School principals are being asked to appraise disadvantaged students to select those most deserving of an early university place, as part of a new University of Sydney scheme to increase enrolments of students from poorer backgrounds.
Under the $1.5 million scheme, which will offer 180 placements, principals of low socio-economic schools will identify which students have the most potential to succeed in certain university courses.
These students will then be eligible for an early offer, provided they meet the reduced cut-off for their preferred degree.
Other programs designed to increase tertiary enrolments of disadvantaged students aim to increase participation in learning from a young age, and give students bonus scores based on region, subjects taken, or school ranking.
But the subjective way of selecting students has left some critical of the scheme.
The president of the NSW Board of Studies, Tom Alegounarious, praised the program's ideals but said leaving the academic future of disadvantaged children up to the principals could be problematic.
"There needs to be commonality and transparency, otherwise it works against equity," he said.
Mr Alegounarious said the reasons students would be accepted for special early offers needed to be clear and uniform.
"If students know what the outcomes are then they can achieve their goals," he said
Bruce Nevill, the principal of Penrith Christian College, also questioned giving opportunity to some and not others.
"How do you pick? There are some that slip under the radar, that have the same pressures but aren't known so well," he said. "It's subjective, and could be unfair."
The first round of HSC tests to determine students' university entry marks begin tomorrow, with many schools holding their trial exams last week.
Under the program, students would also receive a $5000 scholarship, an Apple iPad, and other support resources, the university's director of social inclusion, Annette Cairnduff, said.
Ms Cairnduff said the program was launched to help disadvantaged students who may not have the same opportunities to succeed as others.
"The program aims to address that difference in opportunity by showing their desire to succeed and showing a more rounded picture of the student, rather than just their final score."
But Jihad Dib, the principal of Punchbowl Boys High School, said it was the job of a principal to identify which kids most need help and how best to help them.
"It's not in the nature of educators to play favourites," he said. "You have made a decision to make a genuine difference in the lives of kids. The right people make the right decisions."
The subjectivity of choice is helpful, said Ekbal Sayed-Rich, the head teacher for student support at Fairfield High School, because the scheme currently covers specific courses.
For Ms Sayed-Rich, the program helps teachers match a student's needs with specific opportunities.
"Principals and support teachers, like myself, are highly aware of what future plans all of our students have," she said.
"Our decisions will be based on complete data and the different needs that our students have."