Monday 9 February 2015

University Entrance: Part III - History, Reviews, and the Perspective of Government

This post is part of a multi-part series on University Entrance and whether it is set at the right standard. For the previous part, click here - Standards Based Testing.

How has University Entrance changed since 2004?
In the previous part we discussed how School Certificate and Bursary were replaced by NCEA between 2002 and 2004. As part of this transition, University Entrance (UE) was also replaced, and was set at:
-          42 credits at NCEA Level 3 in three subjects
-          14 credits in each of two subjects from the list of approved subjects
-          14 credits from up to two other approved subjects
-          Literacy requirement: 8 credits at Level 2 or higher from English or te reo Maori
-          Numeracy requirement: 14 credits at Level 1 or higher from Mathematics, Statistics and Probability, or Pangarau.

UE was reviewed in 2005/2006 after it was introduced; the only change was the addition of a couple of subjects to the list of approved subjects. It was reviewed again in 2010, attracting more than 480 submissions from stakeholders including schools, teachers, universities and other tertiary education providers, subject advocates, and the general public including parents. The result was that in 2011, it was announced that UE would be made harder from 2014 onwards.

The first change was that NCEA Level 3 would be a requirement, essentially raising the credit requirement from 42 to 60 credits at Level 3 + 20 credits at Level 2 or higher. The literacy requirement was increased from 8 credits to 10 credits, while numeracy was decreased from 14 to 10 credits. However, for both literacy and numeracy, specific achievement standards were added, rather than being able to gain the credits from any standard in the subject area. Overall this made meeting the literacy and numeracy requirements harder. Additionally, the list of approved subjects was reviewed; a number of subjects were added, such as business studies and religious studies.

Why was the University Entrance standard changed?
University Entrance is set to ensure that students have sufficient evidence to show that they have a “reasonable chance of success at degree-level study.” After all, it would be silly to stick a student in the university system if, chances are, they're going to fail because they are insufficiently prepared. According to the Ministry of Education, in 2003, the last year of the School Certificate and Bursary system, roughly 30% of school leavers had achieved a university entrance standard. By 2013, this had risen to roughly 49%. As a side note, I don’t know why these numbers are so different to those reported by the media, such as here and here, but I’m going to stick to the Ministry of Education numbers.

So as the percentage of students achieving UE increased, universities began to notice that the overall quality of students entering first-year each year was decreasing. This didn’t necessarily mean that more students were failing (which is a completely different issue because universities may or may not have been nudging grades into desired distributions), but “universities believe[d] that the current standard, as it applies to senior secondary students, is no longer meeting their or students’ needs and that the standard needs to be reviewed.” I’d like to show some hard data to prove this, but it appears that not much evidence is available beyond anecdote. Anyway, as a result, a full review was set up, involving many stakeholders across the country.

Why was the standard moved to where it is now?
This is a slightly tricky question. The easy answer is that the NZQA sought lots of feedback, and merged it all together to arrive at the current standard. Actually, as part of the 2010 review, a technical advisory group and steering group assisted the development of the proposed standard by the NZQA, and that proposed standard was then put out for consultation. The feedback was largely just sought on whether the proposed standard was okay (amongst other things). The NZQA did do substantial modelling on the effects of various changes to the standard based on 2010 data (the most recent at the time), so the proposed standard was grounded in some scientific basis. In general they knew that they needed to make University Entrance harder to obtain, but how much harder? They picked a standard that seemed reasonable, made sense, was easy to communicate, and went with it. Saying that University Entrance is synonymous with NCEA Level 3 (with some caveat additional requirements) is very simple and convenient. No one had major objections, and it went through.

What effect did the increased standard have?
Just after the outcome of the review was announced, the NZQA said that 95% of students who went to university straight from school would already meet the new requirement. NZ Union of Students’ Association spokesperson Max Hardy stated that 985 first-year students, or roughly 8%, would not have been able to attend university if they had been assessed under the new requirements. Regardless of the number, it was acknowledged that a small percentage of students would miss out under the new requirements.

