Karaoke on campus

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.41, October 23, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd
Wellington 

Singing together is very much a symptom of unity. Soldiers marching off to war, a congregation in a church, weddings and funerals, powhiri and poroporoaki, a party late at night and little children playing in a sandpit – all sing along in to various degrees of tunefulness.

We even have a saying – “we are all singing from the same song-sheet” – that means that there is agreement, perhaps even enthusiasm, there is purpose.

The release of strategies in education is very much the development of the next song-sheet, it tells you what kind of party it’s going to be. And the Draft Tertiary Education Strategy 2010 – 2015 is no exception.

This strategy makes clear what tunes we will be singing (and more likely dancing to) in the half decade ahead. The tertiary sector is expected to get better at providing a more diverse community with skills that meet the needs of the economy and of the community. Research should make us a wealthier, stronger and better country with stronger and better institutions that innovate. Maori must be able to access success (with an emphasis on a good transition from school to tertiary education).

The focus of the strategy on more success for more young people is heartening. Getting younger people into higher level qualifications, getting Maori and Pasifika students into higher qualifications, getting increased success in transitions from school to tertiary and lifting the basic skill levels of adult learners becomes something of the chorus that develops through the document.

Of course it also comes back to note that the strategy also wants improved educational and financial performance of providers and, oh by the way, stronger research outcomes. These are a kind of “And so say all of us!”

Having said that clearly, the strategy then finds a number of different ways of saying it again and in different ways. This is song-writing at its best.

There is a revealing chart showing clearly that between 2001 and 2008 growth in tertiary education was very much at the certificate level with some knock on effect into diplomas. This should not be a surprise. It is the Myth of Increased Participation – a happy, happy jingle not accompanied by that other tune – Increased Outputs for the Academy. Increasing participation in tertiary was the sort of shouting/singing you hear in the rousing finale of primary singing festivals when tunefulness is less important than enthusiastic participation.

How tuneful it is to see the emphasis in this strategy on what that increased participation should result in and who should be there in the groups that achieve those higher qualifications.

The accompanying focus on links with schools and their performance and on the mechanics of connection between secondary and tertiary provides a clear key (in both meanings of the word) for tertiary education to practise its skills in working with a broader and more diverse group.

The system performance elements are interesting. The obligatory emphasis on quality assurance is important  and necessary but not in itself sufficient otherwise the tertiary system would have had better outputs a long time ago. More important is the repeated demand that student performance be a measure of success. The order in which it addresses this is a little back-to-front. Putting supporting and encouraging student performance before “providing incentives for providers to respond better to students and market signals” – a slightly dark song in the style of Mack the Knife – would have reflected better the dynamics of increasing success.

Linking funding to performance somewhere, sometime is probably inevitable but finding innovative and fair ways of doing this is better than simply threatening to do so. Linking funding much more clearly to the target groups in the strategy would be a good place to start.

The strategy hits its straps in the expectations section. “Expectations” is a very hard word for a songwriter to find a rhyme. So unless you write a Moonlight in Vermont style song without rhyme you run the risk of awkwardness. The strategy avoids this with the formulaic “core roles” followed by the stirring “Government expects” sections. Each sub-sector is given a clear steer as to its focus and these by-and –large work. But where is the connection?

Getting students into higher level qualifications requires connection between the sub-sectors. If you want to get good at the violin you don’t start with Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor. Someone has to teach Pussy Pussy Stop Stop. But you will never reach the soaring heights of the Mendelssohn on Saturday morning in the church hall with a Suzuki community group. Each sub-sector has its role and the connectedness of these is not developed well other than by implication in the strategy.

The trends section makes some good points about the challenges of the pattern of population in New Zealand. It is not the aging pattern that is the challenge – it is the increasing diversity. Put more harshly and stridently than tuneful strategy statements typically allow for, tertiary education has to do very much better with a very different group of students if any of the long term goals of the strategy are to be met.

Or put in an even more discordant way, the rather narrow band of the population from which tertiary education has traditionally drawn most of its success is getting thinner. The groups for which tertiary education has not yet developed a capability of taking through to higher level qualifications in significant numbers is getting larger. Tertiary education has to develop a new capability if the role of the sector in the economic transformation of New Zealand is to be realised.

If this is not achieved, New Zealand will increasingly be at the mercy of the global skill market. So too will Australia, the USA, the UK and Canada. As the countries that supply these skilled migrants increasing require them to work in their own economies, we could be reduced.

We could huddle in the lifeboat and song Abide with me but it is probably in our own interests to start to become a lusty chorus singing from a song-sheet along the lines of the one outlined in the strategy.

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