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Pathway-ED: It takes more than a village; it takes a country

Stuart Middleton
30 June 2011

In both Australia and New Zealand currently there is increased discussion about the need to engage young people especially but more people generally in  vocational and technical education.

In New Zealand the Government is pursuing a policy it calls Youth Guarantee which is an umbrella under which a variety of initiative aimed at keeping students in education and directing increased numbers into vocation and technical courses are being encouraged. In Australia, a recent report[1] makes explicit the valuable role that VET is playing in Australia in a wide range of programmes. It also makes clear the role VET is playing in bringing a semblance of equity into the Australian postsecondary provision.

The performance of education systems in both countries would look pretty sad if only the contribution of the universities was the measure of equitable access to qualifications and the benefits that come with them. A critical mass of students from traditionally under-represented groups find positive pathways through programmes offered at a sub-degree level and which lead them to those highly valued technical and middle level qualifications of which both countries are very short.

There is no evidence that there is a shortage of degree graduates in either country and when there are such shortages it is often in areas that have declared the need for a degree level qualification despite the proven worth of diploma qualification over many years – I think of various levels of teaching, nursing, town planning and so on. In New Zealand IPENZ the professional body for engineers has recently completed a survey that shows that the pressures in that sector come not from a shortage of degree-qualified people but from a serious shortage of those qualified with middle level and technical qualifications.

Therefore the setting of targets related to proportions of the population who should have degrees is simply a silly exercise. Australia and the UK with their 40% targets are ignoring the importance of having a spread of qualifications across levels to maintain industry and commerce. Even the credibility of such targets has been attacked in Britain where, it is claimed, the government would be stretched beyond their limit by the capital expenditure if this were to be the goal and even if they could, where would the teachers come from? It simply wouldn’t happen.

In the US, the even higher targets mean even less when so many of their indicators are headed to the frozen south at a great speed. Of course the broadening of the goal that every one should go to “college” was achieved through the development of community colleges in the US – this adding of opportunity underneath the conventional “higher education” happened also in New Zealand.

New Zealand used to have a clear “higher education” sector which required the University Entrance qualification and generally five years at secondary school. This was a track favoured by about 10% of each cohort. Others left earlier to enter employment or vocational education and often both. But the removal of pathways through the mid-1970s to thje mid-1990s saw many young people stranded with nowhere to go – the only choice was to remain at schools in which the curriculum had become comprehensive and markedly academic.

But we are seeing our way out of that now and a renewed focus on pathways and linked learning that both sets students in a direction but with options is likely to see a reversal in the worrying trends of disengagement, low qualification, poor preparation and the other facts that weight so heavily in terms of equitable access to further and higher education and the rewards that go with it. Who knows, one day our system might even develop some of the flexibility of the Scandinavians and other and students with credible middle level qualifications gained in a vocational area will be able to transfer with ease into higher level qualifications should they wish to.

But if New Zealand and Australia want to make real, the professed commitments to equitable access to further and higher education and to meaningful qualifications it will require changes in policy settings (that is happening), investment of resources where it will make an impact (that must be at the senior secondary / lower tertiary levels) and a different level of parity of esteem between those meeting the needs of the countries through different pathways by different provision with different sets of people.

[1] Wheelahan, Leesa; & Moodie, Gavin (2010) The quality of teaching in VET: Final report and recommendations produced for the Quality of Teaching in VET project, Australian College of Educators

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Pathways-ED: Foundations of success

Stuart Middleton
9 June 2011

I failed with some style in my first year at university. My twin brother and I were the first in our family to attend university and we took failure in our stride just as easily as we took success. Oh well, that is what happens we supposed. We bounced back and I have long since described the four year approach to the first three year degree as strategic and based on the view that allowing the concrete to set well in the foundations led to many a good building.

It is a complex business being the first. My subject choices through secondary school were relatively random and the only assistance I got at home was a single comment at the beginning of the third year secondary when my Mum said that “Dad wonders if you should be taking a subject that is related to getting a job.” This was when I determined that I would do music as a subject – at that point the only music I had was what was learned in a brass band having missed out on tuition on the bagpipes for various reasons which would have allowed us to follow in our father’s footsteps or is that fingerprints (with grace notes)?

