Talking Teaching

June 24, 2010

students’ future intentions

Filed under: education, science teaching, university — Tags: , — alison @ 5:56 pm

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 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.)


  1. Part of the problem that you discuss about the mismatch between what the job demand is and the university supply is that school administrators almost always base their decisions on the number of students enrolled without a clear plan for where the university should be headed and supplying to the workforce. People talk so much about how universities should be run like a business, yet they seem to pick the worst aspects of business to emulate. Businesses generally do not wait for the market to decide what is popular. That is called responding to the back of the curve, when they should be anticipating the front of the curve and planning for that. Successful businesses foresee a need or, if they don’t see one, they create a need, or at least a perceived need. Then they gear their business towards that.

    Applying this to universities, the standard way is to increase a department when there are a lot of students applying for it. However, lots of students will not apply to a department that lacks resources and does not give the impression that a degree from that department will lead to good jobs. What the university should be doing is analyzing what the job market is going to be like in the next five to ten years, support the departments that are answering that need, and then advertise the heck out of it. When students here about the prospects of good jobs and that the school is supporting the departments that are preparing people for them, the students will come.

    This is very much, “if you build it they will come.” Administrators tend to act as, “no one is coming, so we won’t build it.”

    Another thing schools don’t tend to do very much is use their resources in an efficient fashion. Every university has a large pool of bright, creative people that are paying to work. They are called students. Marketing students would break their backs in a competition in which the winner gets their proposals adopted by the university. It is a financial win for both the university and the student. Get the art students to participate in developing artwork for the school. Use independent studies and contests to tap the huge potential of the students at virtually no cost to the university. I have occasionally seen this work successfully. A museum in Denver was built according to the specs of the winner in a architectural student contest. The winning student’s design was vetted by a professional architect who donated his time (since the design was complete, his work was only supervisory and not a big drain on his time, which was tax-deductible as a charitable contribution anyway) and is in the process of being built. The student gets to graduate with an accepted design on his resume and the school got the architectural work done for free. Much more of this sort of thing could be done. Another place in Ohio is letting construction students build houses under the supervision of professionals. The houses are built for a fraction of what a traditionally built house costs, is usually built to better standards than standard builders, and the school makes a tidy profit when they sell the house and the home buyer gets a house for less than a normal builder would charge.

    So my question is why aren’t more places doing things like this?

    Comment by jdmimic — June 25, 2010 @ 1:38 am

    • This is very much, “if you build it they will come.” Administrators tend to act as, “no one is coming, so we won’t build it.” Oh, I dunno, we’re building a whole new ‘student hub’ on the basis that this will make them come… In a capped environment this may not have the desired effect. (Yes, I know that’s not what you meant!)

      But seriously, I agree that unis aren’t always too hot at forward planning. Although having said that, it’s hard to analyse the job market in the sciences because the national picture can be difficult to pick, & changes outside the universities can send the wrong message (from our perspective) to prospective students. For example, the Crown Research Institute focussed on agriculture has recently made a whole bunch of scientists redundant, which sends all sorts of signals to do with job security, career planning, etc that are potentially damaging when you’re trying to get the message out that science is the way to go.

      I can’t even begin to answer your final question…

      Comment by alison — June 25, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  2. You’re right, it is hard and even the best trackers aren’t perfect. But it makes sense to do the best one can. Otherwise you wind up with people like a certain nameless city administrator responsible for traffic planning I unfortunately know stated, “We don’t act, we react.” As a result, the traffic planning in the city was constantly planning for traffic patterns that had already changed. It doesn’t take a genius to know how that worked out.

    I don’t want to lump all administrators together, because there are some really good ones, but I have met very few that were willing to try dealing with future needs as they were too busy not being able to handle current needs. Chiefly, this inability stemmed from a lack of planning for those needs. I have lost track of the number of times I have seen a school build a new building using donated funds and completely forget to include continuing operating costs for the building into the budget, so then they are left scrambling trying to pay the utilities for it.

