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The good, the bad, and the tertiary

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol 14 No.48, December 11, 2009, p16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd

We didn’t hesitate to celebrate the start of the New Millennium on 1 January 2000 so I guess it is acceptable to close this decade on 31 December 2009.

The Nineties were characterised by the responses to reforms and changes in the administration of education, review of the curriculum and exploration of the potential of qualification reforms. These impacted particularly on the school sectors and by the end of the decade there were plenty who were hoping for a little respite from what they saw as continual debilitating change, they wanted their Lange cup of tea.

The Nineties also saw the development of new approaches to tertiary education as the PCET reforms set in. The large institutions, committed as they are to research-based activity and evidence-based response, became feral and embarked on an orgy of self-gratification through competition and expansion. Even small regional institutions believed that they deserved to be national brands. Deregulation became disorderly and the financial savings promised by the new competitive environment were evaporated by wasteful duplication, extravagant marketing and the presence in Auckland of large numbers of institutions seeking cash with the fervour of the gold rushes of old.

So when the New Millennium heralded the start of “The Noughties”, there was plenty to attend to at pretty well all levels of the system.

Early Childhood Education continued to challenge us in terms of resources which were seemingly seldom where they needed to be. It is ironic that the Brash 2025 Report calls the growth in provision and subsidies for ECE a “middle class churn” while the huge demand for services in poor areas, working class areas, continues to move ahead of the supply.

The school sector in the Noughties continued to do what it has always done – close the classroom door and get on with it. Children have continued to learn at about the level and rate they always have. What has changed however has been the discussion on ‘if that’s the case then how do we know” from politicians. So the decade is lurching to a close with a vigorous debate on National Standards. Academics unite to send open letters to the Minister. National professional organisations are to various degrees disturbed, disappointed, and despondent about it all. But it is going to happen and will continue to fester away well into the next decade, The Teenies.

Where there has been significant action in the school sector has been at the senior secondary school level. The decade has seen debate on NCEA rage away while the qualification grows in stature and acceptance and will prove in The Teenies to be flexible and useful. Because what was discovered in The Noughties was that the inflexibility of the senior secondary school had consequences that were starting to become very apparent and which raised questions about sustainability especially in light of the demographic shifts in the secondary school population.

Senior secondary schools appeared on the scene without a national discussion as to how we were to address the senior levels of secondary schooling and the transition into post-secondary education. If in The Teenies they simply replicate existing curriculum and lead only to conventional transitions one would have to wonder if it was worth the effort. If however they introduce new curriculum that reflects the flexibility of NCEA and create new porous transitions to post-secondary education and training it will have been a worthwhile change of direction.

Through The Noughties the previous government moved to understand and address the issues of disengagement from education and training and the need for increased flexible pathways, a direction continued (but expressed in a different way) by the current government. Trades Academies, Tertiary High Schools, increased involvement of polytechnics in secondary school programmes are all ways in which flexibility and porius transitions will be increased. And the move to all students to retain their right to free education and training in settings outside the school gates is a most positive note on which to end the decade.

When I was a boy we used to go to the movies on Saturday afternoon. Inevitably many of the films were those grainy black and white westerns which had in them an episode in which the stagecoach got out of control as horses bolted and the driver fell off his perch at the front. Would they be saved? Who would miraculously take control?

As The Noughties unfolded I came to realise that these stagecoach episodes were allegories about tertiary education in New Zealand and that the decade was all about getting the stagecoach under control.

The tertiary horses had well and truly bolted at the beginning of the decade, the tertiary stagecoach was out of control, people were after the bullion stashed under the seat. The damsel in distress (a key part of stagecoach episodes) trapped inside, arms flailing, demanding that someone do something while the horses continued to act with a mind of their own was played to perfection by Janice Shiner while the day was saved by the cowboy who found yet another way of getting out the widow, climbing up onto the top of the stagecoach, narrowly missing getting killed by a low hanging branch, but managing to grab the reins and bring the horses under control at the edge of a precipice the size of the Grand Canyon. This part was always played by that doyen of many tertiary westerns, Max Kerr.

The Noughties have been marked in the last five years by attempts to bring about a more orderly and disciplined system where funding by volume was replaced by a more measured view of what institutions ought to be doing. In a sector that had substantially grown downwards to include a plethora of courses at low levels, some of dubious worth, many leading to no enhanced access to a productive future for students, the attempts to get institutions back into the areas they ought to be working in was timely. This will continue to the theme.

But tertiary education needs to have both a long term strategic plan – what would the sector look like in 2030 and another more immediate set of responses to plan for how it is to get there. Let’s suppose that we can solve the issue of academic preparation for young people coming out of the compulsory school sector, what do we do about the considerable number of people in our community who have seen all educational opportunity pass them by or for one reason or another have been failed by the education system. A short term strategy is needed to get them re-engaged while at the same time the tertiary education system must not be allowed to slide back to where it wanted to take itself early in The Noughties.

If that happened we would see a switch of genre – from western to zombie.

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