I can recall no discussion about careers around the dinner table or indeed about subject choice. We selected subjects on the basis of what we thought we could manage and what we thought we might like. So Form 5, the School Certificate year and here I was taking English, mathematics, Latin, Music and French. I passed School Certificate in the days when you needed 200 marks in your best four subjects including English with 32 marks to spare. I wondered if I should perhaps ease back a little to avoid burnout.

Latin got dropped in subsequent years. So when it came to university, subject choice for the first year was based on what? Well that was simple; I wanted to go to the new fledging university in Hamilton (still a branch of Auckland University and only in my second year to become the University of Waikato) and had no appetite for leaving Hamilton at that point. So I chose subjects from the literal handful that they offered – French, English and History, declining to do geography. Yes, that’s it folks when it came to choosing university subjects in Hamilton in 1964!

It was in History where I came unstuck. Our Mother was very interested in history but it was New Zealand history and there I was becoming acquainted with Japanese, German and US history. And having not been taught at school to write a history essay my efforts were what might be described as hesitant. I blame no-one for this because it simply was how things were.

You see, there was never any doubt about both the job I was headed towards and the fact that I would get one. I had applied for and secured what was called in those days a Teaching Studentship – you got paid wages to go to university to be a teacher. Yes someone decided that at the age of 17 I was likely to be satisfactory teacher which was either an act of faith or a sign of desperation for teachers which were in very short supply in the 1960’s. We were bonded year for year to teach at the end of our education and training.

So it was with an incomplete degree that I headed off to teachers college in Auckland. I arrived late to be given a stern talking to by the principal of the day (I had been completing National Service in the army so he was on shaky grounds). I was given a ticking off by a respected principal of a prestigious school when I went there on teaching practice – what do you think of coming here with an incomplete degree? My suggestion that he should think of it as a BA -1 was clearly not a path to pursue. At the teachers college I was advised sternly (for these were pretty stern days) that I must enroll in Education at Auckland University. I could see no sense in this as I was at Teachers College where I had a not unreasonable expectation that they would deal with Education on the way through. I enrolled in Anthropology 1.

Of all the papers I did, these were the best. This was the only time in my first degree that New Zealand was mentioned. Maori Studies had progressed only as far as appointing a lecturer and Anthropology dealt with those topics. Dr Ranganui Walker taught a course that introduced us to dimensions of Maori, both modern and ancient, that my education had studiously declined to do up to that point. Rev. Bob Challis taught a course on Pacific Islanders in New Zealand and opened our eyes to the phenomenon of migration to New Zealand. Dr Les Groube in the physical anthropology course took us up to Orakei Basin for an archaeological dig on the pa site there. And there was a course on Aboriginal society in Australia. This stuff was close to home and excited me more than anything else I had studied. There was also a course on monarchies in African societies that I suppose we did because of a lecturer’s PhD studies.

It was the only paper in my first degree in which I scored an A pass. Finishing on a high note has always been a good philosophy in study as well as sport and most other things!

By the end of my first degree I no longer thought of myself as a first generation student. Twelve of the fourteen members from the next generation of our family completed a university degree. We simply expected them to succeed.

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Talk-ED: Thrilling ourselves by degrees

Stuart Middleton
25 May 2011

Excuse me if I sound a but out of breath as I write this – it’s graduation week and we have all those exciting ceremonies and events that all take time. But it’s time well spent because in so many ways this week is what it is all about. It is the moment for staff and students to put on their best clothes, adorn themselves with academic finery and strut their stuff.

I cannot help be reminded of the “first-in-family” impact of what we are seeing at each ceremony. There are many young ones in the audience. I used to think of the first in family as a linear force that affected each of the family that came behind the pioneering graduate. But more and more I think that the appropriate metaphor for the impact is that of a cluster bomb.

The impact of a first-in-family graduate is not linear but multi-directional – it doesn’t just affect those who come behind, the sons, daughters and grandchildren, but also the aunts and uncles, the cousins, nieces and nephews, perhaps even the neighbours. This deserves more careful study.

