Archive for April 2010

Dealing to the Boards

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

27 April 2010

The procession of company directors going through the revolving doors of the country’s court rooms suggests that in the financial sector there are issues of governance in that sector.

The failure of the New Zealand Rugby Union to balance the books for the last year in a code that has a sound relationship with media interests with seemingly never-ending supplies of cash and the revelations from the Melbourne Storm rugby league club about a club in the other code that had no problems taking the cash suggest that governance in sport could be an issue.

The wholesale review of local authority governance in Auckland (which also reshapes the management of the region) and the recent events in the Canterbury Regional Council would seem to suggest that issues of governance have been identified in local and regional government.

It just could be the case that governance is something we should turn attention to in New Zealand.

Minister of Tertiary Education Steven Joyce has done just that in implementing a move signalled before his tenure to sort out governance in the ITP sector. Certainly the performance of some ITPs might suggest that they have been operating without the constraints of governance. On the other hand each of the ITPs has been audited each year. So the move to sort out governance in that sector is probably in response to what are perceived as clear issues in that sector.

A key feature of these changes is the size of ITP councils which have been reduced to a standard eight members – four appointed by the Minister and four by the community. The Minister also appoints the Chair and Deputy Chair. The Minister has historically always appointed four people but what is different is the balance – four in a council of eighteen is very different from four in a council of eight. Also, appointing the leadership of the councils means that the Minister has taken on a large part of the responsibility for the success of governance in the sector. Good appointments, good governance.

A further feature is the appointment of a number of people to more than one council – something that has been done in the health sector. In one instance one person is on three councils, in another one person chairs two councils. These are interesting developments that could lead to greater co-operation between (and perhaps even merger of) different institutions or, in the interests of good governance, councils responsible for more than one institution. Back to the future – that’s is how it was done in Auckland in the early days with the Auckland Technical Institute Council having initial responsibility for Carrington (later to become Unitec) and Manukau Technical Institutes. Did it work then?

I wonder if attention might now be turned towards the school sector and questions raised about governance there. With 18,855 school trustees attending to the governance of a little over 2,500 schools (not counting ECE institutions and organisations) there is a monumental taks in seeing that these critical responsibilities are discharged to high standards. So we put in place a government agency (ERO) to help with this, we place these governance groups into a situation constrained tightly by regulation, by operational rules related to income, to staffing, to capital expenditure, to service delivery, to markets (i.e. zoning) and so on. So can these groups truly be said to be discharging the responsibilities of governance? And if they were how realistic is it to think that a community of the size we have can produce more than 18,000 people qualified to do so.

Perhaps it is time in terms of governance in the school sector to look at introducing the missing links of school reform in this country – the Education Service Centre and the Community Education Forum. Both were to be part of the original plan but were dispensed with on grounds that were never very clear.

The Education Service Centres are somewhat analogous to the US School Districts and were intended to provide the glue for schools in a district. They were never intended to have the powers of the old education boards but it might be possible to see such a mechanism providing some of the governance in much the same way as the Super Council might relate to Community Boards in Auckland’s bright new future.

Whatever path might be chosen, if education can crack the question of governance with 18K directors operating 2.5k operations then perhaps the finance sector and local government should be handed over to them as well.

With 80 or so business failures a year in the school sector (i.e. Boards replaced by commissioners or placed under some kid of surveillance) some kind of response with regard to governance would be appropriate.

Are the models devised in the 1980s and 1990s adequate to take us into the take us into the future?

It would seem that they are not in tertiary and something has been done about it.

Leave me a loan!

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

19 April 2010

 By and large the sound of the chimes ringing out across tertiary campuses has been replaced bt rhew deafening “katching! Katching!” of cash registers. Have we ever seen the discourse about higher and further education so dominated by discussions about money?

Governments in the western world have only themselves to blame – they let the beast loose through deregulation, through believing that the free market had much to offer in educational markets, through accepting the advice of those who advise that there was great slack in the tertiary sector. Time has shown that institutions of further and higher education are quite capable of rising to these challenges but do governments find the results palatable?

By and large, no, they don’t.

