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ThinkEd: Lifting the goals beyond our wildest dreams

Stuart Middleton


15 July 2010

 It is clear that the Government has been thinking – thinking about tertiary education and value for money and issues around success, failure, pathways and all that.

First we had tentative comments from Minister of Tertiary Education Hon Stephen Joyce about success and failure and whether finding could be related to some measures in that area. It is bound to happen eventually and discussion should focus within the sector on how best and most intelligently it could be achieved rather than any crude dismissal of it as an abrogation of the rights of tertiary education institutions and the students within them to fail at will.

Then Minister Joyce made a suggestion that perhaps tertiary education should be about getting a job and that funding could be directed more successfully to courses that had a clear link to employment. This is in line with a view developing in other countries that tertiary education (and high school too for that matter) is not just about graduation but about a career and employment. Responses to this suggestion were more muted other than the from the student leader who stated with as much firmness as he could muster that “We come here to learn not to train.” I might have thought that at a university you were very much being trained in the academic disciplines of thinking, expression and research.

And if the Minister wasn’t raising this issue in this way, what might we be getting? Well look around you and see what is happening in other countries.

Australian educators will be pleased that Julia Gillard has been kicked upstairs by the Labour Party. After all, it can’t be much fun having an Education Minister who exhibited so much joy in lurching towards strange goals for tertiary education. The Australians have set a goal of having 40% of all 25 to 34 year olds with a bachelor degree or above by 2020. This must have sent shivers down the spines of education leaders at all levels.

But Australia is not on its own. In keeping up the tradition among the Group of Five English-speaking Education Systems of aping each other regardless of common sense, they join the United States of America and Great Britain in setting this arbitrary target that takes little account of current performance and the reasons for it. The British set a target of 40% (a key recommendation of the Leitch Report) and more recently President Obama has set a target that the US would simply have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020!

Both countries will not get within a country mile of those targets given the performance of their K-12 education systems for a start and because of a number of other factors. Reaching such startling increases in graduating students would require huge increases (reportedly 70% in Britain) in the number of students who start a post-secondary qualification. That is because the attrition of tertiary students, a factor that has been stable and persistent over 60 years, sees that only 50% of students who start a post-secondary qualification actually complete it. So a target based on completion will also require targets for increases in the numbers entering post-secondary education and these will need to be greatly ahead of where they are now. Can any of the K-12 education systems deliver? Probably not and certainly not without huge changes and greatly increased expenditure within the school sector.

Other increases in expenditure reported as required to support the British rush towards its 40% target are an increase of 18,000 additional staff and billions of dollars for capital work. The first university to successfully breed pigs with wings could be on to something.

In the US, President Obama claims with great modesty that their goal of wanting to be in global first place in the college graduate stakes is more faint hope than attainable goal. I have just returned from the US. It generally accepted that disengagement from secondary education in the English-speaking world is running at 20%, I was told time and time again that in this US state and that US state the figure was easily 30%.

But having little regard for the real issues of quality K-12 education, Obama modestly places his goal alongside other wonderful achievements of US education such as the GI Bill and Truman’s Commission on Higher Education. The first turned the nightmare of the Second World War into the American dream of a college education while the second doubled the number of community colleges which became so central to making it seem that the dream was attainable by all.

I would like to see much more emphasis placed on two other goals if attaining the goal of increasing the completion of a post-secondary qualification let alone a university degree is to be attained.

The first is genuine access to two years of quality early childhood education (15 hours each week) which is recognised as the first of three key educational dots that need to be joined together. The second dot is the completion of secondary schooling (i.e. the attaining of the high school leaving qualification). If both these dots are joined then the third, the completion of a post-secondary qualification, is more likely. The completion of a post-secondary education is the third and critical education dot that if joined to the previous two will ensure advantage in life.

But this third dot emphasises the importance of a post-secondary qualification not necessarily or exclusively a bachelors degree qualification. In recognizing this, the US administration has taken a more realistic path towards their goal in recognising that community colleges and career and technical education have a central role to play in any targets that it sets.

A well-educated country is one which has a complete array of citizens qualified at all levels from low skilled employment (yes, that will always exist) through technician positions right up to the most brilliant researchers and scholars. The issue with the lurch towards bald targets for graduates is that the country that focuses only on reaching the latter and ignores just how students will get to start such a course and then to complete it could well end up killing itself by degrees.

 Let’s talk goals, let’s talk about funding success, but let’s do it sensibly.

Published inEducation

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