So 1,000 graduates who are first-in-family students might well influence the futures of 10,000 others? More? Whatever it is it is significant and perhaps this is where investment could be made. Here’s an idea: a first-in-family graduate is given a voucher for say $15,000 that can only be used on the post-secondary education and training of immediate family members. There would need to be rules around this but it certainly could be done. The money is held in trust by the provider from which the student graduates and is then cashed in at any registered tertiary education institution as required.

This would have an additional impact to that created by the additional income that a graduate is assured of. A study reported this week in Washington that a graduate with a bachelor’s degree could expect to earn 74% more than someone whose highest qualification is a high school diploma (which equals NCEA Level 2). If they have a postsecondary qualification above a bachelors degree those earnings are 84% higher that the high school graduate.

The report notes that tertiary education institutions have had a different purpose since about the 1970s – “they are no longer conforming to the image held by some of large liberal arts institutions in which everyone sits on the lawn and reads Shakespeare.” They are now highly vocational institutions. In fact Anthony Carnavale, author of the study, notes that college in the US is being linked much more closely with future occupations. He also notes that there are clear and significant the differences between degrees in different disciplines in terms of lifetime income.

But the overall message of the report is that Bachelor degrees are worth it, they will position those who graduate so that they can earn a family sustaining income and be advantaged financially over their lifetime.

Finally I note the ages of those who graduate. Degree study is not the preserve of the young nor should it be. A girl being born in Auckland this year can expect to live to between 97 and 100 years of age. The old paradigm of educate, work, retire, die is being replaced by a much more cyclical profile for living with the cycle of educate and work being repeated. I think that is what they mean by “lifelong learning” – it must mean being equipped for these periodic learning episodes. If it simply means that each and every waking moment is filled with learning it is too trite for words. The new world has us all earning and learning over and over again.

Oh yes, graduations are a great thrill and a great stimulus. I love them. The medieval clothing, the ceremony, the singing. My only regret is that the hymn Gaudeamus Igitur no longer features as much. The web tells me that the song is “an endorsement of the bacchanalian mayhem of student life while simultaneously retaining the grim knowledge that one day we will all die. The song contains humorous and ironic references to sex and death”. Goodness me, I have only sung the first and last verse which are a wonderful set of sentiments.


Gaudeamus igitur

Iuvenes dum sumus.

Post iucundam iuventutem

Post molestam senectutem

Nos habebit humus.


Let us rejoice, therefore,

While we are young.

After a pleasant youth

After a troubling old age

The earth will have us.


Vivat academia!

Vivant professores!

Vivat membrum quodlibet;

Vivant membra quaelibet;

Semper sint in flore.


Long live the academy!

Long live the professors!

Long live each student;

Long live the whole fraternity;

For ever may they flourish


That last verse is such a statement. I go home from each graduation wanting each of our graduates to flourish and for their families to experience the academy.


Talk-ED: Same dream, same nightmare

Stuart Middleton
16 May 2011

There is quite a lot of current interest in transitions from the K-16 education system and postsecondary education. This is a complex area and among other things there is a focus on careers education and the kinds of advice that students seek and receive. 

A report[1] completed in 2003 challenged the extent to which the USA education systems had met their end of the bargain in helping students manage that transition. In fact the report’s title makes clear how the authors concluded that they had not – “Betraying the dream.” One interesting table catalogues some common misconceptions about preparing for and attending postsecondary institutions especially university. The myths that might well apply to our education system are: 

            I can’t afford to go to university 

The report found that US students regularly overestimated the cost of going to university. 

            I have to be a stellar athlete or student to get financial aid 

This has a particular US flavour to it with the extensive sports programmes that tertiary institutions have. In fact there is a wide range of financial aid available to students. Do students in New Zealand have accurate information about the costs, the costs of borrowing through student loans and the assistance available through allowances? Do students understand these to such an extent that they can explain them to their caregivers? 

            Meeting high school graduation requirements will prepare me for university  

There is generally a discrepancy between high school graduation levels and the entry requirements into tertiary institutions and into some programmes within them. In New Zealand it seems as is NCEA Level 2 is emerging as a “School Leaving Standard” which would equate to the US high school graduation (a term not used in this country). 

            Getting into college is the hardest part 

Have we got news for you! For most students the hardest part will be completing the tertiary course – many don’t! 