When the baby boomers went to postsecondary institutions they did so on the back of interest-free gifts. Fees were gifted to us, we studied, we passed and failed and we moved on. The qualifications we obtained were by and large respected by the community and needed by the economy. There was little confusion between academic qualifications and vocational qualifications, the difference between a university, a technical institute and on the job training were understood and accepted. And young people got off the formal education train at the appropriate stop to get on with living and making a living.

 So how did we end up in the situation we find ourselves in now, where places are likely to be rationed in all but name, where skill outputs increasingly fail to match the needs of the community, where there are fewer middle point vocational exit points, where there is the shambles of student fees and loans and allowances and where governments with some justification are calling something of a slowing down if not a halt to all this? 

 My view has long been that the drive towards universal participation in higher and higher levels of education reaching out to higher and higher levels of qualifications has at best been a sham and at worse a deception. I will restrain myself by mentioning only once that there is no evidence that this has worked. The only result has been unprecedented disengagement and failure that we should be ashamed of.

 So we talk on and on about money matters in education.

The student fee scheme is failing simply because we fail to ensure a return to New Zealand for the investment. When I embarked on the educational track of becoming a secondary teacher I had my fees paid and was bonded for the same number of years. My “loan” was repaid when I had completed the requisite numbers of years teaching. What was wrong with that?

Furthermore, teachers were required to undertake “country service” at a certain and early point in their career, two years service in a rural community. You could sacrifice salary to forgo this which is what I did for a variety of reasons. What is wrong with such a requirement which might be re-expressed in today’s setting by including experience in low-decile schools in the mix? The gains were always that many excellent teachers responded to the experience by seeing new opportunities in the new settings they were directed towards.

There is no such thing as an interest-free loan. The community pays the interest when the recipient does not. I believe that student loans should be repaid in one or a combination of three ways: paying back the cash by instalments when you are earning, working off the loan in a variety of ways that enhance the system or by paying back a lump sum when there is a wish to withdraw.

This last option might apply when the holder of a loan wishes to leave the country for reasons other than pursuing advanced study. But there should still be a requirement that on completion of the study the student returns or repays. It is a matter at that point of their study being re-financed by the seeking of finance from the private sector. We do this with houses, motor vehicles, cash loans and so on. Where else in society can you get a loan with so few obligations and responsibilities as you can in the student loan scheme? Of course there is no possibility here of mortgagee sales so the possibilities need to be imaginative and fair.This is important because it is the student loans and allowances scheme that has turned the dream of higher education into a nightmare for governments. The cap on student numbers is no more than an attempt to tame the beast. There is some evidence that the prospect of accessing loans and allowances is at least as attractive and accessing further and higher education. Add this to the levels of debt literacy that we are teaching through the schemes and we might have cause to pause.

On another money matter, giving tertiary institutions more control over their assets (they are of course the crown’s assets) on the surface seems like a good thing. It will enable them to get on with development that has been stalled for too long. But will it turn out to be little more than an institutional loan scheme. The benefit to the community is that the money borrowed will probably not come from them directly but from institutional lenders. But who pays? And what returns can the sources of the money seek other than a good financial return.

When governments finance development they have a greater range of options when it comes to returns – public good, savings made through a more highly educated community and income increased through a better performing economy. But those will only occur when they are written into the contract – in other words governments should have a point of view about which developments they finance. What are their clear financial and social strategic goals? How will Development A or Development B contribute? Or should the money flow simply because Oliver Institution says “Please Sir, I want some more.”

Which brings us back to students. Should student loans and allowances be uncritically offered to student regardless of what they wish to do with it? What will be the collateral offered by a student? It can only be a promise, the promise of effective contribution to the community in ways that it respects and needs. That is the best investment of all.

Uniform reactions

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

13 April 2010

News reports tell us that teachers at an Auckland secondary school are “upset” at getting a bit of a hurry up from their principal about their dress.

It has long been the case that if you came across someone in a school wearing a dark suit, white shirt and tie you knew that it was the man who had come to fix the photocopier. Teachers have become increasingly informal and relaxed about their dress over the past twenty years and there seems little explanation for it other than a general relaxation of what some people would call standards in this area.

