Why the ATAR is inadequate

Photo by franny-anne/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by franny-anne/iStock / Getty Images

As another year passes by, we again reflect on the inadequacy of the ATAR  (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) system.

ATARs are being criticised by students, parents, universities (UNSW’s chancellor has an incredible article on how they do not correlate with success), schools and counsellors. They are convenient for policy makers and lazy universities in the short term. However, in the long term, they unequivocally fail the goals of education itself and fail our young people. Firstly, they do not correlate with work-performance or work-success (as the biggest Data Cruncher, Google, has found from their own hiring practices) and, secondly, they do not help students see their potential, determine how they could contribute to society and see how they could live a happy life.  

ATARs reduce vibrant, intelligent, incredible young people to mere numbers. Universities and schools do not see applicants as unique individuals with unique life journeys , achievements and potential which will send ripples through society if activated. Rather, they are just a statistic. However, that’s not the worst aspect of ATARs. It is that they make students believe that this number summarised their human value. ATARs make students evaluate all of humanity on the same arbitrary scale and make them believe that this number summarises their self worth.

When Happy Brain Education celebrated the end of an incredible school year at the end of 2016, we saw powerfully how pointless, and almost traumatic, ATARs were. So, we ran a competition to create a new ATAR system that would both give young people direction for their future and which would be a worthy summary of 13 years of life. The entries were great. Serra Mohammed from Monash University was our competition winner.

One of the greatest takeaways for us as an organisation from this competition was the urgent need to change how much weight and emphasis is placed on the ATAR by students themselves. We need everyone to see that this is a simplistic, reductive and outdated method that is currently only convenient for university entry to a few courses. It is absolutely not a measure of one’s intelligence and what can be achieved in one’s life. This applies both for people at the very beginning, the centre, and the end of that ATAR bell-curve. Whilst this point is completely correct, it is insufficient.

Expecting young people ‘not to worry’ about ATARs is unrealistic. We are putting them through a toxic system of focusing at least 4 years of their schooling on that one number, and then telling them not to worry about it. They see all the adults in their life worrying and asking about that one number. How do you think they will be able to see past it and not think that it reflects their human value?

If we want to create a society of mentally healthy, happy, confident young people, we need to change both our thinking and the system. We cannot have a system that is convenient at the expense of our young people. One of the people who attended one of our ATAR focus groups was a nurse 6 years post-year-12 who was still harbouring feelings of fear, guilt and shame about her ATAR. Her academic confidence and general self-confidence still had not recovered from that ATAR 7 am text-message. Our education system and the laziness of our policy-makers are responsible for that unnecessary and damaging trauma.

At Happy Brain Education, we’ve created ‘SuperHero ATARs’ this year. They are definitely not meant to be a replacement for that actual ATARs, and, at best, will only serve as a feel-good adjunct. They serve to remind us that there is still much work to be done in creating a system that reflects our new world and reflects the diversity of talents of our students.

Zahraa Albadri and Saba Albandar have organised these SuperHero ATARs. They asked students who wanted to get involved to reflect on what their friends’ ‘superpowers’ are, and what unique skills and talents traits they bring to the world. These were compiled and were sent out at 7 am at the same time as the real ATARs.

Student reflections were very heart-warming- ‘Thank you very much! The SuperHero ATAR was a great addition to what a great day it’s been. It was [very] unexpected’ and ‘I think it’s a super cute idea. It definitely put a smile on my face’.

The SuperHero ATARs are not the answer to this problem. The answer is that we should create an alternative system for university admission which reflects diverse intelligences and which tests diverse learning styles and strengths. It’s completely unfair that we tell our young people that only one type of person will be successful in our world.

Richard Gerver, a former teacher and international speaker on education, wrote on this topic in his book ‘Creating Tomorrow’s Schools Today. He lamented the damage to young people’s self esteem which occurs through the education system and reflected on how this not only damages the individual but also deprives society of talent and solutions to social problems. He reflects: ‘the development of self esteem must be at the heart of all learning… it makes me wonder, how many great talents have had their flames extinguished by the system? How many gifted, creative people have left their education believing they offer nothing because academia was not their forte?’