            Community colleges don’t have academic standards 

Is this a perception that New Zealand students have of, say, polytechnics? The community college has similarities to our polytechnics (although the NZ institutions offer a more extensive set of qualifications that are longer and at a higher level than the typical two year qualifications of the US community college – but the open access is common to both. Is this part of the process that sees some New Zealand students ostensibly headed towards a university programme for which they are ill-prepared? 

            It’s better to take easier classes in high school and get better grades 

Success in taking tougher courses in high school is a constant predictor of success later – merely harvesting credit is no substitute for a sound academic preparation for higher and further education. 

            My senior year in high school doesn’t matter 

You would think sometimes, what with balls of both the sporting and the dancing kind that this myth is well and truly alive in New Zealand! Should some students be moving through the senior school more quickly? 

            I can take whatever classes I want when I get to university 

It is all a little bit tighter than students understand. Some universities have lifted their general entry standard so that it is higher than the plain “University Entrance”, many courses have particular requirements. These should be known by students well in advance of course selection in the final two years of school. 

And this raises an important question. Are students encouraged to think about the detail of their future pathway, especially those who are headed towards university? Do they understand the detail of it all? Is the importance of those last two years at school in terms of future success at university well understood? Or do too many students simply drift toward their postsecondary futures? 

[1] Andrea Venezia,  Michael W. Kirst, and Anthony L. Antonio (2003) Betraying the college dream: How disconnected K-12 systems undermine student aspirations, The Standford Institute for Higher Education Research.

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Pathway-ED: Spotting trees through the woods

Stuart Middleton
31 March 2011

Increasingly there is a realisation that the profile of the teaching force at whatever level best meets the needs of students if it can to a degree reflect the profile of the student population. Consequently there is an increasing interest in appointing a diverse range of people to teaching positions in education institutions.

This includes increasing the numbers of Maori and Pacific Islands teachers especially in post-secondary institutions.

At one level the solution to this dilemma is simple:  “If you want them appoint them!”

But at a range of other levels the issue is quite complex and involves a very vicious circle. The progress of Maori and Pacific Islands students through the school system, through the entry requirements of tertiary education and through a first degree programme to graduation is still constrained by a whole range of issues that are well-known and need not be detailed right now and just here. The number who can then proceed to higher degrees is even more restricted by the processes that make attainment of qualifications at those higher levels a tough call for all students.

Competition is keen among those groups wanting to recruit graduates with degree and postgraduate qualifications. Teaching simply has to line up with everyone else to get these students into the profession.

So the pool of people potentially able to be teachers and who reflect the demographics, especially the groups of the under-represented and the under-served is neither wide nor deep. We could once use the word term “minority groups” to describe the groups from which we wanted to see increased representation in the teaching force but this makes little sense as the birth cohort in Auckland now has a majority of babies born into the Maori and Pacific Islands communities, a trend which will eventually be a national one.

As long as the population trends grow more steeply and more quickly that the increase in educational attainments we shall fail to achieve the teaching forces in schools and tertiary institutions that truly reflect the people of this nation.

These are international trends and no country has yet provided an effective response to the challenge.

But I also think that there needs to be a re-assessment of ethnicity as a quality that should be taken note of in the recruitment of teachers. If we were to see experience as a really important factor in the basket of skills, knowledge, aspirations and dispositions that people bring with them into a teaching position (and we would claim that we do) then the experience of being from this or that ethnic group is surely an important element in the things that qualify people for a position, or make them the strongest applicant, or adds that extra something that interview and appointment panels seek.

Similarly in a linguistically diverse community surely additional notice should be taken of the ability to bring more than one language into a position. The experience of being bilingual is not simulated through simply learning a foreign language for a few years and the authentic experience of the bilingual person must give them an edge in working with bilingual students.

And this is what all this is about – an edge. Many people will have the basic qualifications and qualities to be a teacher, but educational institutions seek to put before their students, people who have this and an edge. It could be a special empathy with students or an outstanding ability to pass on the excitement of a discipline. But it could also be an affinity with particular ethnic groups, a skill in the language of another group, a life experience that makes understanding the experience of others more acute.

This edge in fact becomes in itself something of a qualification to teach. Perhaps the teachers we need are out there but our search capability is using too narrow a telescope.


