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It’s not the party it used to be.

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day…….”

We would sing songs such as this lustily at parties when I went to university in the 1960s and we really did believe that “they would never end.” Especially when it came to free tertiary education.

Well, it was as close to free as you could wish – I recall paying a services fee of perhaps $70 and that was it. Added to that was the fact that I also had a Secondary  (it might even have been Post-Primary then) Teacher’s Studentship which meant that a wage was paid while I was at university and this bonded me to teach for the same length of time as I had been supported. And…. In addition to all that, holiday employment was easy to get.

So we worked hard and had a really great time at university. I say we because my twin brother and I stuck pretty closely together on these matters. And our only academic distinction is that we were the first set of twins to graduate from the University of Waikato.

These things come to mind as I face going down to Hamilton on Saturday to meet with the “Early Students Reunion”. This is for those who attended Waikato in its first two years 1964 and 1965 and it is part of the year’s 50 year celebrations. It will be great to see what was a pretty tight bunch of students who formed the core student body in those first two years at the Hillcrest site. There were some part-timers as well and especially so after the teachers college opened on the site in about 1965.

And thinking about students and money it is hard to see that the current situation where students stack up debt to quite a considerable degree in order to get a degree is actually an improvement on what used to happen.

This might have driven the odd (in all senses of the word) “professional student” out of the system – there weren’t such people of course in provincial Hamilton back then but when I spent a year at the University of Auckland I was surprised by the apparent occupational class of “full-time-students-not-engaged-in-serious-study and perhaps-in-no-study-at-all!”.

But worse, it leaves graduating students not with the thrill of making a real start in life, a job that might lead to a career. Now, it’s a case of getting an income that will allow them to pay off debt. This means that it takes time for them to develop savings. I wonder, is this part of the issue of young people not being able to afford homes in their mid-twenties? They will just be starting to gain momentum free of debt when other sets of responsibilities come along.

It is pleasing that the Government is countenancing increasingly programmes and initiatives that are free of fees – Youth Guarantee is a good example although this is also driven by the issue of allowing students the same right to a free education that secondary school students enjoy to the age of 19 years. The Maori and Pasifika Trades Training initiative is another good example but again this is in one sense simply giving priority to an under-served group labeled as “priority learners”.

The tired old argument about whether tertiary education is a public good or a private gain needs to be put to one side – it is clearly both. And both outcomes – public good and private gain – are good for the family, the community, the economy and the country. And finding ways of engaging our best young people in teaching by schemes such as the old Div C Studentship should be considered. Ignoring quality can be the only way that the old tired market view that there is no shortage of people wanting to teach therefore there is no need for such an approach can be pursued.

We need top students who will become top teachers, students who are excellent in mathematics and sciences and other subjects, those who are clearly destined to be good leaders, the articulate and the enthusiastic – all qualities and characteristics that can be gauged at a school leaving age.

We thought they’d never end and those might well have been the days – but they did end and these days are not so great for students.

I hope we don’t get morose thinking about this at the reunion.

Cue in music. Start singing.

Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do


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Talk-ED: A world class University in New Zealand

Stuart Middleton
7 May 2012

Something of a discussion almost started last week when University of Auckland Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon published an opinion piece in the NZ Herald arguing that if New Zealand wished to have world class universities it had better spend more on them.

He pointed out that the ranking of New Zealand universities in “Top World Class University” lists was steadily falling. Of course there are a number of these lists so no doubt we like to refer to lists on which NZ does well but currently they all make for challenging reading. In the highly regarded Shanghai Jiao Tong 2011 Academic ranking of World Universities, New Zealand had no universities in the top 100, indeed the top 200. Australia had four in the top 100.

The top ten universities in the world were: Harvard (No.1 for many years), MIT (Massachusetts not Otara!), UC Berkeley, University of Cambridge, Caltech, Princeton, Columbia (NY), Chicago and Oxford.

In wondering about solutions, VC McCutcheon noted that having fewer students at university would be one way provided the same amount of money was available. But I have another solution.

In the late 1990s Lord Dearing posited that there was a quantum of population required to generate a world class university – I think it was about 4 million people. On that basis New Zealand could perhaps have reasonable aspirations to have one world class university, Australia five, the UK fifteen and so on. That seems about right.

So if New Zealand is to have one world class university it can only be the University of Auckland on current ratings. So a decision should be made that the funding models and emphases of that university will be driven towards achieving Top 100 status.

Wait a minute, there is another factor to be taken into account here – the size of the university. If you look at a selection of the world’s best universities the size is surprisingly small: Stanford University – 15,500; Harvard University – 21,000; MIT (US) – 10,894; Oxford University – 21,000 and University of Cambridge – 18,000.

University of Auckland has 40,000 students. Can it hope to compete?

Another factor. If you look at the small set of top world-class universities,  the ratio of undergraduate students to postgraduate students is as follows:

Stanford University – undergraduate students 44%: postgraduate students 56%; Harvard University – 31%:69%; MIT (US) – 40%:60%; Oxford University – 55%:44%; University of Cambridge- 66%:33%. So the USA universities are markedly weighted towards postgraduate students.

The University of Auckland has 75% undergraduate and 25% postgraduate students. Can it hope to compete?

Interestingly, the other New Zealand ratios in this regard are: Massey 76%:24%; Canterbury 86%:14%; Waikato 84%:16%; Victoria 76%:24% and Otago 78%:22%. So three New Zealand universities have very similar ratios. [1]

Here is my plan for New Zealand to get into the Top 100 university list and stay there.

