Declining Quality (In the Latin Sense)

“I’m quality. You’re a mediocrity. He’s rubbish.”

These are some of the (facetious) opening words from a recent opinion piece in The Australian by Professor Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of Australian Catholic University. In this short piece, entitled (sic) “When elitism rules the real elite is lost in shuffle” (as, apparently, is the punctuation) he addresses that fundamental question “what is quality?” As he rightly points out, basing our assessment of quality of a student on an end-of-secondary-school mark (the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, in Australia, or the equivalent in any other country) when it tells you nothing about knowledge, capacity or intellect.

What appears to be a ‘low’ ATAR of 66 tells you that this student performed better than two thirds of his or her peers in this young. In Craven’s own words:

“So moaning about an ATAR of 51 to 80 is like crying over an Olympic silver medal. No, it’s not gold, but you still swim faster than most people.”

There is no assessment of the road taken to reach the ATAR either. A student who overcame ferocious personal and societal disadvantage to earn a 70 would look exactly the same as a privileged and gifted student who put in a reasonable effort and achieved the same rank. From a University educator’s perspective, when the going gets tough, I’m pretty sure I know who is more likely to stay in the course and develop the right skill set. We see the ‘gifted but unfocused’ drift in, realise that actual work is required and then drift out again with monotonous regularity. The strugglers, the strivers, the ones who had to fight through to get here – that tenacity would be wonderful to measure.

The ATAR serves a useful purpose as a number that we can use to say “These students can come in” and “these can’t”, except that a number of factors affect the setting of that cut-off. The first is that high prestige courses lose that prestige if you drop the cut-off. Students from certain backgrounds will not select low ATAR courses, even if they are known to be of higher value or rigour, because they reverse shop on the cut-off score. The notion that being a single ATAR point short of getting in is anything other than noise is, obviously, not valid. It’s not as if we sat down and said that the ATAR corresponds to a certain combination of all of these desirable traits and being one short is just not good enough.

Craven makes a good point. The ATAR is a convenient tool but a meaningless number. Determining the genuine qualities of a student is not easy and working out which qualities map to the ‘ideal’ student who will perform well in the University setting is nigh-on impossible. True quality assessment is multi-faceted. It allow for bad years, slow starts or disadvantage, and alternative pathways. Education is opportunity – using quality as an argument to exclude people is a weapon that has been overused in the past and should be put down now. We seem to believe that hitting the government goal of 40% of the population entering higher education requires us to let in just about anyone and the sky will fall – low quality will ruin us! As Craven says, if the OECD can achieve 40%, why can’t we? Are we really all that special?

Craven makes two points that really resonate with me. Firstly, that it is the graduates that come out that determine the final quality. To be honest, if you want to see how good a University is, look at its graduates in about 20 years. You’ll know about the person and the institution by doing that. If the input quality of student is so important then what exactly is it that we are doing at the Uni level? Just minding them for three years while they… excel?

Secondly, that quality is not personal but national. To quote Craven again:

A country that discards its talent out of prejudice or poor policy fatally weakens its own productivity.

Determining the quality of a student but looking at one number, taken at a point where their personality has barely formed, which is not generous in its accommodation of struggle or disadvantage, is utterly the wrong way to express a complex concept such as quality.

What is quality? That’s the homework that Craven leaves us with – define “quality”. Really.

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