Pathway-ED: Pondering on pay and pathways

Stuart Middleton
18 March 2011

It is always good to hear that industrial disputes involving teachers have been settled and agreement reached on pay issues. Such drawn out issues are disruptive, distracting and distressing for teachers who want to get on with the job. They are also critically important. The quality of a settlement is a key factor in teacher recruitment especially of young New Zealand potential teachers and although there are other factors that impact on recruitment the promise of a fair and competitive remuneration is a big influence.

Details are yet to be announced but media reports suggest that the settlement is based around a simple equation that says that a degree of any kind plus a teaching qualification will pull a greater salary than simply a teaching degree.:

$ [(Degree) + (Teaching Qualification)] > $(Teaching Degree)

Media reports also suggest that this is intended by and large to head off primary teachers and restore the advantage secondary teachers had prior to the introduction of pay equity. This is surely simplistic analysis because the formula will apply to quite a number of primary teachers (probably as many as 30%) and we can expect their next pay round to attempt to secure the same conditions for that group in the interests of pay equity.

I must comment on the restoration of the importance of the Christmas Holiday that separates primary education from secondary education. What is it about a 50 day break that requires distinctly different qualification profiles on each side? The excessive emphasis on qualification type and on remuneration based on shoe size and the number of Christmas holidays were all argued against in the days of the quest for pay equity. Now it’s back to the future or is that buck to the future?

No one can argue against the value of a degree in general regardless of the fact that a portion of any degree will be unrelated to the disciplines subsequently taught. My degree qualifications include English, French History, Philosophy and Anthropology. I taught French (briefly and badly) and English (rather better I think). I have never formally studied business but I teach on an MBA programme and supervise doctoral students on a range of topics some related tangentially to education. There is a general value to general degree education that is greatly to be encouraged – a liberal education indeed demands it.

But to claim that this should trump a degree in teaching is a big call (and rather denigrating of such degrees). Has enough thought been given to the place of a teaching degree for secondary teaching? When there is such an inexorable drift towards vocational degrees in the university it might well have had a valuable place.

And there may be some unintended consequences to this settlement if it has been portrayed accurately.

We are inevitably going into a phase of development in secondary education that will require the senior secondary school to expand the pathways available to students.  There is a call for much more opportunity for students to engage with career and technical education at an earlier point. Conventional academic education designed to get students to the starting gate for a university / degree programme remains important but finally there is a realisation that a growing number of students are not well served and in many cases not at all by this single focus. This raises the issue of who then is needed to teach in the secondary school of the future?

If secondary schools are to have an increased capability in the delivery of the trades and career and technical programmes then the degree + teaching formula qualification doesn’t work. The people required for this will be those undertaking teaching as a second career. Does that ring a bell?

One of the historical, clear and hurtful divisions within the secondary teaching community was between technical teachers and the rest simply because their experience and qualifications were not given equity with the degree qualified teachers required for subjects of the conventional academic canon. I taught many technical teachers in my early years as a teachers college lecturer. They brought a wealth of experience from the world of work and life in general into the classroom. More importantly they taught applied subjects on the basis of long experience in applying them outside of the classroom – real teaching about real world activity. We know that large numbers of students responded to this and were able to access secure futures from it.

But we solved all that – a points system awarded them degree equivalence and promoted them into G3 to get equivalent pay (on reflection that was quite patronising). We then stripped a huge amount of the technical education capacity out of the school and looked for degree-qualified teachers to teach technology (which might have been much better served by attracting technologists who often don’t have degree qualifications – this does go around in circles.)

If an unintended consequence of the increased focus on degree + teaching qualification as the entry ticket to secondary teaching is a more constrained ability to provide that expanded set of pathways to students, the only way open to students will be to access those options outside of the school system (in polytechnics or private training providers or industry based training for instance). Alternately, the capability to provide for that group of students will need to be brought into the school through the development of innovative pathways to tertiary and industry-recognised qualifications. Trade Academies and suchlike developments are already starting this process.

Finally, I am again wondering whether teacher pay and student pathways are both impacted on negatively by the continuation of a sector-based approach to education. But that is another story.