    The biggest problem with the projections though, is that universities deal with decadal changes. They can’t really adapt their departments to meet any current perceived need without running the very real and likely risk that any buildup in a department to meet a need will wind up being bloated and unnecessary once that need is met. This has happened in the biomedical field. There are so many molecular biologists out nowadays you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one. I expect to see signs along the highway saying, Will PCR for food.” But I go into the departments and find no listings for systematists, taxonomists, and anatomists, despite the fact that there is a crushing need for them in the cataloging of biodiversity.

    But even if we are just looking at the current situation, the universities could improve. To take the geology example above, if the mining industry is begging for geology majors, the school should not be reducing their department. They should be increasing their department’s visibility to attract more students. This is a great example of the school not paying attention.

    Sadly, I can at least partially answer my own question above. Petty turf wars. To wit: at a school I attended, we were taught incessantly that collaboration was the way to go to get things done, but every time we suggested they collaborate with someone, they were against it. One department sent printing material to an outside vendor despite having the printers they needed right down the hall, but they wouldn’t use them because “they aren’t in our department.” The university museum ran children’s classes at the same time as the education department ran children’s classes in a very similar vein, but they could not collaborate on projects because “we can’t work with those people.” On and on and on. Every scientist knows that more papers come from collaborations than a single person going it alone, but try to get different departments and different institutions to work together on something and it seems one asked about shooting one’s mother.

    These problems are all about insular thinking, which will be the death of us. It is high time we broadened our horizons. These problems cannot be solved within our own spheres. They will require a much grander view.

    Comment by jdmimic — June 26, 2010 @ 9:57 am

  3. Partly turf wars, partly lack of vision, partly instances of horses pulling in opposite directions. I think we’re actaully fairly good at collaborating between departments/Schools at my institution (witness the number of interdisciplinary programs that we run). I wonder if part of the problem is that in many ways universities are inward-looking? By which I mean, not all that good at picking current social trends…

    I agree, the mismatch between need & openings in taxonomy is a pressing problem. Is it because the folks who hold the purse-strings, & the general public, just aren’t that ‘into’ this particular topic (maybe seeing it as a bit like stamp-collecting). Which would argue for a need for some serious PR work.

    Sorry, I’m just thinking about this as I go!

    The other elephant in the room does remain student perceptions/demand. It’s something we’re wrestling with at the moment. Almost all the top high school biology students I meet express an intention to get into med school. And it isn’t necessarily ideas about prestige or income that drive them all – many express a desire to ‘do something that will help people’. So the trick for us is to turn around the perception that medicine is the only possible career if you want to do something in the biological (& other!) sciences that will have a positive effect on people’s lives.

    Comment by alison — July 1, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  4. I’m glad your school has a more cooperative atmosphere. It’s nice to see some schools doing that in a real way. I wish the schools I have been at were more like that, rather than the lip service they generally pay to it.

    I think you are right about the stamp-collecting perception of taxonomy. Few people seem to realize and truly appreciate just how much work depends on the information collected by taxonomists. I feel a bit of a hypocrite saying this though, as I have never done any taxonomic work myself. But even within the biology field, it is often viewed as a rather low level type of research. I have seen more than one search committee that its members have made comments about applicants such as, “most of their papers are just species descriptions, they haven’t done much real research.” I can only hope my perceptions are skewed from my experiences and not reflective of the general attitudes o people in the field as a whole.

    I agree that we need better PR for biology that is not just medical-based. I think you are right we need to do a better job of showing how a wide variety of biology jobs make a positive impact on people’s lives. We need biology profession poster children:) Maybe people like my brother-in-law, who is using his biology degree in the Gulf as a member of the oil cleanup and monitoring team. There was a cave IMAX special a few years ago in which the producers found young, good-looking women with PhDs in biology and were caving enthusiasts. While the attitude was a bit sexist in my opinion, it was effective from a marketing standpoint.

    Comment by jdmimic — July 2, 2010 @ 3:59 am

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