ATAR Anger – Media Analysis Article 2 Danielle Armour

ATAR ANGER: What mark do you really need to get into uni?

Danielle Armour z5059217

It is that time of year again. The HSC is over and thousands of year 12 graduates are waiting anxiously for one key date: Friday 16 December. At 9am, the release of ATARs will determine many of their futures. But is it really that clear cut?

In January 2016, a Fairfax Media investigation revealed that many of the top universities in New South Wales were admitting students into courses despite having ATARs up to 40 points below the advertised cut off. Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, the article included breakdowns of the data uncovered, signposting Macquarie University and Western Sydney University as two of the main culprits with 63% of Macquarie University students being accepted into a degree without meeting the advertised minimum requirements. The article suggests that the findings are a result of the federal government lifting the cap on student admission numbers.




The ATAR is perhaps one of the most confusing parts of year 12 for students, with many finishing school and still not understanding what it means. An Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR is a number between 0 and 99.95 that measures a student’s academic achievement in relation to other students. For example, an ATAR of 80 is not a student’s average mark for the year, rather an indication that they have achieved as well or better than 80% of the school leaving age population. In 2015, the median ATAR was 68.70. ATARs are used exclusively by institutions as a means of selecting students for their courses, with universities assigning ATARs to courses based on supply and demand for the degree as well as what they believe is the minimum academic standard required to complete a course.

Since the initial The Sydney Morning Herald article revealing the results of the Fairfax Media investigation there has been a large volume of articles published on the topic of university cut offs, many of them painting tertiary education institutions as misusing the ATAR system for financial gain, with headlines such as “Let’s move beyond ATARs: UNSW Vice-Chancellor Ian Jacobs”, “Universities agree to publish ‘real’ ATARs”, “Gaming the system: The beginning of the end for university admissions”, and “Not in our national interest: Universities slammed over ATAR leniency”. However, it is important to note that all of these headlines, as with many of the articles on this topic that position universities in a negative light, have been published in The Sydney Morning Herald, with the above headlines all taken from articles by journalist, Eryk Bagshaw. This is reflective of the fact that Fairfax Media owns The Sydney Morning Herald and is therefore using it not only to publish their initial findings but to further reinforce the perspective of Fairfax Media, as well as putting continued pressure on universities Australia wide to advocate for a change in the system.

Despite numerous Sydney Morning Herald reports clearly pushing the perspective that universities are misusing the ATAR system with negative implications for taxpayers and our future workforce, it is done so implicitly using features of new journalism articles. We can see this throughout Eryk Bagshaw’s article “Gaming the system: The beginning of the end for university admissions”. The article uses a wide range of sources to reinforce the primary claim that having an excess of students admitted to university is problematic and reduces the quality of education therefore reducing the quality of our workforce. A clear example of this seen in the use of quotes.

“”If you have a pulse, you can get in,” remarked Richard Hil, a researcher in university admissions policy at Griffith, who has called for a public inquiry to be held into tertiary administration.”

Richard Hill’s comment very clearly asserts that university admission cut offs do not accurately reflect the students who are accepted into courses. This is an assertion that Bagshaw would not be able to make for himself without being accused of journalistic bias, however, through the use of quotes he can support his primary claim. Further, this quote acts as a justification for Bagshaw’s primary claim, appealing to authority through Hill’s position as a researcher in university admissions policy, making him an expert on the topic of university ATAR cut offs.

In a similar adherence to the style of news journalism, Bagshaw uses appeals to facts in order to justify his primary claim. Adding to the authority of the article, Bagshaw cites all of the sources for the statistics he uses, as seen in the following example.

“Research from the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton indicates that based on past estimates only 20% of the 7000 students who are offered places with ATARs below 50 will end up getting a degree.”

This particular example has the underlying warrant that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and that Australian taxpayers should not be expected to pay for students who are statistically unlikely to finish their degrees. This again supports the viewpoint that the misuse of ATAR cut offs to boost university enrolments has negative consequences for Australia’s economy, a perspective that has been established by Fairfax Media through The Sydney Morning Herald since the ‘scandal’ broke in January 2016.

While Bagshaw avoids inserting authorial perspective into the article through the use of personal language, the perspective of the article and subsequently the world view of The Sydney Morning Herald and Fairfax Media is evident in the one sided argument presented. An analysis of the article found that the university admission process, or universities in general were mentioned three times in a way that differed from the perspective of the primary claim. Despite this, two of those mentions were included in order to be critiqued and further support the overall viewpoint of The Sydney Morning Herald, as seen below.

“This year, a record 1.2 million people will be educated in higher education institutions, a 22 per cent jump in total enrolments over four years at the cost of nearly $16 billion in government funding.

But a more widely educated population has also come at a cost.