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Leaping ahead of ourselves

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.22, 12 June 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

The International Olympic Committee has just announced an exciting new development for the Olympic Games. In a press release from the IOC President yesterday, it was announced that in the track and field programme the long jump would be combined with the high jump to create a new event – the Vertizontal Jump. In this event the athletes would, in one movement, take off over a long jump pit and then clear the high jump bar in one mighty effort that defies imagination.

It might also defy the laws of physics. But that is progress.

The polytechnic world is watching these developments with interest because a similar effort is being made within that sector to promote a not dissimilar development. The equivalent of the Vertizontal* Jump is the inexorable trend to increase access and participation while seeking to have an emphasis on Level 4+ qualifications.

This development defies the laws of the physics of learning. We know that learning that is best is continuous therefore it must start exactly where the learner is in terms of their progress to that point. Linked to this is Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development. Put simply, learning takes place just past the point at which previous learning has taken place. So reaching learners requires us to actually assess where they are and start from that point.

Level 4+ is a goal, it is the high jump, it is the end point in a journey, which is the long jump, rather than a starting point. Students who are equipped to get stuck into Level 4+ programmes are almost certainly already at Level 4. If we are to be serious about getting students to Level 4+ qualifications we have to be realistic about the continuous pathways that polytechnics will have to offer. This means that polytechnics will have to offer programmes at Level 1 and Level 2 and Level 3. It means that polytechnics will certainly have to offer entry level programmes for those whose lives have not equipped them to undertake study towards employment.

Now this raises a couple of issues – first the issue of second chance learners and secondly the pathways required for many school leavers into further education and training.

Second chance learners need provision by way of lower level programmes as stepping stones towards those Level 4+ programmes that will take them into higher qualifications and enhance employment opportunities. Second chance learning is not an easy track. One USA commentator states baldly that the one thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

Second chance learners can also benefit from tangential pathways such as those offered by adult and community education. I am not going into the merits or otherwise of specific programmes but there is evidence that programmes of this kind are a positive pathway into the very programmes that lead to Level 4* qualifications.

School leavers are another group who find the Vertizontal Jump just too hard. In fact those who are really struggling opt to enter the Hop Skip and Jump instead – they hop out the gate, skip classes and jump the educational ship. If we are serious about addressing the group of disengaged students we had better be serious about continuous pathways through Levels 1 – 4 in order to get them into Level 4+ programmes

The USA Community College was invented to provide open access to further education and training and has become something of a metaphor for equal opportunity and access. They carry a mission to take and serve anyone who turns up and thus keep intact the American Dream that each and every USA citizen can “go to college”. In New Zealand, the only institution that can adopt the same mission is the polytechnic and Level 1-3 programmes will be to them what remediation programmes are to the USA Community College.

In an ideal world all students would be on a flawless path to educational excellence that sees them well into higher educational qualifications sometime in their teen years. But that is not the situation that we find ourselves in at the start of this century. Either educational institutions open up to cater for wider groups in the community or progressively fewer people will reach high level qualifications. This is an equation that brings with it economic and social threats.

Groups of at-risk young people are faced with a horny dilemma – the institutions and pathways that have contributed to their situation (admittedly they have willingly gone down less productive pathways in many instances) are then held up as the only pathway out of their situation. The truth is always in the middle – educational institutions might well be the best option through which to seek redemption but it will not be educational institutions doing the same old thing.

That provides a challenge to most aspects of educational provision. Funding mechanisms need to have a capability to mount programmes that are different, quality measures need to be able to take such flexible provision and delivery into account. The notion of levels might have to be suspended until the educational infrastructure required in a successful student is reconstructed and in some cases built for the first time.

We can dream of a time when such work is rare. A time when all students are on positive and successful tracks working with purpose towards sound qualifications and a set of personal skills that enables them to contribute positively to their community, to be successful in employment, to have the capability to earn a family sustaining wage and to make the best of the talent and skills they have.

That, after all, was the New Zealand educational dream – that each and every person will have an education which achieves that – the educational nightmare comes from thinking that this requires us to ensure that each and every person will have the same education.


 * I am indebted to that great philosopher Archie Bunker who invented the word “vertizontal”. Like all great thinkers and writers he believed that language should be his servant!

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