The article is written by Naba Masad Alfayadh. 

Science vs Biomedicine at the University of Melbourne- Which should I choose? 

Hey guys,

We’ve compiled the perspectives of two students at the University of Melbourne, Jasmin who is completing a Bachelor of Biomedicine, and our very own Happy Brain: Yusuf, who is completing a Bachelor of Science. Hopefully, their perspectives of the two degrees will make the preferences process on VTAC easier for you.

Before we dive straight in, let us inform you on how the UniMelb system works. During undergraduate studies at UniMelb, each semester has 3 core subjects and 1 breadth (a subject which is from a different area of study than the degree which you are enrolled in). In first year Biomed, your core subjects are: 2 Biology units, 2 Maths/statistics for Biomed units, a Chemistry unit and Physics for Biomed. That’s all set in stone, and the only choice you make in first year is your breadths.

Whereas in Science this year, the only prerequisite subjects required for the pre-med pathway were a Biology and Chemistry* unit in each semester – leaving a vacant core slot in both semesters for any Science subject you desire. Whether it be Physics, Psychology, Calculus, another Biology or Geography subject, you decide! Additionally, this can allow for more “strategic” subject choices in an effort for boosting your all-important GPA. Basic subjects (e.g. Astronomy) are both engaging and eye-opening and they allow you to attain easy marks with minimal work, giving you more time to focus on more demanding subjects like Chemistry.

*It is possible to only take 1 Chemistry subject in first year Science by taking “Advanced Chemistry for Biosciences” in Semester 1, compared to the conventional Chemistry 1 & 2. Thus opening up another vacant core subject slot*

Jasmin Dabboucy – Bachelor of Biomedicine

ATAR: 98.90

Entering the third year of my Bachelor of Biomedicine at the University of Melbourne, I’ve had an overall positive experience with the course and no regrets about pursuing it. With a fairly high clearly-in ATAR and an allure for people aiming for Medicine, the course does involve a bit of competition. But it’s not as brutal as some make it out to be. Of course, you have some tunnel-minded people who seem to care only about themselves, but overall we support each other. Our cohort is relatively small compared to Science (~500 vs 2500) so most of us know each other and we see the same faces in our core subjects. On our Facebook page, people are always posting resources to help their colleagues, not undermine them. Competition exists in any course: the pressure is just turned up a notch in Biomed. You have to decide whether that’s something that you can handle.

The fact that Biomed has core subjects is another thing to consider. The course is tailored to get you into postgraduate health courses (cough medicine cough), making life a lot easier because you don’t have to stress about choosing the right prerequisites and meeting the quota. On the downside, the cores limit your choice of subjects. For me, this wasn’t really a problem, since I was always health-focussed and that’s an aspect of the course that really appealed to me (over BSc). If you relish the freedom of choice, Science is probably better for you.

If you’re wondering whether Science is just the easier version of Biomed, don’t. You basically end up doing the equivalent of Biomed subjects in BSc if you want the same postgrad degree, so it probably isn’t much easier (…except maybe third year). Either way, don’t let the fear of difficulty overwhelm you and hinder your potential to do well.

So, choosing between Biomed and Science and you have a high enough ATAR for both? Go for Biomed if you’re keen on a health postgrad, enjoy meeting a high standard of work, and like tight-knit groups with a more particular focus. Go for Science if you’d like a wider breadth of experience/choice in the field and a social community with more diverse future goals.

Feel free to contact me at jasmindabboucy@hotmail.com if you have any questions about Biomed!

Yusuf Hassan – Bachelor of Science

ATAR: 99.75

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked, “So Yusuf, why didn’t you do Biomed having been given an offer?” it would be unnecessary for me to pursue postgraduate studies, since I would be financially stable well into retirement. Jokes aside, I chose the UniMelb Bachelor of Science in favour of Biomedicine for its course flexibility and slightly reduced workload.

