The share of Year 12s in WA studying university entry subjects has plunged to a shocking low of 33.7 per cent, prompting fresh accusations that schools and universities are to blame.
With just one third of Year 12s taking enough exams to qualify for an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank last year, WA had one of the lowest ATAR participation rates in the nation.
WA’s share — which has been falling steadily from 40.3 per cent in 2011 — was only marginally above Tasmania (33.5 per cent) and a long way behind NSW (57.3 per cent), Victoria (56.6 per cent) and South Australia (53.3 per cent).
Andrew Taggart, the new chair of the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre which processes applications to WA’s five universities, has issued a challenge to all education authorities to work much harder to grow ATAR participation among school leavers.
Emeritus Professor Taggart partly blamed the publication of league tables for the dwindling figures, claiming they encouraged some principals and school boards to shunt students out of ATAR courses so they did not bring down a school’s median ATAR.
“Median ATAR-based league tables have encouraged … too many schools to withdraw capable students,” he said.
“Students being removed from the ATAR cohort sometimes before Year 11 and sometimes just before they complete their final ATAR exams is a regrettable practice.”
Professor Taggart said in some WA schools, students were not even given a chance to study an ATAR pathway, even though it was considered the best preparation for the rigours of university study.
“ATAR exams are challenging and can be hard, but students should be able to attempt an ATAR to challenge themselves academically, schools should support them in this quest,” he said.
Universities were also “culpable” in not tackling declining ATAR participation in the last decade.
Instead, they had contributed to the decline by introducing early offers based on Year 11 results, reducing university prerequisites and increasing access to non-ATAR pathway programs.
He said non-ATAR pathway programs were originally designed to help disadvantaged students, but many other students were now taking them because they found them “much easier and less stressful”.
Professor Taggart called on the Education Department, Association of Independent Schools of WA, Catholic Education WA, school principals and universities to work together to grow the ATAR participation rate.
“It’s all about personal best and reaching your potential,” he said.
“Improved academic attainment is for the good of the State and essential in meeting the needs of the future workforce.”
WA Secondary School Executives Association president Melissa Gillett said while principals welcomed debate about declining ATAR participation, it was “fundamentally incorrect” to suggest public schools discouraged students from taking ATAR subjects to look better on league tables.
“Anecdotally, many public schools enrol kids in Year 11 when their non-government school prevents them from enrolling in ATAR courses,” she said.
Ms Gillett said it was unclear which entry pathways had the best outcomes because universities did not release tertiary achievement data.
She said universities should reveal how many students given early offers or who took non-ATAR university preparation courses successfully completed their degrees, compared with those who did ATAR exams.
“This sort of information would ensure students are making considered choices about their study and the associated debt incurred,” she said.
Education Minister Sue Ellery said there was always more than one pathway for students to take to achieve their aspirations.
“Not all students aspire to achieve an ATAR — many are better placed to undertake vocational education and training qualifications relevant to their intended career paths,” she said.
“It is important to ensure that WA students are enrolled in courses that are personally challenging and provide them with the best post‑school career pathways.
“In 2019, the McGowan Labor Government announced changes to the WA Certificate of Education from 2020 to provide students with an additional option to undertake a range of general courses which may be more suitable to the direction they plan to take after completing Year 12.”