“That is the definite aim that all education ministers are working towards … We want to see as best as possible if we can get a nationally consistent outcome on it,” he said.
Mr Tehan said consultation was required with universities to ensure their admissions requirements “fit with these new requirements” for school leavers.
Some universities have begun to make changes to admissions processes, including considering students based on year 11 results and special tests.
Securing pathways for school leavers is the next priority for the government after it unveiled a major childcare rescue package.
The Australasian Conference of Tertiary Admissions Centres, the national body representing state admissions authorities, said on Friday all centres were committed to protecting access to further studies even in “extraordinary” times.
“The ATAR is a rank, not a score – so any changes to assessment processes in individual states will not affect the validity of the ATAR as a tool for tertiary admissions,” the organisation said in a statement.
Acknowledging concerns the disruption to schooling will deny students critical knowledge needed to take on university, Mr Tehan said schools would be “working as hard as possible” to provide adequate teaching. He said universities might also have to adapt first year to equip students with any additional knowledge.
“My view is that the combination between what education students get in year 12 and then what they will be able to get in that first year of university will have students ready for second year with the knowledge that they need,” he said.
He acknowledged it was possible demand for university will spike next year, partly because people are seeking to study or retrain in a weak economy with high unemployment.
“At the moment, we think there’s additional capacity in the system for if there was extra enrolments but we are absolutely committed to working with them to see … how we would go about providing the support that would be needed,” he said.
To unlock funding increases, universities currently face performance measures that emphasise graduate employment outcomes. Mr Tehan said the government was talking to the sector about possible changes.
“Obviously, when you’re faced with a pandemic, the likes of which we’re faced with now, there is a need to reassess some of the regulatory requirements that you have in place,” he said.
Australian National University higher education researcher Andrew Norton said demand for university in 2021 could be much higher than previously anticipated because of deferrals from 2020 and poor employment prospects.
Professor Norton said universities would have spare capacity because of lower international student numbers, “but due to current public funding caps universities may have to reduce offer rates to avoid taking students they cannot afford to teach”.
The chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority, Peter Shergold, said the key message in his state was that the HSC would go ahead.
“We will change some of the arrangements, learning will be different, but we will inform school authorities and school principals of increased flexibility this year, to ensure all students in safety can make sure they can gain their HSC,” he said.
Victorian Education Minister James Merlino promised this week that all Victorian year 12 students would “complete their studies” and said the government was working on options, including adaptation to online learning, delayed assessments and exams and extra support.
“Our year 11 and 12 students will receive the care and support they need during this important time in their schooling,” he said.
With Jordan Baker and Adam Carey
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Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.