The truth about ATAR cut-offs: why low doesn't equal inferior

ATAR movements explained
What do ATAR movements really mean?

We all know the ATAR system is a tricky beast. You can slave over your assignments, kill it in your exams, but no one can ever tell you whether it is really going to be enough to get you into that dream course. This is because ATARs are a rank, rather than a score; they’re about where you sit among your competition – the tens of thousands of them!

Nothing is certain until you have an offer in your hand, but of course that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a number to aim for. Now that the results are out, most of you will be obsessing over the previous year’s main round ATARs, but you need to be careful: some of you might be pulling yourself out of the race prematurely, thinking that certain careers are out of your reach or disregarding courses because their ATAR is below where you consider yourself to be. The fact is that there is a lot more to that 4-digit number than meets the eye.

Shouldn’t I aim for a course with a high ATAR?

Lots of you will look at a course with a high ATAR and assume that it’s either really popular or really tough, or both. The unfortunate flipside of that coin is that students often look at courses with low ATAR cut-offs and think they are somehow inferior. The truth is that it’s just not that simple.

The ATAR cut-off is calculated from the number of places available in that course, for that year, the level of the ATARs across the course’s pool of applicants, and how many of them are applying for those places. Take the Australian Catholic University as an example. Last month the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ACU had a 20-point drop in ATAR cut-off for one of their education courses. If you took their headline in isolation, you might have thought that teaching wasn’t a popular choice last year or that less people wanted to go to ACU, but a change in ATAR cut-offs alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

The reality is that places were increased by 28 per cent with teaching subjects soon to be taught at both the Strathfield and North Sydney campuses. This opened up the doors to more people and lowered the ATAR in the process. The courses didn’t get easier, nor did they become less popular. In fact when I spoke with Professor Pauline Nugent, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), she reported that since 2013 ACU has enjoyed a 7.4 per cent increase in first preference nominations across the board, and 7 per cent across all preferences.

Just as that example shows that you can’t assume an ATAR cut-off explains how ‘popular’ or ‘hard’ a course might be, it also points to the current situation: it has gotten easier to get into university. Since the cap on the number of university places was removed in January 2012, many universities have been working towards increasing the number of places they offer. ACU has even increased its student numbers by 45 per cent in just three years! 2014 saw that kind of huge growth become more modest across all universities, but there was still a 3.5 per cent increase in total offers from 2013 (translating to 8,423 more uni students starting next month).

More places = lower ATARs

It’s a story that’s repeated among many of this year’s significant ATAR drops. When I first compared 2013 and 2014, it looked as if Central Queensland University had dropped dramatically in status. Looking a little deeper, it’s a similar story to ACU, where they are focused on giving more offers to more students. In fact, they want their ATARs to remain low, as Scott Bowman, Vice Chancellor of Central Queensland University said in The Australian:

‘My university's biggest challenge is keeping ATAR entry points down. When you are renowned as a university of opportunity in regional communities with a predominantly low socioeconomic status student load, you have a social expectation to ensure that a genuine student, regardless of background, has every chance at a degree. This is why we throw everything at student support and judge the graduate outcome, rather than playing theexclusivity card upon enrolment. We would be run out of town if we did it any other way.’

It’s about how you graduate, not how you got in

You might be thinking: ‘welcoming more people in the door is one thing, but how successful are they likely to be when walking out the door at the end of their degrees?’ Bowman explains: ‘We are also proof that lower ATAR entry levels do not erode university quality. We try our best not to exclude lower ATAR students, yet our graduates enjoy 10 per cent better employment outcomes than the national average. Despite where our students fall on the ATAR spectrum, overall they are more employable and better paid than the average graduate.’

ACU’s Nugent agrees:

‘Our quality of students is very high – even with courses that have an ATAR cut-off of 58.5 – the majority of people are sitting in the 60s 70s and 80s. Success is about how you support students when they come into the university and the quality of the student when they exit. No employer ever says to me “your student is great because they had an ATAR of XX”; they say that they were a great graduate.’

High ATARs don’t necessarily mean better/harder courses

In a system like this it’s inevitable that as some things move down, others move up, but remember this: ATAR cut-offs only reflect the rank of the last person to be accepted into a course, not the average. Where Nugent says ACU’s falling ATARs reflect additional places, she also points to the fact that some universities have increased the amount of early offers they make to selected students prior to the main round, reducing the number of places available for first round offers and therefore increasing the ATAR cut-off.

Early offers do appear to be increasing. There were almost 5,000 less offers made in the main round this year when compared to 2013, but early round offers increased by 7,698. With this as a potential factor, high ATARs could also be considered a mark of exclusivity from a lack of main-round places, rather than sheer popularity or difficulty. Some universities do keep ATARs intentionally high, such as UNSW who has established a blanket minimum of 80 across all of their courses this year.

