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Law schools cry foul over media's ATAR claims

NSW universities have defended their admissions procedures against reports in the Sydney Morning Herald that low-ATAR students are being admitted in high proportions to competitive degrees such as law.

On Wednesday, SMH published a story claiming that NSW universities were admitting students with ATARs as low as 30 into courses.  

Drawing on “confidential university data”, SMH reported that a high proportion of students admitted to law did not have an ATAR score above the cut-off.

More than 90 per cent of offers for law degrees at UNSW (combined law), Macquarie University (law) and Western Sydney University (business/law) were made to students with ATARs below the cut-off, according to SMH.

The University of Sydney made 41 per cent of offers for combined law to students with ATARs below the cut-off of 99.5.

Speaking with Lawyers Weekly, UNSW Law dean Professor David Dixon (pictured) said the “shock, horror story” was flawed.

“In their enthusiasm for a story, they haven’t worked out the difference between raw ATAR and entry level,” he said.

Professor Dixon said the ‘raw’ ATAR, reported by SMH, is not the determining factor for whether students are accepted into law.

The entry level score, which is the ATAR including additional points granted by the university, is a better indicator, he explained.

These additional points are granted under schemes that take into account Aboriginality, socio-economic disadvantage and strong performance in extra-curricular activities.

Professor Dixon said the ATAR cut-off for law is high precisely because UNSW does not set quotas limiting the number of students accepted under these schemes.

He said that relying solely on ATAR scores in admission processes “would reproduce the structural disadvantages in our schools”.

Professor Dixon pointed out that the median raw ATAR of students admitted to combined law at UNSW was 98.28, only 1.42 below the cut-off.

Speaking with Lawyers Weekly, a University of Sydney spokesperson said the university provides entry into courses for disadvantaged students with ATARs below the cut-off.

“ATAR is a less reliable predictor of success for this group of potential students,” the spokesperson said.

Under these schemes, Indigenous students, mature students, elite athletes and students from disadvantaged schools are offered placements without having to meet the ATAR requirement.

Professor Stephen Bottomley, dean of the ANU College of Law, said the lack of context in media reports around ATAR cut-offs can be "confusing, at best, and misleading at worst".

He urged students to “look a little closer” at the SMH data, which refers to the cut-off ‘combined fields of study’.

“In the case of ANU, [this] includes two very different degrees – Law, which has an ATAR cut-off of 97, and Criminology, which has an ATAR cut-off of 82,” he said.

“Further, these sorts of reports often neglect to consider other factors – such as academic bonus points –which are applied to a student’s ATAR by respective universities and which can affect the perception of ATAR cut-offs over time,” he added.

ANU offers up to five additional bonus points for high achievement in demanding secondary subjects such as English, specialist maths, physics and chemistry.

Professor Bottomley said the ATAR cut-off for law has actually increased in the past five years at ANU.

He suggested the situation highlighted the controversy that surrounded the ATAR system, suggesting some universities could begin to introduce additional admission requirements for degrees such as law.

"But we are still some way from a universally recognised and comparable system that assesses and admits students on measures beyond their Year 12 rank," he said.

Professor Michael Adams, dean of Law at Western Sydney University, said most universities have a bonus scheme, which is usually a maximum of 10 points.

“We grant five points for a band 5/6 in English or Legal Studies – as both are good indicators of success in law,” he said.


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