Monday 16 February 2015

University Entrance: Part VII - Conclusions

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 - University Grading and Outcomes.

In this blog series, we’ve covered the following questions:
-          What is standards based testing, and how is that related to University Entrance?
-          Why was University Entrance changed?
-          Why does the government care where the UE standard is?
-          Why do secondary school students, parents and teachers care where the UE standard is?
-          Why do universities and university students care where the UE standard is?
-          Does UE accurately represent preparedness for degree-level study?

Through this discussion, we’ve uncovered some underlying themes. Perspectives towards University Entrance are informed by:
-          Accurate assessment and communication of standards
-          Macroscopic benefits to society
-          Individualistic benefits for life and the value of education
-          Resource limitations when investing in education
-          Changing cultures towards university education

Ultimately, we made some sweeping generalisations of the stakeholder groups to figure out what they think about the new University Entrance standard:
-          The government probably wants it a bit lower, but not too much lower
-          Secondary school students, parents, and teachers probably want it lower
-          Universities and university students probably want it (much) higher

At times like this, there’s an argument that pops to mind. If some people are telling you that it’s too low, and some people are telling you that it’s too high, then you’ve probably got it right. It’s the median voter model that political strategicians love to hate. As a result of this positional negotiation approach, nobody is really entirely happy. But maybe they’re happy enough.

Maybe the characterisation of the UE standard as existing on a single continuum is inaccurate, when there are separate elements targeted at resolving different problems. Maybe increasing the number of graduates or the number of students achieving NCEA is the wrong goal when the standards by which we assess students can move and fluctuate. Maybe preparedness for university is not the dominating factor that dictates whether a student is successful or not at degree-level study when there are many other factors at play. There are a lot of unknowns that we can’t truly answer, which I guess is why it becomes such a political topic; if there was an objectively correct answer there would be no argument (although that doesn’t always stop people from trying anyway).

Underlying the broad UE discussion is one about whether access to university education is a right or a privilege. There are advocates that argue that all people should have the right to try and succeed, and that locking people out of the system is inequitable and furthers systemic disadvantages. There are others that argue that university education should only be afforded to the best students who are best equipped to make use of the education, making the most efficient use of resources. In this equality vs. elitism battle, left-right groups form and ideologies dictate the flow of discussion.

I’ll end this series with the philosophical consensus that I reached with columnist Verity when we discussed this a few weeks ago. University should have higher standards and only the most capable of students should be able to enter. But this is only okay if all students have the same opportunities to learn, progress, and excel beforehand. Our society is still too unequal, too inequitable, and too unfair for us to lock people out and consign individuals to a set life path as soon as they finish high school. In a world with severe socioeconomic disadvantage, where some children start the game of life with more points than others, a high entry bar only serves the interests of the elite. So perhaps solving the University Entrance problem is much trickier than setting the standard at the right difficulty; perhaps there’s a broader societal problem to be resolved first.

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