It’s about the course, not the number

Back in year 12 I chose a course that was more than 10 points lower than my rank as my first preference. Sure, my parents questioned me about it, and a few friends thought I was crazy not to use the marks I’d worked for, but I was choosing something I actually wanted to learn about, something I found challenging, and that I was confident would lead me towards the kind of career I wanted. If I have any advice to give, it’s to look beyond the numbers. Research the courses, right down to their subjects and who teaches them, look at the university culture and where its focus lies, visit some places and above all, make sure you’re excited about it! If you can’t imagine yourself wanting to get out of bed to learn every day then you should probably rethink your options. No one’s calling your mother if you don’t turn up.

In wrapping up, let me be clear: the higher your ATAR the more choice you have, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it like frequent flyer points and take the most expensive trip thinking it will be the best. Don’t limit your expectations either way because with increased places, bonus points and plenty of alternative entry schemes, you can always find a way to get to where you want to be. And that might just be somewhere you didn’t expect.

Ready to get moving towards your dream career? We have over 700 courses to choose from – with and without ATAR requirements.


Ok. Now you know the score, I’ll give you some stats

Now that you have digested our big grain of salt, here’s a taste of what happened this round. And if you see something and you think you have a chance of getting into, it’s not too late but late fees will apply. Potential students can still apply through UAC but places will be limited. If you want to give it a go, your application for semester 1 study will need to be in before midnight on Friday 21 February.

Average ATAR:

  • The median ATAR for 2013 was 69.20, slightly lower than in 2012.
  • 63.3 per cent got at least 60.00.

Notable institutional changes:

  • Central Queensland University: 8 courses in IT, business and accounting dropped by over 35 per cent. 
  • Australian Catholic University had 11 courses with drops of between 15.63 and 30.37 per cent. These were mainly in education, arts and exercise and sports science.
  • Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus) had drops with an average of 11.43 per cent with courses spanning architecture, arts, business, communications, environment, digital media and government. Their biggest drop was in law, which went from an ATAR of 81.65 to 68.2.
  • A total of 42 courses at Canberra University have increased by 2 points from 66 to 68. These span the full range of study areas including arts, education, design, IT, medical science, commerce and international studies.
  • All courses at the University of New South Wales were adjusted to have minimum ATARs of 80. This caused ATAR increases for arts and fine arts courses.
  • A total of eight of University of Wollongong's various engineering courses experienced an increase in ATARs across the board of 2 points, taking them from 78 to 80.

Some notable course drops

Code

Course name

2014

2013

Change

Institution

214200 B Clinical Practice(Paramedic) 70 84.95 -17.60% Charles Sturt University
214100 B Med Radiation Sc 70 97.10 -27.91% Charles Sturt University
103311 B Arts/B Global Studies 61 87.60 -30.37% Australian Catholic University
103703 B Com/B Global Studies 60.25 76.45 -21.19% Australian Catholic University
103707 B Bus Admin/B Global Studies 60 79.30 -24.34% Australian Catholic University
101101 B Education (Primary) 65.15 86.00 -24.24% Australian Catholic University
724100 B Info & Comm Tech/BA 60 74.25 -19.19% University of Western Sydney
480550 B Engineering (Software) 72 85.00 -15.29% University of Newcastle
187020 B Science 55.6 65.55 -15.18% La Trobe University
480570 B Env Sc & Mgt (Callaghan) 60.2 68.85 -12.56% University of Newcastle
600033 BA Comm (Creative Writing) 75 85.00 -11.76% University of Technology, Sydney
283422 B Env Dsgn (Arch) 72.25 81.95 -11.84% Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus)
609310 BA Comm(MediaArtProd)&Int Stds 84.75 95.20 -10.98% University of Technology, Sydney
187025 B Agricultural Science 56.05 62.85 -10.82% La Trobe University
335167 B Midwifery 85 94.00 -9.57% Southern Cross University
480768 B Psychology (Callaghan) 70.05 76.55 -8.49% University of Newcastle
600018 B Arts Comm(Media Arts & Prod) 84.05 90.85 -7.48% University of Technology, Sydney
283327 B Pharmacy 83.8 90.20 -7.10% Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus)
395668 B Agr and Resource Economics 72.55 77.10 -5.90% University of New England
511207 B Arts(Media & Communications) 95.5 98.50 -3.05% University of Sydney
183045 B Health Sc/M Physio Prac 94.65 97.55 -2.97% La Trobe University