But does it matter? Well apparently so when you consider that at the same timer there has been little relaxation of the dress standards required of students other than some flexibility within colour regimes. And it is the bane of teachers’ lives.

Not everywhere of course. In the private rich schools, especially the girls schools where A List fashion designers have put the little ladies into skirts of a length that no-one has worn since Victorian times, standards are maintained, socks drawn up to full length, shirts tucked in, well at least when you are close the school. Less so by the time the bus reaches the outskirts.

So powerful is the love of school uniforms in the community that once parents got their hands on schools in 1989 they systematically introduced school uniforms for primary school students. This has at least introduced some humour into the school yard as little ones struggle to fill out uniforms bought for them to “grow into.” But the little ones don’t mind, they can’t see out of sunhats with brims so wide that children daily add to their shortage of Vitiman D.

But generate a discussion about school uniforms and the community seems at one – they are a good thing, they create and maintain equality, they are cost effective and so it goes on. All of these arguments are, of course, rubbish. School uniforms do nothing for equality and they are far from cheap. You see, we like to have our young ones in the controlling dress of the uniform – like soldiers, and waiters, and nurses, and airline pilots, and Super 14 teams. In none of these instances does a uniform increase the capabilities of those wearing them.

And the research seems to support this. Hattie, in Visible Learning, reports a study by Brunsma (2004) that finds that uniform policies and dress codes had no discernable effect on academic achievement in elementary school and a “significant negative effect” in high school. Worse than this, Brunsma went on to assert that uniform initiatives had “no effect on pro-school or pro-peer attitudes, on attendance, on self-esteem, locus of control, coping skills,, level of drug use, or behaviour incidents.” Oh dear! Why do we bother?

Well, I guess we bother because we like neatness, and tidiness and the cleanliness that is next to godliness. It seems like a sound thing. But there are ways of achieving this other than through school uniforms. I told you last week that I had been up to BYU Hawai’i for a couple of days and was greatly interested in a brochure aimed at students called “Dress and Grooming Standards.” This set out the guidelines for dress for men, women, athletics and leisure. This explained the neatness, tidiness and cleanliness of the students without exception.

Men were encouraged to be well groomed and to wear “slacks, jeans, dress shorts, sweaters, and port or dress shirts with sleeves”. Footwear should be work at all times in public places and men must keep their shirts on! For women the theme seemed to be modesty with loose fitting blouses, shirts and sweaters, trousers that came up to the waist and hems that went down to the knee.  There were clear statements about inappropriate dress and the whole deal is wrapped up in an outline of The Honour Code that reflects the beliefs and principles of the college.

Now, the point is this. I saw no young people who seemed to be oppressed, none who looked foolish or uncomfortable because of their dress. They looked like a pretty regular groups of young people who had energy, talent, wonderful social skills and liveliness – any school in New Zealand would have been proud to have them as their students.

But each day they dressed themselves willingly within the guidelines. Uniformity of dress was not seen as a condition of conformity of values or behaviours.

So it seemed to me that it was pretty silly, if the reports were true, for some teachers to rail against a simple request to set a standard. If they don’t do it then who does? Sam Snot the Rapper? Bandana Bill the local gang lout?

When I started teaching, the male teachers were ushered into the Men’s’ Marking Room to be told with great solemnity that from next Monday men could wear shorts for the oncoming summer. The process was reversed at the end of the summer – back into the longs! I don’t think we saw this as an erosion of our human rights.

But I must say that I think the requirement that male teachers wear ties if it was successful might just about achieve this success right at the point when males outside of school staffroom were dispensing with them in both formal and informal settings. Oh well, education can’t get it right all the time otherwise the media would be left high and dry for its daily news.

A call to service – new ways of looking at degree education.

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

5 April 2010

            Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Buddha

 I have spent a few days at Brigham Young University in Hawai’i and have been greatly impressed by two characteristics of their programmes, something they have in common with most of their USA tertiary sibling tertiary institutions – service education and general education.

Service used to be at the heart of New Zealand society – in fact retirement was looked forward to as an opportunity to have the time to contribute more widely to the community. Knighthoods and Damehoods would be conferred largely on the basis of service rather than simply being good at your job – you had to have gone that extra mile, done that little bit more for the community.

