Today’s news feed from the Royal Society (NZ) included the following:
Demand for tertiary study likely to fall, says [Tertiary Education Minister Steven] Joyce: The New Zealand Qualifications Authority is reviewing university entrance standards and the Education Ministry is also reviewing open entry criteria for those aged over 20 without entrance qualifications.
Now, I agree that university entrance (UE) standards are in need of review & we should be asking for a higher level of performance: at the least, more credits in a subject area than the current 14. And also – from the perspective of a science educator – a higher standard of general numeracy would be a Good Thing: a few credits from year 11 aren’t really suffiicent for someone wanting to go on in the sciences. Mind you, we could be better signalling that, by requiring all science students to have some Level 3 maths credits. (I wonder if the reason that institutions don’t do this is due partly to concern that this would see their numbers in some of the sciences drop as maths-phobic students look for other options… Anecdotally, biology ) Similarly, open entry for those over 20 who lack entry qualifications can be problematic, although I think you’ll find that in practice universities don’t operate a free-for-all in that area; we do expect such students to be able to demonstrate readiness for tertiary study & if their background is deficient in a particular subject then we’d be expecting them to take a preparatory paper or two.
Raising entry standards demonstrates a commitment to excellence. But will it put a lid on demand? Or will it simply signal to prospective students that they need to raise their game in order to follow their future study aspirations (which will be a good thing)? And does the Minister’s statement take into account the fact that there are 5.4% more students in year 13 this year than in 2009, at least some of whom will intend to move on to some sort of tertiary study? From the stuff.co.nz website:
Mr Joyce said tertiary education funding would allow for 765 more places at universities next year and 455 more core places at polytechnics, which would equate to there being 5600 more places at universities and 6600 at institutes of technology and polytechnics than in 2008.
Mr Robertson said in the case of polytechnics 455 new places equated to 23 places per provider, which was a “drop in the ocean” compared to what was likely to be needed.
OK, the Minister is assuming that, because we are coming out of a recession, school-leavers will be moving into jobs rather than heading for tertiary study. And certainly applications for study do seem to increase at times when jobs are drying up. But at the same time the Tertiary Education Strategy tells us (in the ‘Strategic Direction’ section) that [t]ertiary education plays a key role in improving the skills and knowledge of the workforce and in building on New Zealand’s knowledge base through research. Reducing or capping the number of places available in universities and polytechnics would surely limit their ability to deliver new, skilled workers able to contribute to that knowledge base. After all, [h]igher skills increase the productivity of individuals and the productivity of others they work with. Skills underpin firms’ ability to innovate and apply new ideas, and adapt to competitive challenges and new markets (TES).
(There is another side of the problem, for those of us in the sciences: a mismatch between students’ subject choices & the country’s need for people trained in science, technology & engineering. [Each semester the registrar & I see students wishing to study chemistry who have little or no chemistry in their school background, or engineering with no mathematics or physics, & so on.] It may be that the universities’ response to the cap on student numbers includes not only restrictions on who can enrol, but also some reconfiguring of their offerings that sends a signal to intending students. Perhaps a different, or stronger, focus from government & also from those in the secondary sector who advise students on future careers & subject choices would be helpful there as well. But then, it’s one thing to demonstrate a demand for graduates in a particular area, & another to get students to take up those opportunities. A senior colleague of mine used to comment on how the Australian mining industry was desperate for geologists, but that universities were shedding staff in that area – because students simply were not choosing to study geology. A difficult balancing act all round.)