Some notable course increases

Code

Course name

2014

2013

Change

Institution

215034 B Animal Science 84.4 70.00 20.57% Charles Sturt University
105513 B Occupational Therapy 72.45 60.45 19.85% Australian Catholic University
189940 B Business (Accounting) 65.85 55.00 19.73% La Trobe University
193050 B Health Sc/M Podiatric Prac 94.4 80.00 18.00% La Trobe University
193032 B Human Services/M Social Work 58.75 51.40 14.30% La Trobe University
421000 B Fine Arts (Honours) 80 70.00 14.29% University of New South Wales
105514 B Speech Pathology 67.25 60.40 11.34% Australian Catholic University
728501 B Social Science 76 70.60 7.65% University of Western Sydney
723500 B Hlth Science (Hlth Prom) 70 65.25 7.28% University of Western Sydney
720019 B Natural Sc (Animal Sc) 70 65.35 7.12% University of Western Sydney
183035 B Health Sc/M OccuTherapy Prac 78.05 73.00 6.92% La Trobe University
725015 B Bus & Com/B Laws 96.1 90.00 6.78% University of Western Sydney
727010 B Policing 78 73.05 6.78% University of Western Sydney
421001 B Fine Arts/B Arts 80 75.00 6.67% University of New South Wales
553010 B Business (DFEE) 64 60.00 6.67% William Blue College of Hospitality Management
187055 B Psychological Science 64.1 60.10 6.66% La Trobe University
727000 B Policing 78 73.20 6.56% University of Western Sydney
721010 B Bus and Commerce (Acc) 69.95 65.80 6.31% University of Western Sydney
720009 B Natural Science (Env Mgt) 70 65.95 6.14% University of Western Sydney
211877 B Soc Science(Psych)/B Bus 70 66.00 6.06% Charles Sturt University
103303 B Arts/B Commerce 63.25 59.65 6.04% Australian Catholic University
480015 B Aboriginal Prof Practice 65.45 61.80 5.91% University of Newcastle
553040 B Bus (Tourism Mgt) (DFEE) 64 60.45 5.87% William Blue College of Hospitality Management
609080 B Sp Ex Sc BA Int Studies 97.4 92.05 5.81% University of Technology, Sydney

 

Areas of study with significant drops (number of courses with drops of over 7 per cent)

Area of study

Number of courses

business/finance 18
arts 16
education 12
information technology 12
health 9
international studies 9
science 8
communications 6
design 6
environmental 4
psychology 3
engineering 3
creative writing 2

 

Courses with the lowest ATAR cut-offs in 2014

Code

Course name

2014

2013

Change

Institution

214011 Dip General Stds 30 N/A N/A Charles Sturt University
214014 Dip General Stds 30 N/A N/A Charles Sturt University
214017 Dip General Stds 30 N/A N/A Charles Sturt University
120075 Assoc Deg Aquaculture 36 36.00 0.00% Australian Maritime College
160030 B Business 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160031 B Business - DE 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160071 B Multimedia Studies - DE 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160020 B Accounting 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160021 B Accounting - DE 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160041 B Financial Planning - DE 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160060 B Information Technology 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160061 B Information Technology - DE 39.75 61.35 -35.21% Central Queensland University
160062 Dip Information Technology 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160063 Dip Information Technology-DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160101 B Property - DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160131 B Arts - DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160140 Dip Bus Admin 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160141 Dip Bus Admin - DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160151 Dip Business - DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University
160161 AD Info Tech - DE 39.75 N/A N/A Central Queensland University

 

Courses with the highest ATAR cut-offs in 2014

Code

Course name

2014

2013

Change

Institution

723530 B Hlth Science/M Physiotherapy 99.95 98.50 1.47% University of Western Sydney
511733 B Eng (Mechatronic) (Space) 99.8 99.80 0.00% University of Sydney
193045 B Health Sc/M Physio Prac 99.7 94.60 5.39% La Trobe University
426000 B Combined Law 99.7 99.65 0.05% University of New South Wales
511801 B Combined Law 99.7 99.70 0.00% University of Sydney
283303 B Medical Science 99.6 99.70 -0.10% Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus)
511718 B Engineering (Aero) (Space) 99.4 99.40 0.00% University of Sydney
283310 B Oral Health in Dental Sc 99.1 99.55 -0.45% Griffith University (Gold Coast Campus)
135700 B Adv Comp (R&D)(Hons) 99 98.00 1.02% Australian National University
130014 B Philosophy (Honours) Arts 99 99.00 0.00% Australian National University
130013 B Ph(Hons)(ANU)/BA Hons(NUS) 99 99.00 0.00% Australian National University
135000 B Eng (Research&Dvlt)(Hons) 99 99.00 0.00% Australian National University
512605 B App Sc (Physiotherapy) 98.85 98.35 0.51% University of Sydney
604001 B Laws 98.55 98.95 -0.40% University of Technology, Sydney
511208 B Arts (Languages) 98.5 98.50 0.00% University of Sydney
512658 B App Sc (Exer& Spt)/M Nutri 98.45 98.45 0.00% University of Sydney
512042 B Science (Advanced Maths) 98.35 98.35 0.00% University of Sydney
511732 B Eng (Mechanical) (Space) 98.05 98.00 0.05% University of Sydney
429850 B Psychology 98 N/A N/A University of New South Wales
511510 B Commerce (Liberal Studies) 98 98.00 0.00% University of Sydney



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