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ThinkEd: The ivy-clad ceiling – UE or not UE?

Stuart Middleton


26 July 2010

The story continues……

Well. Which story exactly? The story about the huge increases in university graduates that the western world lusts after.

An associated issue at the point of transition from the school sector into the post-secondary sector clusters around the ticket to go through the gate. And central to the goal of increasing university a graduate numbers is the numbers who are able to present the University Entrance ticket

New Zealand has been looking at NCEA and questions around Unit Standards and Achievement Standards as part of the ongoing evolution of NCEA as the central school leaving qualification. School leaving qualifications are asked to fulfill a number of functions. They provide the means for post-secondary education and training providers to assess the right step on the ladder from which a student can with confidence continue their journey through to postsecondary qualifications, they provide employers and community with information on a student’s success in the school system and they serve to motivate students as they develop a “moving-on-to-what-comes-next” focus for their senior secondary schooling.

In amongst this variety of purposes, University Entrance is but one and it would be a backward step if in trying to get UE into a form that exactly meets the various purposes of the universities and in so doing NCEA is distorted in its usefulness as a qualification and is diminished as a goal for many many students due to its inapplicability to their future. Students undertaking NCEA should be headed in a variety of directions – some to university, some to ITPs, some to PTEs, and others to employment and on the job training. NCEA must remain a flexible qualification that meets all these needs.

A real issue to be addressed is the fact that like other education systems, we arein New Zealand inarticulate about just which skills and knowledge students need if they are to admitted into the academy. In New Zealand in the olden days (i.e. prior to the 1990’s) there were no curriculum statements for senior secondary schooling. Teachers taught to the examination syllabi for University Entrance in the sixth form (Year 11) and the University Bursary / Scholarship examinations in the Seventh Form (Year 12).

Of course this did not mean that that there was necessarily a connection between what was taught and what was required in university study. The qualification called “University Entrance was an aggregated one and only in selective courses at the university was attention paid to which subjects had been studied and their connection to the enrolments of aspiring university students.

I was involved closely in English as a school subject back then and it was all a piece of theatre of the absurd. The syllabus was set by the University Entrance Board (increasingly with involvement of the school sector), students would study it, sit the examination and get or not get their University Entrance if they could muster four (English and three other subjects) above 50%. Then it didn’t matter a fig whether or not they had done well in English if they were going to enroll in it at the university. Nor did performance in English count for much in most of the other University subjects except, as I said, in some of the selective courses where specific subject were required and perhaps even to specified levels.

The use of examinations in the school system is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because it avoids the orgiastic testing outside the school system that characterises the United States and the UK micro-focus on O levels and A levels (although the breadth of subjects in that system is to be admired). But it really is a problem when one use of school achievement markers is to be used for multiple purposes. 

It is slowly dawning on us that the single focus on university study is serving neither the community nor the students well. As the importance of multiple pathways becomes increasingly apparent, it is critical that the approaches to the terminal qualifications of the schools system are not out under a pressure to be single pathway oriented. If defining “University Entrance” is to become a constraint on giving focus and meaning to multiple pathways in secondary schools, then the greater good must prevail – university entrance should be removed from the school system and become a matter for universities to deal with. That would be a bad thing to the extent that it could trigger a USA-style approach. But it must be said that the distortion of the secondary school programmes by the needs of the universities and to the detriment of so many students whose success lies in different pathways has gone on too long.

As the school curriculum is opening up rapidly, the development of any list of privileged subjects would be a very backward step. It would also fly in the face of what is known about preparedness for university. The considerable body of work undertaken in the USA on this supports the view that it is less about the subjects studied but rather more about the characteristics of the programmes and the learning experiences within them. “College knowledge” is less about the detritus of subject information and bits and pieces of knowledge (the importance of this is not dismissed entirely) but about a set of characteristics as a learner that will stand the learner in good stead in a post-secondary environment.

What a pity it would be and how counter-productive might it become if attempts to change the University Entrance measure, as is happening in New Zealand at the moment, were to result is simply another artificial barrier to learning at that level. Damage might already have been done by the privileging of Achievement Standards over Unit Standards – the University

Qualification could easily have been improved through simply setting out what universities want – if they indeed know with any degree of specificity what it is that they want. Their rather narrow concerns should not drive the overall shape of the school leaving qualification which must serve a wider group of students.

A prominent representative of the universities back in the early 1990’s probably set the tone with which they have approached this issue – he described Unit Standards as “intellectual finger food.”

Perhaps those involved in the review of NCEA should reflect on the fact that what they have been doing hasn’t been working in terms of admitting through the ivy-clad gates, students who can succeed in the numbers that we would wish. Widening the criteria rather than making the gate more narrow might well be a direction to head in.

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