17 February 2011
The mantra for education and especially senior secondary education and post-secondary education has to be “Get them in, keep them there and get them through.” Each part of the mantra has force and yet we concentrate significantly on the first part – getting them in.
This is on my mind at this time of the year as many students are starting tertiary programmes for the first time and part of the process will be their setting out to see if it fits. Can I manage this programme? Am I prepared for it academically? Does it seem to fit?
They will also ask rather more subtle but critical questions such as: Is this the area in which I really want to work? Do I want to go where this course is taking me? Do I want to spend part of my life doing this? Do I have the requisite level of comfort about what I am doing to really commit to it?
Our tertiary institutions are much too inflexible and rigid on the matter of changing programmes. If a student makes a choice that turns out to be a wrong fit then they wear the consequences of that decision on their own. Once they reach the point where it is apparent they are in the wrong programme they are usually past the point where institutions tolerate transfers laterally into another programme. All we can offer to student is to suggest that they get off the bus and wait for another one which will be along at the beginning of next semester or next year with no refund on the ticket.
Even after a year in longer programmes, tertiary providers are niggardly in giving credit that can be taken across to another programme. It is a case of Return to Go, Pay $200 (if only) and start again.
Both these behaviours do not reflect well on our commitment to the mantra. Do we teach little or nothing that is usefully transferred to a new programme? If we do then transfer should not be an issue provided that we can be articulate and explicit about the skills and knowledge that is transferable. If we can’t then it puts paid to all that talk we hear about creating lifelong learners and preparing students for the future, for jobs that haven’t been yet been invented and other such claims. If our teaching has been effective then with a little bit of help, a student should be able to transfer and get into a work of another programme.
There is also the force of the point at which students have the ability to withdraw (not transfer) without financial penalty. This has always been an official point at which students who have made their minds up about not wanting to continue or perhaps are starting to harbour doubts abandon their studies. Statistically this is a significant withdrawal point in the year in terms of students dropping out of tertiary education and training and yet it is entire an artificial creation of institutions.
It is ironic that the only money-back guarantee we offer in tertiary education is the short period trial, full refund on withdrawal. This is more typical of the El Cheapo Infomercial world than it is of those selling quality products where customer guarantees are based on quality, length of durability and the sellers’ willingness to back their product.
It might be better if students were not in this position and that is where issues of career guidance, course counselling and intensive student support are so important.
In light of the patterns of disengagement from education and levels of failure in tertiary education, I am starting to be persuaded that the whole process of career guidance needs a shake up. Looking at education systems that enjoy higher levels of engagement and of success than we do, there seems to be a greater emphasis on students’ making some decisions about vocational direction by about the age of 12 years and having a clear direction established and acted on by about the age of 14 years. This does not mean the return of the 11+ examination or boys up chimneys at the age of 12 years; nor does it mean that employment becomes the sole focus of schooling.
What this requires is an understanding and recognition that the subjects chosen and the levels of academic application demonstrated will have an impact on later choices. Life chances might in fact be reduced or increased by decisions being made from about that age. The flippant and informal choice of subjects on the basis of what friends are doing, which teacher is taking which class and perceptions of what seem to be easy options that will lead to effortless credit harvesting are an inadequate basis on which to build a platform for later success.
But all this requires accurate information being delivered to students. There is growing evidence especially in the USA that students simply so not have access to enough information, to information that is accurate, or to information delivered at the right time and in forms that are able to be grasped by them. Surely this is easy to fix.
As for student support in tertiary programmes, all the evidence says that support that is delivered before the need for it becomes an issue is more effective that that made available after the need is apparent. Support that is delivered at the start of a programme will lead to increased numbers of students staying in programmes and enjoying success.
“Flexible pathways” is a notion that will increasingly drive us in the education of 15 – 19 year olds. It doesn’t just mean that there are multiple pathways into tertiary education, there must also be multiple pathways within tertiary education. Institutions are proud of concepts such as stair-casing but as my uncle used to say – “a ladder isn’t much use if it is up against the wrong wall.” Multiple pathways must operate not only vertically into institutions but also horizontally within them. This will be central to “keeping them there.”
The challenge for tertiary education is to see that those who start the programme stay the course.