In Science, you only need to take three medical prerequisites in 2nd year to meet the MD application criteria. That’s it. The rest of 2nd and 3rd year are completely up to you and your interests. While in Biomed, you have only 1 vacant core slot, each semester, to make your own subject choices.  In 3rd Year, Science students have full licence to choose any subjects to complete their desired major, including many majors that are listed under Biomedicine. Personally, I’m looking to major in Human Structure and Function (Anatomy), which is technically a Biomedical major, yet I’m a Science student. Keep in mind that although the Science faculty shares all the majors offered by the Biomed department, a multitude of Science majors aren’t offered to Biomedicine students (such as Marine Biology and Chemistry) – which may be irrelevant if your heart is set on a medical career, but it’s nice to have such options nonetheless.

* Say for example you love chemistry and want to do medicine, the flexibility of B-Sci will allow you to complete a Chemistry major whilst also fulfilling the medicine pre-reqs *

Having completed my first year of Science, do I regret turning down the temptation of the “prestigious” and much sought-after Biomedicine offer? Certainly not! Talking with my Biomed friends, comparing course structures, I enjoy the freedom and “strategic” subject choices that Science provides. However, the B-Sci isn’t flawless. It does come with a few downsides. Firstly, you will encounter a terrifying B-word during your first year Biology studies. It will haunt you and drive you to mind-numbing boredom. BOTANY. Okay, it isn’t that bad, but it is rather frustrating at times. However, personally I’d choose 4 weeks of botany over a year of compulsory high level maths any day. Secondly, and probably the most impactful to your overall University experience is the nature of the cohort. With over 2000 students and a considerably lower clearly-in ATAR, it’s understandable that you won’t get to know everyone in the course nor will all your classmates be as studious as you are. Yet, I haven’t found this to be a problem at all. Once you find a few like-minded friends, you’ll be fine. And your classmates and practical partners are usually very friendly and cooperative. On the other hand, due to its higher clearly-in ATAR, Biomed students are naturally more motivated, which can be a positive environment if you’re the type of student who needs to be pushed. Yet, extreme competition can become unhealthy at times and only augment your stress levels.

*Competition does exist within the B-Sci: it starts to surface within the second year, especially in subjects which are prerequisites for medicine and allied health masters courses *

Lastly, some may say choosing Science over Biomed is “wasting” your ATAR, by choosing the supposed “inferior” degree. Yet, let me assure you that all your fantastic work over the past 2 years haven’t been in vain. Firstly, your excellent work ethic and study habits will hold you in good stead to tackle any University coursework you encounter – to hopefully achieve outstanding results. Furthermore, if your ultimate goal is Postgraduate Medicine/Dentistry or another Health Science, it’s important that you do what is in your best interests in achieving such an offer. While Biomedicine may outline a course plan tailored for future medical students, such a pathway can be replicated through Science – yet completely on your terms and without needless difficulty. Finally, a noteworthy fact for those who achieved ATARs >99.00, you are entitled to a guaranteed full fee paying spot in any postgraduate course (E.g. Medicine/Dentistry), without the need to sit the GAMSAT, as long as you maintain a 75% average over the course of your B-Sci or B-Biomed and perform a satisfactory interview. A possible backup plan if you’re unsuccessful in your application for a CSP place.

Ultimately, whichever course you choose, you’ll have to apply yourself to the best of your ability in order to create a competitive postgraduate application. However, I believe you reap more reward for such efforts through the B-Sci – by playing towards your strengths with subject selections. If you’re confident in your work ethic, definitely choose Science as a more pleasant road to the postgraduate health science in which you are in total control. Conversely, if you only work well under intense pressure and competition, B-Biomed may be the type of environment you require in order to motivate yourself in your pursuit of excellence. While it may seem to be the biggest decision of your life thus far, things aren’t as definitive as you think. I know of two contrasting anecdotes; one where someone transferred from B-Biomed to Science and one where the exact opposite took place. Speaking to both, they personally felt like they’d made a change for the better – be it for the reduced workload/stress or the increase in competition and motivation. Hence, transferring after 1st year is also a possibility. Either way, you’re still joining the UniMelb Squad – meaning I’ll get to see brilliant Happy Brainers around campus!!

Hope my rambling provided some insight to make your decision a little easier!

Feel free to ask any further questions via my email: yusuf@happybrain.org.au.

Keep Smiling, Keep Grinding, Stay Happy!!