Many schools have motto’s that reflect this and there was an emphasis on helping others. Service Clubs were based on that very premise – Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Jaycees and so on. They all struggle for membership these days. Service seems no longer to be part of the value set that we aspire to or which education seeks to promote.

How do the US colleges achieve this? Well in its simplest form they employ students and in large numbers. BYU Hawai’i employs 700 students out of a total student population of fewer than 3,000. They have the Polynesian Cultural Centre which is a large focus and many students actually get the assistance to attend the university through the support of a scholarship for which in return they commit to helping keep this magnificent cultural centre going. In addition to learning and practising the ethics of work they also have the opportunity to promote their respective cultures – hence service education, a mix of the two.

Around the institution opportunity is sought to employ students in other service employment opportunities. This is easier in the residential environment typical of US institutions but they also employ students in the departments helping to support teaching staff, in reception duties, around the institution in technical positions, keeping certain facilities (e.g. the auditorium) functioning and so on.

The unions might have a view of this but it seems to me that it is a much healthier institution because of it. Commitment to an institution should not all be about take but also about give, not only about a one-way transaction but about a two-way relationship. And it happens because the institution sees a value in it.

Even without the impact of residential aspects that we typically do not have in New Zealand, there is still a greatly increased opportunity to provide a service education opportunity to many more students than the handfuls currently employed. But first we have to believe in service and then commit to putting in place and education programme that provides the opportunities.

Perhaps it is all related to the continuing commitment in universities in the US to the notion of General Education. The sophomore and freshman years are generally focussed on such a general education in the move towards declaring your major that will occupy you in the junior and senior years.

At BYU Hawai’i the general education curriculum covered four areas. Basic Skills required one course in a “fundamental math requirement” and then courses in further maths, language, reading/writing/speaking and health/physical education. These were supplemented by electives in student life and computer skills.

Fundamental Knowledge roamed over ideas and philosophical underpinnings of civilisation and covered literary and artistic expression and an introduction to the natural world (biological science, physical science and the human environment. Finally there were the survey courses that covered, under the heading of Synthesis, the history of civilisation, advanced writing and interdisciplinary studies.

An interesting footnote declares that “Students will choose from a variety of courses which transcend the artificial divisions of scholarly disciplines. These courses will frequently be team taught, using the expertise and resources of several academic areas.

The two thrusts – service education and general education – give a powerful message that coming to university is about something greater than getting a meal ticket – that is the role of the polytechnic in our education system. First degrees in a university should provide a wide basis of thinking and a foundation of advanced academic skill that lead to expression in a variety of different areas, But the narrow focus of senior school academic curriculum – a handful of academic disciplines – combines with the limited and restrictive general education opportunities in some universities to give a vocational focus that abrogates the origins and traditions of a university education.

And perhaps this shows finally in the increased selfishness of society.

US universities have a four year degree and perhaps this provides the space. Is it time for New Zealand universities to consider a move to a longer first degree in order to introduce a general education component.

In an interesting comment posted on this site a few weeks ago by Phil Ker, the suggestion was made that “perhaps we could look at another “taken for granted” here in NZ – our belief that students should study for approx 26 weeks of the year ( most universities) or 34 weeks of the year ( most polytechnics). As a consequence, students typically amble through a degree in three years, and a diploma in two. The alternative – treat study a little more like work and have degrees completed in two years and diplomas in eighteen months. The net result would be less student debt, less paid out in allowances, tertiary teaching infrastructure operating 47/48 weeks of the year, lower value of earnings foregone whilst studying, fewer people contesting scarce jobs in the holiday periods ( students would need to take a holiday), and arguably better qualification completions.”

So perhaps we could see a scenario develop in which polytechnics with their clear vocational focus managing their degrees in two years within an elongated teaching year while universities, taking up the challenge of a first degree characterised by service and general education moving to a four year degree. Picking up the transfer tradition of the US, in some instances and areas, the first two years of a university degree could be undertaken in a polytechnic acting in much the same way as a US community college.

Now, would that be the best of both worlds?