Tuesday 3 February 2015

University Entrance: Part I - Introduction

I'm just going to do a name drop, and say that I went to school with and am friends with Verity Johnson, a popular* columnist who writes for various publications including the New Zealand Herald and Metro. In fact, I once helped prepare a costume to dress her up as a man, in the style of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. I also once tried to convince her that sausages are bad, just for fun. I put an asterix after popular only because I have no data to support the claim that she or her writing are popular, other than that she continues to be published on a regular basis and the comment threads are always full of the typical cesspit of commenters.

I mention Verity because I caught up with her the other day, and in our various discussions we arrived at the topic of University Entrance (UE). A recent NZ Herald article reported that thousands of students had missed the cut as tougher requirements were implemented, and educators were calling for a review. Universities NZ head Chris Whelan said "Obviously we're wanting to make sure every young person that has the ability is able to get into university" yet only 58% of Year 13 students achieved the UE standard in 2014.

This is a hot topic for many young people. University (and to a lesser degree, tertiary education in general) has become a requirement for "success". They have to plan their high school years, and study hard in order to gain access to the hallowed halls of university education. If you want a good job, you have to get a degree. Culturally, it's the expected pathway for many students across the country and around the world, even though the assumptions may not be true. Failing to get into university can be crushing for young people (and their parents). So the question that we arrive at is this:

"Is University Entrance in New Zealand set at the right standard?"

And unfortunately (or fortunately), the answer to this question is very complicated. There are many factors to argue about. There are plenty of statistics and datasets available to extract "objective" information out of, but many of the factors are ideologically driven too. To fully understand how such a decision can be made, and how we can judge whether the standard is correct, a lot of context has to be explained. So in a multiple-part series about tertiary education, I will try to provide some context, and drill down the different perspectives and try to present balanced arguments about University Entrance. Here's what to look forward to:

- Standards based education and the implications for UE
- History and intentions of UE, the perspective of government
- Perspectives of high school students, parents, and teachers
- Perspectives of universities, university students, and industry
- Grading and university outcomes

This might take me awhile, and I do not profess to be an expert on the topic. I always welcome discussion in the comments, particularly if you want to tell me that I'm wrong (in a nice and respectful manner). If you're like Verity, you have a strong opinion on the matter. As a society, we've decided that education is important and something that we value. So it's probably something that we want to get right.

Part II of this series - Standards Based Testing, is available here.

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