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Exam time: future holds more than tests can know

By Nina Funnell - posted Monday, 26 October 2009

For almost a decade I've been haunted by a recurring nightmare. In it I'm sitting in a huge examination hall, staring at the cover sheet of my Higher School Certificate Latin exam, pencil poised and ready to go. The examiner gives a signal and a flurry of writing erupts around me. I open my exam paper and stare down, only to realise I do not understand a single word on the page.

And I did not even study Latin for the HSC. These days the stress levels for HSC students are astronomical. Parental pressure to succeed is one thing, but for many students, it is the intense competition for a very limited number of university course places and the common myth that a person's future is determined by their University Admission Index, that causes stress.

In New South Wales, the UAI is calculated to the nearest 0.05. This means the difference between a mark of 99.05 and 99.1 may mean missing out on a course offer. This minutia in numeric gradation leaves students - particularly top students - sweating over every 0.05.
This year, the UAI gives way in name to the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, and the top rank becomes 99.95 rather than 100. By next year the new rank will apply everywhere but Queensland.


Across the Tweed, by contrast, students receive a rounded digit between 1 and 25. This means students are grouped into 25 categories, as opposed to NSW, where they are grouped into 1,999 categories.

Under the Queensland system, there is no difference between a student with an equivalent ranking of 96.00 and a student with a ranking of 99.95.

While Queensland's system does not provide university administrators with the level of detail the NSW system does, arguably, for students who expect to get rankings over 96.00 (but who stress over every 0.05), Queensland's more relaxed ranking system would take some of the pressure out of final exams.

Student ranking systems aside, family and community expectations contribute to the stress. And students aren't just expected to do well, but to know exactly what they want to do with their lives post-HSC.

I was reminded of this recently at a family function where I watched my HSC-bound cousin being interrogated over and over about what he planned to do with his life after it.

I have no doubt people mean no harm when asking HSC students what they plan to do next year. They ask because they are genuinely interested in young people's lives and ambitions.


But year 12 students get asked it ad nauseam, and those students who do not have their five-year plan firmly in place often end up feeling anxious and deficient.

It is perfectly reasonable for students to be uncertain about the future, and it is worth remembering most of today's students will end up in jobs that currently don't exist.

Right now, the current sum of human knowledge is doubling every three years and this will only continue to accelerate. An estimated 70 per cent of jobs that will exist in 2020 do not now. And, according to the education expert Ian Jukes, today's students will have an estimated 10 to 14 distinct careers in their lifetime - that's careers, not jobs.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 19, 2009.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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