the most transparent in the country as academics expressed outrage at universities' disregard for student quality, with more than 60 per cent of students at Macquarie and Western Sydney being admitted to degrees despite failing to meet the minimum academic standard.
Richard Hill, a researcher in university management at Griffith University, said the admission of students who were barely capable of completing essays was a "chronic" problem throughout the industry.
"If you have a pulse you can get in," said Professor Hill. "It's a very serious issue at the coalface for academics who often have to teach students who are semi-literate, if you ask any academic that has been a massive concern over the last decade".
The fallout comes as Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced on Wednesday that record numbers of students had enrolled in higher education in 2016, with 1.2 million students now undertaking tertiary courses. The 3 per cent increase in student numbers since 2014 has brought the total cost to taxpayers up to $16 billion this year on the back of uncapped student places where universities can enrol as many students as they want.
Mr Birmingham said while the demand-driven system had provided unprecedented access and must continue to be protected, it had come at a significantly higher cost to the taxpayer.
"Recent attrition rates show that almost 15 per cent of these Australians do not progress to their second year. Universities must take responsibility for those students they choose to enrol and ensure they have the capabilities and support to succeed."
ANU acting vice-chancellor Professor Margaret Harding said "ANU two years ago introduced a system where the university published guaranteed ATAR cut-offs, and the criteria for bonus points, to give students more certainty about their admission to ANU courses.
"Since them, demand for places at ANU is up 20 per cent with no lowering of the minimum 80 ATAR and with no compromise to specific program entry standards."
A spokesman noted that any application from a student that was within a few points from reaching the required ATAR could be considered under special circumstances but would need to be personally approved by the deputy vice-chancellor.
Meanwhile Professor Harding conceded the ATAR was "an imperfect measure of a student's ability, and there are other measures to determine potential student success at university".
Conversely, the University of Canberra has marketed itself as an institution that provided flexible entry through a variety of "pathways". But it, too, said its ATAR cut-offs were adhered to.
Deputy vice-chancellor education Nick Klomp said: "Entry to university is pursued by a range of people from different backgrounds and stages in life. Entry processes and requirements thus vary."
For school leavers, the UC "transparently publishes the basic entry floor of this selection rank, which considers ATAR scores plus any bonus points the student is eligible for … Students with ATARs below the cut-off are encouraged to review our bonus points schemes to see if they can still be competitive for selection. We would only offer a place to a student below this minimum entry standard under exceptional circumstances."
Vice-chancellor Stephen Parker has previously questioned the use of an ATAR in an uncapped university system.
"When there were course quotas, ATAR cut-off scores were rationing devices. Opinions differ as to their value as predictors of success. In some courses and at some levels ATARs seem quite poor predictors. A higher cut-off does not necessarily translate into better outcomes for students."
NSW Board of Studies president Tom Alegounarias said the university admission system needed a lot more clarity.
"If universities use measurements other than the ATAR then those are transparent and reliable. It is crucial that students know what the rules are and what the bar they have to get over is".
"If the bar changes without the students' knowledge then those who are most disadvantaged will suffer".