Bonus question puzzles students

University entry for school-leavers is increasingly entangled in the complexities of bonus-point schemes.

Published course entry scores are no longer the simple, unambiguous signposts they once were, with universities reinterpreting HSC results in a great variety of ways, notably by throwing bonus points into the mix.

It is now all but impossible for prospective students to clearly identify the performance levels they should aim for to gain entry to particular university courses.

Indeed, it is hard to envisage a careers adviser having the time to deal with the sheer mass of detail associated with bonus point offerings across all institutions.

University entry points are generally expressed in terms of the ATAR - a national ranking derived from HSC results by university admission centres in each state. There have always been courses that assess students on a broader range of criteria - particularly courses in the creative arts or scholarship-based programs - but these were a manageable and understandable group of exceptions. Now nearly everything is an exception.

Various bonus points are added to student ATARs, enabling them to enter courses even though their ATAR is below the published entry level - which would be fine if not for the variety and complexity of bonus-point schemes.

There are HSC subject bonus points, regional bonus points (or bonus points for disadvantaged schools), bonus points for elite athletes and performers and various ad hoc arrangements that no one is too sure about, which create a lot of conjecture in the corridors. Why every Tasmanian student deserves a five-point bonus at Macquarie or Charles Sturt is an interesting question. It's not a very flattering view of Hobart and Launceston - or of the elite private schools they have.

One consequence is that universities can raise entry scores higher than they would otherwise be, by allowing students to enter under the published entry point - and the higher the entry score, the greater the prestige.

It's easy enough for students to find out about regional bonus points or bonus points for disadvantaged schools.

However, the complexity of HSC subject bonus point schemes is another matter.

The grounds for the award of HSC subject bonus points are usually specific levels of achievement in HSC subjects that relate to specific university undergraduate degrees. This would be fine if only the rules were sensible and consistent within and between institutions.

But the inconsistencies occur across universities on a scale that defies any rules of thumb or reasonable assumptions that might enable students to make sense of it all. For instance:

For a bachelor of commerce the University of Sydney offers no bonus points for performance in particular HSC subjects.

The University of Wollongong offers up to three points for specified levels of performance in virtually any HSC subject.

UNSW offers up to five bonus points for results in English advanced, English extension, mathematics and mathematics extension (but not economics) for the bachelor of commerce, for specified results.

UWS offers up to 10 bonus points for English standard, English advanced, accounting, business studies, economics and legal studies - but nothing for mathematics.

ANU offers up to five bonus points for good results in maths and english (not ESL), although ''good results'' are not defined.

It's not so difficult for students interested in studying at only one particular university. But imagine how difficult it is for students exploring options across a number of degrees and institutions.

''HSC marks are moderated, scaled and aggregated to achieve what is, quite remarkably in the opinion of most teachers, a good reflection of ability,'' the careers adviser at The King's School, Michael Gordon, says. ''There can simply be no logical justification for some of these bonus-point schemes. And it stresses students and parents out trying to make sense of it all. It is even impacting right down to year-10 subject choice decisions.''

The associate dean (undergraduate) of the business school at the University of Sydney, Philip Seltsikas, also has misgivings. ''Our entry scores reflect the true quality of our student intake,'' he says. ''It would seem a great disservice to prospective students to inflate our entry scores in an unrealistic manner by awarding bonus points for results in particular HSC subjects or based on a variety of non-academic factors.

''Given that there is such a diverse range of specialist areas and opportunities within business, coupled with the fact that the field attracts the highest-achieving students, it wouldn't make much sense either.''

Bonus points are now part of the landscape. Rightly or wrongly, universities that don't offer them may have some explaining to do.

Philip Coyte is editor of the iPhone app directory undergraduate 20.13.

The story Bonus question puzzles students first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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