Higher student numbers, fewer full time academics, and government pressure on research funding has meant that at the same time as universities are dependent on increased student numbers for funding, so too are they running on fewer resources.”

Fairfax Media’s perspective is made clear through the article referenced above and many others, but how have other media institutions responded to and reported on the initial findings about university admissions? Alexandra Beech’s ABC online article, “University admissions overhaul backed by education sector, Minister Birmingham says” takes a more neutral approach to the topic, reflective of the objectivity that is a key feature of news journalism. Where Bagshaw’s article was evaluative in nature, Beech’s article is factual, reporting on statements made by Education and Training Minister Simon Birmingham. Contrasting to Bagshaw’s article, none of the quotes used by Beech are overly emotional, further aiding the objectivity of the article, as seen below.

“”All of this is really driving towards how we can give students better information and choices to make better decisions about which university they go to, what course they study and what would be required of them,” Senator Birmingham said.”

What is important to note here is that Beech’s article was published in August 2016 – 7 months after the initial Fairfax Media findings were released. Beech is therefore writing with the underlying assumption that the ATAR system is flawed, a position that is asserted in both Bagshaw’s and the initial The Sydney Morning Herald article and backed by Senator Birmingham in the above quote. This warrant remains implicit throughout that article, however is known to the reader due to the perspectives of the media in articles such as those written in The Sydney Morning Herald between January and the time of publishing of this article. Although we expect news journalism to be exclusively objective, this is not always the case, as seen above.

However, views journalism is an entirely different category, one which is more overtly evaluative in nature and tends to include more authorial opinion. There has been no shortage of opinion pieces in the wake of the release of Fairfax Media’s findings, many by university vice-chancellors defending their institutions and declaring that every Australian has the right to education. However, Dr Richard Hill’s article, “The ATAR Debacle: How To Lower The Bar In Higher Education”, published on online news platform New Matilda, takes a very different tone, citing the lack of transparency in ATAR cut offs as one of just many problems in a university system that in fundamentally flawed. This is not the first time Hill, an Adjunct Associate Professor at Griffith University, has voiced his opinion on the state of Australia’s university system, having previously penned two books titled, “Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University” and “Selling Students Short; Why you won’t get the university education you deserve”. His position within the university sector as well as having published the above titles gives authority to the justifications he makes in order to persuade audiences to align to his position.

Contrasting to the news journalism pieces analysed above, Hill’s article includes limited use of facts, instead relying on appeals to precedence and authority to justify his primary claim that universities are sacrificing their academic integrity by abusing ATARs in order to generate income. Below is an example of Hill’s use of both appeal to precedence and appeal to authority.

“Many of those enrolled in universities, academics tell us, find it difficult to string sentences together, to formulate coherent arguments, or to participate meaningfully in tutorials. They require intensive, on-going support just to scrape through. Many simply fail, or drop out. No-one knows precisely how many take the latter course, but the figure could be in the order of 25 per cent.”

This particular quote is representative of the tone and style of the article holistically, with Hill frequently referring to academics collectively to give them a position of authority as a means of justifying his perspective. However, in many situations throughout the article, this presents itself as an informal fallacy in the form of hasty over generalisation as the “academics” he refers to throughout his article are never named, nor are we given the scale of academics who agree with Hill’s position, instead they are referenced with vague quantifiers such as “most” and “any”.

What is similar to the news journalism pieces referred to above, is that Hill does not use first person language in his article. However, unlike Bagshaw’s evaluative pieces where opinion was presented through the use of quotes and sourced statistics, Hill uses emotive language to evaluate the university system, as well as second person language to get the audience invested in his primary claim, seen in the following quote.

“But you’ll hear none of this from the university marketing divisions or our salary-packaged vice chancellors, who constantly babble on about excellence, opportunity, innovation and creativity in the high octane, tech savvy world of the 21st century university. The problem however, is that employers have seen through all the marketing hype and experience tells them that that many graduates, often encumbered with a distorted sense of their own abilities, are rarely ‘job ready’.”

While the above pieces differ greatly in style and evaluation, there is one key idea that the above article have in common. Bagshaw, Hill and to a lesser extent, Beech, agree that top universities have lost their place of esteem and prestige in Australian society on the back of the Fairfax Media findings. This idea is opposed in coming articles, which defend universities in their decision to accept students below the advertised cut offs. Upon analysis of articles defending the university entrance system, it was evident that the majority of articles written in defence of universities were evaluative views journalism pieces, written by high ranking academics at prestigious universities across Australia, including UNSW, Macquarie University and Victoria University (the Fairfax Media investigation was exclusive to NSW, however Victoria has faced similar issues).