Using the figures from the NZ Herald, 71% of school leavers had UE in 2013 and only 58% did in 2014. This suggests that roughly 18% of the students who had UE in 2013 would not have gotten it in 2014. This was a much larger drop than the 5% or 8% predicted back in 2010/2011.

What was the response?
Education Minister Hekia Parata reminded everyone that the changes had been announced three years ago, had been well signalled to teachers, and that no one should really be all that surprised. After all, if you increase the bar, less students will be able to meet it. However, both Universities New Zealand and the Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) questioned whether the bar was raised too high. The drastically large decline in students eligible for university entrance indicated an overcorrection of the standard. The PPTA said that the narrowing of what was acceptable for students entering university was of concern. All the educational groups still agreed that the standard needed to be raised and that raising it was a good thing, just that it may have been raised too much.

The NZ Herald published an editorial that said that that 58% “may indeed be the proportion of Year 13 pupils who can meet the demands of a university degree” and that “last year’s pass rate may be a reality check, not a disaster.” Meanwhile, students who missed out on UE (and their parents and teachers) cried out across the country, frustrated that the system had blocked them out of the opportunity to attend university. But more on that in a later post.

Why does the government care about the standard that University Entrance is set at?
As the top-level managers for the country, the government is interested in structures and policies that lead to the best outcome for New Zealand [citation needed]. Part of that is doing everything possible to strengthen the economy. There is strong evidence that tertiary education is correlated with average productivity per person, so if we increase the number of graduates then we are growing the economy and eventually providing better living standards for everybody. As it turns out, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of tertiary education in the OECD (and in the world). Note that for the purposes of this discussion, I’m talking about a generalised, hypothetical government acting in the role of economic and financial manager, not necessarily the National government. I’m also removing the Ministry of Education from the equation for now (they’ll reappear later).

So in an ideal world, you would keep pouring an infinite amount of money into tertiary education, push every student through the system, and the country would magically have maximum productivity. Obviously this is not possible; there are limitations on the resources available. University Entrance acts as a gate to the degree-awarding part of tertiary education. If the government wants to increase the number of degree-holding people, then they widen the gate and let more people through. In theory this equates to lowering UE; but widening the gate also means having to pour more resources into university, subsidising tertiary education and providing student loans. The government right now can’t afford to provide tertiary education for everyone and still be able to provide other services expected by the electorate, so it goes in the “nice to have” pile. Also, we know that widening the gate doesn’t actually necessarily lead to more graduates; it probably leads to either lowering the standard/quality of tertiary education or having a lot more students failing.

Additionally, the government is interested in increasing graduate numbers in the right areas; there are skills shortages to be addressed, and while I don’t want to devalue some degrees over others, there is simply a greater need for science and technology graduates. Moving UE around probably doesn’t affect these programmes, because they generally have entry requirements that are higher than UE anyway. But in order to increase the number of graduates, they will need to lower those entrance standards; whether that leads to the desired outcome of more graduates is questionable. The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not just about the number of graduates, but also the quality of those graduates that makes a difference. If your degree is accredited internationally and judged to meet an international standard then that’s probably okay, but there is still leeway for graduates of varying quality to be produced from universities.

Where does the government want University Entrance to be?
Ultimately, the government has to carefully balance where they want UE to be. On the one hand, they want to encourage more people to enter university education, and on the other they don’t want to open the floodgates and let everyone in because they can’t afford it. To that end, the floating and slightly fluctuating nature of educational standards in New Zealand is probably useful, giving the government an opportunity to influence the standard. To hazard a guess, the government would probably prefer University Entrance to be somewhere inbetween where it was in 2013 and where it moved to in 2014. The previous UE level let too many students in, who represent quite a large financial obligation in the government’s books, but the new UE level probably doesn’t let enough students in to meet the government’s hopes for boosting the economy unless there is substantial improvement in student achievement in the near future. Officially, the National government is happy with the new standard.

So in this part, we looked at how University Entrance has changed since 2004, why the standard was raised, and the effect of the change. Additionally, we looked at what the government perspective (as an economic and financial manager) of UE is, and where they might want the standard to be. In the next section, we’ll look at the perspective of secondary school students, parents, teachers, and the broader secondary education sector.

Part IV of this series - Students, Parents, and Teachers, is available here.

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