ESSA

ESSA

Wasting your ATAR


Nick Henderson

By

October 5th, 2019


Nick Henderson looks back on past mistakes, and considers how we might better prepare school-leavers for their academic and professional futures


I chose a degree based on the marks I got in high school. This wasn’t a great move. I spent two years struggling through a law degree I hadn’t seriously considered taking on until my high school results came out. I’d be wasting my ATAR if I did otherwise, I thought – there was a reason law had such a high entry score. Getting into a prestigious degree would set me up for life – my whole future would be mapped out for me.

But then I realised things didn’t work that way. More importantly, I realised I didn’t like law that much. I soon learnt a law degree was no guarantee of a bright future, rather it was a prelude to a cutthroat clerkship application process that, with my grades and level of passion for law, I stood little chance of succeeding in. I dropped out after two years.

I was wrong – but I wasn’t alone. In fact, I may well have been in the majority; 70 percent of Australian students select a course that’s within two or three points of their ATAR.[1] That’s a lot of people not wanting to ‘waste’ their admissions rank.

A large part of this can of course be chalked up to cross-university choice – students who will study Arts will select their university based on their results. That’s totally fine. However, one can only wonder how much of this number comprises students who instead made a cross-subject jump once results came out. How many of our best students were destined to become teachers, graphic designers or plumbers, but took their ATAR as a sign to jump into the crowded pool of future lawyers and doctors? With thirty percent of Victorian students with an ATAR of 98% or higher applying to Monash Medicine, you have to wonder.

To put it bluntly, this is not rational behaviour. It wasn’t when I did it, and it won’t be when others inevitably do the same later this year. Yet with better information, less students would make the same misinformed choices. What I needed more than anything was for someone to tell me there are currently around 30,000 law students at 36 different law schools in Australia, a country that has only 60,000 practising lawyers, under a quarter of which work in mid-sized firms or above.[2]

This should not be seen as an attempt to dissuade law fanatics from pursuing their dream job. If you love it, go for it. But if you’re not interested in practising as a lawyer, I’d think long and hard about why you want a law degree. To quote law graduate Malcolm Turnbull, students who do not have such specific goals in mind are better off focusing on “languages, history, literature, philosophy. Frankly you would be better off doing economics.”[3] On this, I agree.

The flipside of our gross oversupply of lawyers is the lack of skilled individuals pursuing less ‘prestigious’ degrees. Our attribution of prestige to high-ATAR courses has led to a massive undersupply of teachers, midwives and plasterers alike.[4]  There is currently a near-guarantee that a half-capable student will secure a teaching gig upon graduation from a course in education. Yet despite this, prospective education students are not jumping at the opportunity.

Is there anything we do about this? The Centre for Independent Studies suggests the solution may be as simple as providing monetary incentives to alleviate shortages in, for example, STEM teaching fields.[5] Market-driven pay rates could be used to coax more teachers into fields where there is a relative undersupply. Education unions generally oppose differential pay rates, and the levelling of monetary incentives has surely contributed somewhat to this distortion.

Yet while increasing monetary incentives is a good start, it is not a sufficient solution in isolation, as individuals do not choose careers on a whim. Career choices are made upon finishing high school, not after a day at the office, a glass of wine, and a comparison of salaries at glassdoor.com. History teachers can’t decide to switch to physics overnight, and unemployed law graduates do not generally enrol at the local TAFE.

The problem is not purely one of salary or job safety. It is one of recognition and prestige. We must provide school-leavers and university students with tangible information about the broad range of prospects, lifestyles and vocations available to them. Education and the trades need to better sell themselves as rewarding, successful careers for young adults, as has been done in nations such as Singapore.[6] And the collective mentality that smart, successful kids should attend uni at all costs must change.

ATARs are useful, and rankings are a vital mechanism for universities to select their future students. But they should not be the mechanism by which high-school graduates decide their futures. Leaving students to choose their life’s trajectory based on a number is setting a large portion of them up for future disappointment, and a little more care and information pertaining to this decision would go a long way.

I canned the law component of my law/commerce degree so that I could focus on economics, a field I discovered by accident in my first year of uni. I’ve now almost completed my Honours year in the field, have had some success in the job hunt, and haven’t missed law for a moment. So if you’re having second thoughts about the tertiary path you’ve chosen and the future this choice will bring, don’t be afraid to re-adjust your mindset. Worked for me.


[1] Cook, H. (2019). ‘I’d prefer to do something I love’: Top students shun law, medicine. The Age. Retrieved from https://www.theage.com.au/

[2] Beyond Law. What are the prospects for law grads in Australia? Retrieved from https://beyondlaw.com.au/

[3] Yaxley, L. (2018). Don’t study law unless you really want to be a lawyer, Malcom Turnbull says. ABC News. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/

[4] Workpermit.com. Australia Skills Shortage List. Retrieved from https://workpermit.com/

[5] Joseph, B. (2018). Simple solution to STEM teacher shortage. The Centre for Independent Studies. Retrieved from https://www.cis.org.au/

[6] Stewart, V. How Singapore Developed a High-Quality Teacher Workforce. Asia Society. Retrieved from https://asiasociety.org/

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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