QJER logo 2
[ Contents Vol 3, 1987 ] [ QJER Home ]

Choosing partners for the tertiary
selection debate

Don Brewster
Assistant Secretary - Research and Statistics Branch
Commonwealth Department of Education
(This article is an edited version of the keynote address delivered to the Queensland
Institute for Educational Research symposium on tertiary selection in August 1986).

In every Australian state there is, or has recently been, a major professional and public debate on higher education selection and Year 12 credentialling. It is, perhaps, the dominant issue in secondary education in Australia at present.

It might be thought that the debate was triggered by a general shortage of places for highly qualified applicants for entry to our universities and colleges. No doubt this was a contributing factor but it is by no means an explanation for the concern which has been expressed throughout Australia. The question of who gets in to higher education is not so much the issue - rather it is who gets in to which particular course and under what conditions. In this event the more the system of higher education is expanded and diversified the more selective will some prestige elements of the system become. For example, the proposal to develop higher education courses on the Gold Coast is welcomed by both State and Commonwealth authorities. But such a development will not reduce the competition for places in major metropolitan institutions, especially in their restricted courses.

Individual applicants are not seeking to get into any course, anywhere, but to a limited number of courses in a few institutions.

The debate on selection has many participants who would generally assist the debate if they would identify the value positions they adopt. It is not a two-sided debate - rather it is a debate with many sides and with several hidden agendas.

Of its participants -

With all these teams in the Selection for Higher Education debate there are inevitable State and regional variations. Two aspects of the Queensland system are of special importance. In discussing the need for changes to be debated on the basis of research evidence rather than conventional wisdom (or worse, what happened to our own children), research findings in Victoria are of special interest as they have been a major stimulus to change. Basic work by Dunn (1) and Beswick (2) at Melbourne and Hore and West (3) at Monash has shown that HSC-mark-for-HSC-mark students who came from government schools did significantly and consistently better at their university studies than their counterparts from independent schools. They also showed that girls did better in science and boys in arts than HSC scores would have predicted. (The reasons behind these findings are somewhat speculative and they are beyond the scope of this article). It is one thing to accept that the HSC is a pretty rough and ready predictor of university attainment (you may get away with that). It is entirely different to argue for the retention of the HSC as the sole selection mechanism, when it is shown to have a significant and consistent bias. (It is even harder for a State Education Minister to support existing HSC arrangements if it is the pupils from his own schools who are subject to the systematic bias).

This research has not been replicated in other States and the need for research in the area is clear. Sometimes the inquiries into Year 12 credentialling and related matters call for public submissions as a way of gathering information and views. While such a process is essential to policy development it is not a substitute for well-conducted research. Unsubstantiated opinion can sometimes masquerade as fact if it is quoted and quoted again. There has been relatively little research undertaken on the group which really matters in this debate - those able young Australians who are in two minds about completing a full secondary education, or of continuing to further study. We need to know more about the motivations, aspirations and needs of these 'swinging voters' of education. In particular we must carefully assess the impact of proposed changes on these groups, rather than proceed with change because it appeals to logic, administrative efficiency or to sociological theory. So far as Queensland is concerned the research of Western, Campbell and others provides an essential framework to policy development.

Some international events help to focus the Australia scene. One is the trend to educational conservatism in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere, particularly as those countries are so often held up to us as models. Secondly, there is the possibility that Australia may be following the path of Sweden, whose government made deliberate, well meaning changes to the pattern of tertiary education in an unsuccessful attempt to assist in widening access from lower SES groups. For example, the participation rate of the lowest third of the SES spectrum has been reduced by about half. Beswick concludes that the reasons for the failure of the Swedish initiatives were

The first two of these factors are central to the Year 12 credentialling/higher Education Selection debate. They urge caution and care in proposing wholesale change to our systems and demand careful research effort.

In the last three years there has been a remarkable upswing in Year 12 retention. Nevertheless only about one in two young Australians completes a full secondary education. For Queensland the growth in retention has been steady and sustained for over a decade. However, in a number of other States Year 12 retention actually declined during the 1970s.

These statistics reinforce the need for careful market analysis - we must not assume that the welcome growth of the last few years will survive in an unfavourable climate. We must continue to reinforce the benefits of completing a full secondary education.

In 1985 the Commonwealth Department of Education issued a Discussion Paper on Selection for Higher Education (4). The paper was generally well received as a contribution to the debate, although some reactions wrongly assumed it was a manifesto for action. Two aspects have come in for more criticism than others and deserve some response .

First, Queues. Many people in higher education are strongly averse to queues. They tend to overlook the fact that queues of one sort or another are an accepted - perhaps even the prime - selection tool for TAFE in most states and that they have long been a feature of non-government secondary education. The discussion paper is not suggesting queues as a major selection tool, and indeed the possible regressive social effects of queues need some study. However, there could be (in fact are) instances where queues work in higher education. More importantly, queues are a common, and increasing, feature of TAFE because TAFE tends to hold to the theory of open access. Yet TAFE must restrict its entry to some courses for both financial and labour force reasons. Selection to TAFE is virtually uncharted in Australia and it is an area in urgent need of study. As TAFE becomes more and more selective (in its prime courses) there is a real risk of social inequity developing.

Second, Delayed Selection. The idea that entry to all university courses should be delayed until students had undertaken an initial year of liberal or general scientific study was seriously proposed a few years ago by a then Chairman of Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee (AVCC). Such extreme propositions are beyond contemplation. However, if the faculties of Law, Medicine, Dentistry etc were to delay selection - as some already do - then finance would be less of a problem. Relatively few students are involved in these disciplines and most of them either do combined degrees (in the case of Law) or undertake substantial general studies components as part of existing professional curriculum. The benefit of delayed selection is that it releases the secondary system from the need to provide rank ordering of students in the top 5 to 10 per cent of the cohort. Given research findings of the type mentioned earlier by Dunn and others, such a proposal has much to commend it on equity grounds. It may also have other benefits, like attracting into medicine, law etc people who have given more mature consideration to the needs and demands of these professions.

The debate on Year 12 curriculum and credentials and higher/tertiary education selection is one with many contestants - some of whom appear to be shedding more heat than light on the issues. We must remember that young people enrolled in Years 11 and 12 are investing their time and effort, and their abilities, in the education system we have now. It is a system which has its faults and can be improved, but before we engage in too much negative and unbalanced criticism of existing structures we should remember that the young people of Australia are listening to what we say.


  1. DUNN, T. R. An Empirical Demonstration of Bias in HSC Examinations. Australian Journal of Education, 26(2), 190-203.

  2. BESWICK, D.G. Current Issues in Student Selection. Research Working Paper 85.2. Centre for Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, 1985.

  3. HORE, T. & WEST, L. Access and Equity Report No. 5142 Higher Education Advisory and Research Unit, Monash University, 1985.

  4. Australia. Commonwealth Department of Education. Selection for Higher Education. A discussion of issues and possibilities by an education portfolio discussion group. CDE, Canberra 1986.

Please cite as: Brewster, D. (1987). Choosing partners for the tertiary selection debate. Queensland Researcher, 3(1), 6-13. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/brewster.html

[ Contents Vol 3, 1987 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 17 Mar 2008. Last revision: 17 Mar 2008.
URL: http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr3/brewster.html