Wednesday 11 February 2015

University Entrance: Part IV - Students, Parents, and Teachers

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 - History, Reviews, and the Perspective of Government.

Why do students, parents, and teachers care so much about university anyway?
This might seem like a bit of a dumb question; invariably the reasons have something to do with “success”, whether that is becoming a professional, getting a good job, making lots of money, or something similar. Everyone has a general feeling that a university education means that you’ll have a better life than if you don’t have one. Some people say that your entire future and livelihood rests in the balance of whether you get a degree or not. But beyond anecdotal evidence, most people wouldn’t be able to say with certainty how much value a university education has. After all, university education is an investment; a student spends (and/or loans) tens of thousands of dollars and gives up some of the most productive years of their life, just to sit in dusty lecture theatres and bumble their way through assessment. Is it actually worth it in the end? We talked in the previous blog post about university graduation numbers correlating with average productivity on a macro level; does university education still produce tangible and measurable benefits at the individual level?

Is university worth the investment?
Luckily, I’ve asked this question before as part of A Policy A Day: Free Tertiary Education. The Ministry of Social Development reports that individuals with a Bachelor's degree have hourly earnings 64% higher than those with no qualifications. If you have a degree, you’re much more likely to be employed, you’re more likely to be healthier, and you’re likely to have a higher standard of living. Statisticians make graphs like this one, showing living standards separated by highest qualification:

However, it is important to note that this is for the general case; some degrees will pay for themselves, but others may not. Barack Obama said in a speech to GE employees “folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree” (for which he later apologised). Due to the supply and demand of the labour markets, it’s probably true that a trade certification may be a better investment than an art history degree. Statistics New Zealand looked at the “earnings premium” (how much more someone earns because of their degree) of various Bachelor’s degrees in comparison to agriculture (three (red) and five (yellow) years after study):

The differences are statistically significant enough for us to say that different degrees have different financial returns. Of course, long-term financial benefit isn’t the top priority for all students, and university does satisfy different needs for different students.

Interestingly, having too many graduates could also be a bad thing for graduates and for the economy in general. In some parts of Europe, university enrolment grew by as much as 50% between 1990 and 2005, and the result was that the skilled labour market was saturated. Along with a reasonably high minimum wage, this meant that university graduates were worth almost no more than people who hadn’t gone to university, making university a poor investment decision for them. In other words, if they hadn’t gone to university they would have been earning (almost) the same amount of money, so they might as well not have bothered. The situation was dire enough to make the Ministry of Social Development concerned about the continued increase in levels of participation and attainment at the tertiary level in New Zealand back in 2007.

So is university worth the investment? At least in New Zealand, the answer seems to be yes, so students and parents have good reason to be worried about university and UE if raising the standard means they might be blocked out.

Wait, too many students could be a problem?
Cultural perceptions of university education have certainly changed over the last generation. Apart from the perception that university education is a “must-have” for a “successful” life, there are increasing numbers of young people who view university education as a right, not a privilege. They say that university education should be available to any young person who wants it; moving more towards the extreme end of the scale are calls for fully-funded education (i.e. no fees) and higher living allowances. If university education is a pre-requisite for success in later life, then we should not be preventing anyone from having a chance at success.

A challenge for government and for universities is what happens when the growth of interest in university education outpaces the capacity for students. Unfortunately, there are real logistical and practical limitations to providing university education. We only have to look at the two medical schools and the problems with bottlenecks there. At the University of Auckland, over a thousand first-year students compete for 275 places in medicine. The main limitation? There need to be enough doctors and consultants available already working in the medical system to supervise and teach the students during placements.

Additionally, there generally is some trade-off between number of students and the overall quality of the education provided; as the number of students increases (by lowering the entrance standard), the average ability of the cohort decreases, and the teaching staff have to lower the level of their content to maintain appropriate pass levels. It puts students and parents in a tricky dilemma – entry requirements should be low enough so that they can get into university, but not so low that it compromises the quality of their education. Some students and parents can be very individualistically minded when it comes to education – the standard needs to be at the right place for me (or my child), regardless of what that means for other students.

How big is the mismatch between intention to study and capacity?
Participation in tertiary education (as a proportion of the population aged over 15) has increased from 7.9% in 1994 to a peak of 13.7% in 2005 (it currently sits at roughly 10-11%). That means a lot more places for students, and a lot more funding and resources being poured into tertiary education. It’s reasonably large growth, but it doesn’t appear to be enough.

In the Western Bay of Plenty Region, 70% of students surveyed in 2008 intended to achieve a Diploma or Degree level qualification. However, in 2009 only 41.7% of students achieved University Entrance. Only 30% of school leavers go on to study at university. While not all Diploma/Degree level qualifications are awarded at universities, it is a reasonable conclusion that there are far more people wanting to go to university than actually attending. School leavers’ intentions are only sporadically measured (both in a geographical and a temporal sense), so it’s a little difficult to make a strong claim.

