Saturday, January 06, 2007

HSC, UAI and Education - a further note

My last post continued my musings on the rigidities, difficulties and pressures created in NSW by the Higher School Certificate/Universities Admission Index combination, by the need for schools, parents and kids to try to manage the process to get the best numeric outcome.

I have done a little more thinking and investigation since then talking to people and also working my way yet again through the UAC web site.

As all parents know, the UAI index is a device for competitive matching of demand by students for courses to available places in courses within NSW and ACT universities. At the end of each entry round there are always some vacancies in some subjects in some institutions. In this sense, the UAI is most important as a rationing device for the more popular courses and institutions.

Given all this, the final UAI required for entry to a particular course in a particular institution becomes a price proxy for demand and supply for that course. The result is a quite dramatic 40 spread between the lowest entry UAI that I could find (60 in 2006) and the 99 plus required for some courses in some institutions.

The UAI is not a perfect market clearing mechanism simply because students are not themselves perfectly mobile, while universities will drop UAIs only so far to attract students. This means that at the end of the process there are always some vacancies in some institutions one one side, some unplaced eligible students on the other.

Prior to the UAI system, students had to apply individually to their institution(s) of choice. In this sense, there is no doubt that the UAI system has made things easier for students. However, it has also introduced the distortions and pressures I discussed in my previous posts.

One specific issue that I mentioned in my last post was our surprise at the continued importance of the UAI for people who had already completed part of their degree and wished to switch courses and especially institutions. The specific trigger case was Sydney University with its 50/50 weighting between UAI and first year results. We have since learned that the University of NSW has a 75/25 weighting.

This came as a surprise to us because in the old pre-UAI world weight was placed upon successful completion of first year because it proved that you could in fact do tertiary studies, something that could not be assumed just from success in final school exams.

We should not have been surprised. Students wishing to switch compete against year 12 students, so there is an argument for ensuring at least some equivalence. However, the difficulty for students and parents is that it introduces yet a further degree of complexity into an already complicated process.

The process appears to work this way.

Students wishing to switch institutions apply to UAC as post year 12 students. Each university sets their own rules, hence the variation in weighting between UNSW and Sydney. UAC then somehow takes the student's university results and turns them into a UAI equivalent index, allowing the old UAI and the university results to be combined into a new UAI equivalent so that the transferring student can be compared with the year 12 cohort.

All this sounds fair and equitable. However, there are some very real problems.

To begin with, no one seems able to tell us - perhaps a reader can - just how the university study component is turned into an index number for ranking purposes across grades, courses and institutions. So we have another black box uncertainty.

The second problem is the nature of the equivalence between the HSC/UAI ranking and the University results.

Leave aside issues about comparisons of UAIs between years, a student already at university may miss out if the university result pulls the UAI down. Take the case of a student who already has the required entry level UAI for the course but has been on a gap year. That student gets in. The same student who has been at university for a year, passed everything but gets an index number lower than the UAI may miss out.

Advice from the University of NSW is that students wishing to switch courses should obtain average distinction to ensure that they can switch. That's fine, but marks are affected by all sorts of things.

For example, it appears that in at least some universities in some courses the bell curve approach is applied. The effect of this, to one quote university lecturer involved, is to limit the number of higher results independent of the absolute quality of students and their results. Further, those wishing to switch often do so because they realise that they have made the wrong choice, something that may affect their results to some degree.

In all this, I can see only one class of student who might clearly benefit from the system. This is a student who know exactly what they want to do but who falls a little short in the UAI stakes. That student may accept another course then work like absolute blazes ignoring all else to get high enough marks at university to increase his/her average index.

Previous Posts in this Series


Anonymous said...

I have done the promised post on this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil, appreciated.

James K said...

Hi Jim

I realise your post was written almost two years ago, but you may be interested to know that there is at least some information in the public domain about the procedures followed for non-recent school leavers:

Let us hope that future students who undergo the same process continue to disseminate the knowledge they gain.