Sunday, June 27, 2010

Allan Peachey: What About The Universities?

One of the things that I have been doing in recent weeks has been chairing Education and Science Select Committee hearings into the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. This is a private member’s bill that would introduce voluntary student union membership into New Zealand. Under present legislation membership of student unions is compulsory although provision exists for students at a tertiary institution to vote to have membership of their student union to be voluntary. That, for example, is what has happened at Auckland University. I don’t want to say any more about that until the Select Committee hearings are completed and a recommendation returned to Parliament.

Oh, except one thing. Listening to some of the submissions gives the impression that New Zealand students come out of school and into tertiary education as a bunch of intellectual and emotional cripples, who need massive support put behind them. And these are some of our brightest young people? I am bound to say that I find myself asking a simple question; how do we drive out the “woe is me” welfare dependency that left wing interests foster on tertiary campuses. I would have thought that these would be the last place for a “woe is me” defeatist mentality.

I have had some good meetings with student leaders around the country, many of them smart, bright non-political people. One, the President of the Otago University Students’ Association, is studying for a conjoint degree in law and commerce. She was quoted in the local student magazine as saying:

“I personally think University Entrance is a joke – 42 credits? Really? That’s below a level 3 pass. In my opinion, if UE was a decent challenge it would ensure that everyone at University was prepared enough to succeed, would act to incentivise students to work hard at high school and really want to be at University, and would naturally limit enrolments.”

What commonsense. Congratulations to that student leader.

Is our university system serving us well? I think that the ability of universities to do this has been compromised for too many years now by a couple of things. One is the amount of attention that has been paid to things like increasing the number of students at an institution rather than raising the standards for entry. I have met academics who have argued that rising enrolments and lower entry standards have led to a fall in standards. I have no reason to doubt this view. Another has been the social engineering imperatives that drive enrolments into certain degrees and into most institutions. I just don’t see how universities can reconcile current enrolment practices with traditional academic standards. If there is one thing the New Zealand economy needs at present it is much more competitive entry (based solely on proven academic ability) into university and a re-assertion of academic standards.

Universities thrive on highly talented students. Highly talented students thrive on highly qualified academic staff offering high quality teaching and equally high quality research. They thrive also in an atmosphere of academic freedom balanced with respect for truth and accuracy as derived from disinterested academic research.

So what this resolves itself into is a discussion about who should go to university. Should entry be open, or should it be competitive based on nothing more or less than proven academic performance? Do we want universities where the sole imperative is traditional academic standards or universities that have to compromise these standards by meeting social engineering agendas of governments or interest groups? The way a country answers those questions will tell us a lot about the priorities and aspirations of that country.

My view? Competitive entry and traditional academic standards any day. Why? Because this is the easiest way, no the only way, for us to quickly develop a more effective university system. This is the only way that we will ever have a chance of competing with the best in the world. Fail to compete with the rest of the world and lose the race to prosperity and growth. Lose that race and give up forever the possibility of ever developing and retaining the best and brightest of our young people.

New Zealand needs its best universities to be operating to a world quality standard in their teaching and research. They cannot do that if they are either required to or feel moved to compromise traditional economic standards.


Bernard said...

I agree entirely and just want to ad another point.

The effect of the open entry system is that the universities are effectively a cartel with the market carved up between them. Most New Zealanders go to their local university which means that they treat being at university as a 9-5 job and miss out on many of the major aspects of life at overseas universities.

The universities in turn do not feel the need to compete on standards, in fact the inevitable consequence of regarding all the universities as equal is a race to the bottom quality-wise. Meanwhile, universities are unable to build up centres of excellence in particular areas as they are obliged to take everyone who rolls up over the age of 20. Combined with the capping of student numbers, this will soon mean that the school-leaver entry is going to be severely cut down. There might be room for two views on that . . .

Anonymous said...

I remember university shimmered like an oasis on the horizon of a too long high school career. I counted down the days till I could earn my place in what I imagined as a community of brilliant young people who matched me in my intellectual curiosity and ambition. Fast forward four years and I was in medical school; mental health outpatients to be precise. I was sitting opposite a student so profoundly disabled by schizophrenia that I could not believe they entered, or remained in university.

It was an important lesson. But now, I'm not at all surprised -- isn't the student community icomprised from the rest of the community? There are people at university who face significant challenges to learn - be that due to illness, disability, personal tragedy or just because not everyone can be the brightest kid in the class. I remember raising concerns not dis-similar from yours, Mr Peachy, with the Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic at my university. The specific question was why our did our University abolish the rule that students got brought before a committee to explain why they should remain in University if they failed more than half a semester's papers. The answer - the committee grew wary of hearing stories of rape, repeated personal tragedies that it felt impossible to adjudicate on.

It is attractive to think an institution you work hard to enter is elite, and thus it is easy to be intolerant of other people's problems. But actually our ability to confront those problems is what differentiates us as leaders.

Much later as a junior doctor I saw this principle illustrated again as colleagues withdrew from work with mental illness or, when I coaxed a middle aged MP through his tears and adjustment to a difficult diagnosis. We are all people, with the same flaws and failings, irrespective of our membership of elite groups. And though I hope that our country will be one that does what it can to ameliorate the effects of these circumstances on people, I also acknowledge that to some, hopefully small extent, these differences will always exist.

The challenge our political leadership faces is what to do for those who struggle in our education sector. In making a difference to their experience, opportunities and performance lies the ability to make a real difference to our country's competitiveness.