  1.  The University of Auckland should be designated our university for which this is a goal – New Zealand’s World Class University

The justification for this is its current superior world ranking when compared to the rest and its situation. It is in New Zealand’s largest city which has a wide range of tertiary provision therefore freeing up the University of Auckland to have a special goal – Massey, AUT, the two Polytechnics (Unitec and MIT(NZ)) and Te Wananga o Aotearoa can provide excellent tertiary education for Auckland to complement the narrower and targeted approach the University of Auckland would be taking.

In light of the above information about Top 100 universities, the University of Auckland must also consider two further actions:

  1. reducing its size by 50%:
  1. shifting the balance of undergraduate to postgraduate students to something closer to that of the top USA universities.

Were this solution accepted, there would be no need for reduced student numbers in tertiary programmes, simply a redistribution of numbers across Auckland providers. A smaller University of Auckland focussed on research and predominantly concerned with postgraduate university education would quickly return to the Top 100 list at no additional cost to the government. To achieve this the University of Auckland might have to be funded on a different basis to the rest, so be it.

Yes, this is elitist, so is Valerie Adams winning the shot putt and our rowers winning races and the high regard in which so many aspects of New Zealanders achievements are held. Well, I think we just have to accept that, get over it and move on. To think that we can have more than one world class university is sheer stupidity and it is even quite insane to hold back our best chance on some spurious egalitarian argument. 

[1]Figures for the undergraduate / postgraduate split at AUT were presented a little differently with 84% of students working at Bachelor level or above.


Talk-ED: The agony of the pathway decision

Stuart Middleton
21 March 2011

I do not read those Agony Aunt pieces in the media in which people write of their problems to receive advice as to how to deal with them (Never!) nor do I think that they give advice that is sensible (How do I know this?).

But it leapt off the page in the newspaper [1] the other day – a reference to Ms Middleton-Stuart. What is going on here I thought? It was a short column in which a “celebrity” mother and her “A-list” daughter both answer the question.

The question was this: I wish to study English history at university but my parents say it is a waste of time and I should work towards the future not the past?

Celebrity Mother advised: “As I was brought up in London, English history was rammed down our throats by our history teacher, the haystacked-haired Ms Middleton-Stuart, and all I remember was all the girls were called Anne, Katherine or Elizabeth and all the men were Henry and Thomas. I thought all the men were sleeping with their sisters for years. But now I love it to bits. They were all crazy egotistical maniacs – nothing makes for better reading or studying.”

A-List Daughter weighed in with: “Isn’t there a saying about knowing your past in order to venture into the future? Even if that’s not the case, you’re the one going to university. Your parents shouldn’t have control over your decisions at this point. It’s your future, not theirs. Let them cool off. They’ll get over it.”

There is a touch of irony about this in light of our recent chat about careers advice and all that. What was the worry that this daughter/parents discussion seeks to address? Is it the value of the study of History (and perhaps by extension subjects like it)? Is it about the pragmatism of subject selection in a modern world – getting a job, earning a living, and all that? Is it a matter that should simply be dismissed as a point at issue between a daughter and her parents?

History, all the arts subjects (and many of the sciences) have a value that goes well beyond the ostensible content of a course. They develop not only skills related to knowledge of that area but also of thinking and analysis. They develop an understanding of the world as it was and as it is. It is the point of a university degree that it should lead students to these higher levels of intellectual activity.

Bob Jones, businessman, one-time party political leader and commentator argues strongly for the value of such courses and can be snide about the narrow focus of many of the new degrees universities have poured into their offerings. It will be seen as one of the mistakes of education in the late 20th Century that university education became increasingly vocational. There was a time when vocational areas were postgraduate courses which were taken after a general arts or science degree. Now many are first degree specialism. And we ask the question whether those engaging in that activity would make a greater contribution had they first studied a general degree?

The extent to which subjects should be chosen for their “usefulness” seems often to be closely concerned with the ability to get a job and earn a living? Eventually this must be kept in mind remembering that high level academic activity such as research and teaching is at one level simply earning a living. Considerations of how the package of subjects studied at university might come together to form a substantial basis for future activity and progress for the students should be in the mix of factors that inform students decisions about pathways.

There is a contradiction in the parent’s position that studying history is not “working towards the future”. How can we understand the future if it is not based on an understanding of the past, of its history, language, legal practices, culture and development? If you grapple with the future on its own there is a danger that uncritically it is thought to be the pinnacle of civilisation and thinking.

I dismiss as petulance the advice for the parents to “clear out of this decision, it’s your life!” and the exhortations to “let them cool off” and “get over it”. This is Generation Y sludge – carry on like this and they will soon be talking of “seeking closure”!

Families should be involved in discussions about directions and courses and futures – that is after all the advantage that the middle classes and the rich have over everyone else, a control of their own destinies and that of their children. They have always been concerned about it and parental concern has always quite properly been valid and useful. This is not to say that I endorse the behavior of “hover parents” who cannot let their little ones go when they set off to college and who continue to exercise a level of surveillance and control which probably exceeds that which they had when their children lived at home. It is quite an issue for some colleges in the US.

An agony aunt’s history teacher called Ms Middleton-Stuart, Prince Harry to marry Catherine Middleton – I see auspicious stars aligning with the moon. I may even consult an Agony Aunt. Better, I think I shall set up an Agony Uncle Advice service – but my Mum is not around to help, she would have sorted them out.

[1] Weekend Herald Canvas Magazine, 19 March 2011

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