The trend in these articles is not only to defend the universities actions and justify the admissions process, but to blame the flaws in the ATAR system itself for leading them to admit students who do not meet published cut offs. Both Professor Iain Martin, deputy vice-chancellor academic at UNSW in his The Sydney Morning Herald article “We need to scrap the ATAR as the main judge of student potential” and Professor John Simons, Macquarie University’s deputy vice-chancellor academic’s  “Scandal, what scandal: uni hits back in ATAR stoush”, published in the Australian Financial Review discuss why their respective universities believe that the ATAR is not the only method that should be employed in the university admissions process.

Simon’s article focuses heavily on the idea that people are more than their ATAR, an idea rarely mentioned in the articles referred to above. This forms the central idea behind his primary claim that the ATAR is not the only factor to consider when determining university admissions therefore universities are justified in their decision to admit students below the advertised ATAR. He describes the ATAR as “like a price, an offer to do business and not a sole requirement”, therefore justifying all future claims he makes throughout the article. Similarly, Simons uses his own high ranking position within the university system to add authority to his article, in lieu of quotes and sourced statistics from other people or places of authority. This is evident in the use of his own personal experiences seen below, appealing to authority as well as precedence by suggesting that his experience is representative of the majority of those in the academic community.

“This debate also seems bedevilled by a view that big numbers mean low standards. This is a very odd argument. I’ve taught in a range of places, from an elite outfit that offered on the basis of 1500 applicants per place to a university that was entirely based on widening access.”

Martin’s article is more recommendatory in nature, asserting that “We need to find a better and fairer way to assess a student’s potential than the ATAR.” This, as the first line of his article, explicitly states his primary claim. Throughout the article, he refers directly to the initial The Sydney Morning Herald article that revealed Fairfax Media’s investigation as well as testimonies from UNSW students that feature in articles written by Bagshaw, including “Gaming the system: The beginning of the end for university admissions”, analysed above.

“Yes, more than 90 per cent of students offered places had a raw ATAR below the published ‘cut-off’ of 99.7 but the average (median) raw ATAR was more than 98. The vast majority of students admitted to this program in 2016 have ATARs close to the cut-off and reached it by being awarded two or three bonus points through the university’s published schemes.”

This appeal to facts is a direct rebuttal against the following quote from the initial The Sydney Morning Herald article, “NSW universities taking students with ATARs as low as 30”, however it is also an implicit appeal to ethics, with the underling warrant that universities maintain their practices at the highest standard and make admissions processes as transparent as possible.

In one of the nation’s most prestigious degrees, the Bachelor of Combined Law at UNSW, 91 per cent of offers were made to students who did not meet the ATAR cut-off of 99.7, including to two applicants who had scored only 67.


Martins goes on to recommend that the ATAR system needs to be changed as soon as possible, appealing to ethics in a similar way to Simons by emphasising the importance of opportunities of education for all.

But we would like to see more radical change across the system. Reducing six years of education to a single ranking is simplistic. We believe NSW should move away from the ATAR alone as quickly as possible. We need to look at measures of performance that take all relevant factors into account. They would include secondary school performance in specific subjects relevant to a particular degree.

While views journalism articles quickly rushed to the defence of universities, new journalism pieces took a more neutral approach, focusing on the ATAR as a system, and mentioning universities only because they are the means though which the system is facilitated. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the Fairfax Media investigation, there were very few news articles published which spoke positively of the university admissions process, or defended the universities actions, with articles either remaining neutral or implicitly evaluating what they did. However, media from other states, such as Victoria and Adelaide have published articles about the ATAR in 2016, therefore acting as a link to the events that have occurred in NSW. “Universities should publish both minimum and guaranteed entry ranks for admission, Adelaide Uni says” by Tim Williams, published in Adelaide Now, is completely neutral when it comes to talking about universities, focusing instead on the recommendations made to change  the ATAR system. Due to the features of news journalism, this article remains objective in its language, however appeals to authority through the use of quotes to support the publications belief that the recommendations should be implemented.

““It would help to break down the ‘mystique’ surrounding ATAR cut-offs, demonstrating to applicants that the ATAR is not the only pathway to further study,” Torrens University said.”

Overall, the topic has been covered in quite some detail, however the two sides of the argument have been covered by the media in opposing ways. Those who condemn the universities for admitting students who do not meet the ATAR criteria, did so predominately in the form of news journalism pieces, using a variety of sources to support their perspective. Views journalism pieces the questioned the integrity of universities did so on a wider scale, questioning the institution holistically, rather than just their admissions process. Articles defending the university were also predominately views journalism, written by academics in support of their institutions. Ultimately, readers are persuaded to align with a certain viewpoint depending on where their initial opinion lies as well as the type of argumentation that resonates with them. Appeals to facts, seen in news journalism pieces and appeals to authority, in Simons and Martin’s articles, persuade audiences in different ways. This, combined with their preconceived notions of the reputation of Australian universities, influence the way they read the articles analysed above, and which side of the argument they are persuaded by.

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