What about the underprivileged and minority groups?
This is one of the big areas of concern with regards to the change in UE. By raising the standard, the majority of high-achieving students are not affected. The majority of low-achieving students are also not affected, because they would not have met the standard previously anyway. The students that are affected are a large chunk in the middle, and it’s important to look at who is in that middle “average” group.

Statistically, Asians and Pakeha are much more likely to achieve UE than Maori and Pasifika (although the percentage of school leavers with UE is increasing in all ethnic groups). There is a clear correlation between school decile and percentage of school leavers with UE. So chances are, by raising the UE standard, the students that are affected are more likely to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds and from disadvantaged groups. The recent UE increase is being watched closely to see if it has had any negative impact on “equity target groups”. If it does, then there will have to be some other form of correction, such as an alternative entry pathway.

What were student perceptions towards the proposed UE change?
Normally, the NZQA doesn’t really consult with students about changes to standards. Students are allowed to send in submissions and are by no means excluded from the process, but their opinion is not actively sought either (normally). However, when the UE changes were proposed in 2010, the Ministry of Youth Development (MYD) offered to consult with young people to get their opinions. They surveyed 154 students, mostly between the ages of 13 and 18, both online and face-to-face. Here’s a top level summary of the relevant results:
- NCEA Level 3 should be part of UE: 53.2% agree, 36.4% disagree
- 14 credits from each of 3 approved subjects: 46.8% agree, 45.5% disagree
- Proposed numeracy requirement: 46.8% agree, 36.4% disagree
- “Do you think the proposed changes to the UE requirements are fair and reasonable?”: 48.7% agree, 29.2% disagree

As is evident from these results, there was majority support in general for the changes from the surveyed students, although by no means was that support unanimous. There was an open-ended qualitative comment for each question, which show that there was a wide variety of reasons for why students agreed or disagreed with the questions. As would be expected, some respondents clearly put a lot more effort into their answers than others, but there were some very passionate responses. It’s hard to synthesise the open-ended responses into meaningful groups, but in general:

- those that were supportive of the changes seemed to be higher achieving students, who were generally above the standard anyway and couldn’t see why raising the standard would make things more difficult. In one case, a student wrote “[UE] is not a difficult thing to do, and it is in no way asking too much for NZ students.”

- those that were opposed to the changes seemed to be either those that advocated for equality of access to university education, or those that felt that the proposed UE standard would be too hard (with the caveat that many students thought the numeracy requirement was too low). One student wrote “UE is fairly hard to get already and some of the proposed changes would make it near impossible for some of the "middle of the road" students let alone the not so capable ones.”

What were teacher perceptions towards the UE change?
NZQA consulted widely on the changes to UE, and teachers were certainly involved in that process. After NCEA results were released in January and the magnitude of the change became evident, teachers were probably not all that happy. The Post-Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) said that “while the changes made to lift the bar for UE was a good thing”, the changes “may not have had the desired impact”. The general belief is that there were probably some students who should have gotten into university and would have been capable, but missed out through no fault of their own, simply because the system as it exists does not recognise their ability. The NZQA has said that making NCEA Level 3 a part of UE was probably the right move, but the other requirements might need to be revised.

The problem that has been identified by the PPTA is the requirement for 14 credits in each of three subjects from the approved list of subjects. Previously, there was a requirement for 14 credits in two subjects, and 14 credits from a mixture of other related subjects (sometimes known as a “third subject”). Schools created customised courses that drew achievement standards from multiple “subjects”. Angela Roberts, the President of the PPTA, gave two examples; a performing arts course that has some music, some dance, and some theatre standards, and an agricultural course that includes some economics and accounting to ensure that the student has some business knowledge. The credits from such a course would have previously fit the requirements for a “third subject”, but simply because the achievement standards don’t come from a single NZQA subject, they don’t meet the new requirements.

For 2015 at least, universities will be looking at students on a case-by-case basis for those who did miss out on UE, and giving them discretionary entry; but from the perspective of teachers (and the NZQA), this is a problem that will need to be corrected for the future. As a result, they have called for the NZQA to review University Entrance again, to ensure that it is “fit for purpose”.

So at what standard do students, parents, and teachers want University Entrance to be?
Judging from the responses in the student survey and taking into account the other factors above, they probably want the UE standard to be somewhere in-between where it was before and where it is now, although probably towards the lower end of that spectrum. There is some support for raising the standard, but it’s probably gone too high to satisfy the interests of students, parents, and teachers as a broad group. As always, it’s very hard to characterise a very diverse group of people who each hold different opinions, so this is just a rough generalisation of the views. Of course, nobody likes failing, and sometimes the government and educators have to take the views, no matter how irrational, of upset students and angry parents into account.

So in this post, we’ve looked at some of the perspectives of students and their parents, why they care so much about university, the tangible benefits of university education, shifting cultural perceptions, problems with growth, the mismatch between the number of people who want to study and those who ultimately do, the effects on disadvantaged groups, student perceptions as measured by the MYD, and the perceptions of teachers. In the next section, we’ll look at the perspectives of university and university students.

Part V of this series - Universities and University Students, is available here.

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