Friday, 13 February 2015

University Entrance: Part V - Universities and University Students

This post is part of a multi-part series on University Entrance and whether it is set at the right standard. For the previous part, click here - Students, Parents, and Teachers.

Why do universities care about University Entrance?
University Entrance acts like a gate to ensure that only students with sufficient ability are let through, so that universities (and the government) don’t waste resources and effort on students who clearly not capable of completing their studies. A UE qualification communicates to a university “yes, I have a reasonable chance of success at degree-level study so you should accept me.”

Of course, for some universities, UE is not enough. The University of Auckland further raises the entry standard by restricting subject requirements and converting NCEA credits into a rank score that takes into account Achieved, Merit, and Excellence endorsements to set higher guaranteed entry scores. The lowest possible rank score while still achieving UE is 120; the lowest entry score at Auckland is 150 (at most other universities it is 140). If there are extra spaces available then it is possible to enter at lower than the guaranteed entry score, but in most programmes this doesn’t happen. More difficult or competitive courses can have much higher entrance scores; for example, a BSc in Biomedical Science (as a precursor to Medicine) has a rank score of 280 at Auckland.

Additionally, sometimes UE is too high. All universities have a Discretionary Entrance system (for example, Lincoln University), for students who have not gained UE but may have been very close or if there were extenuating circumstances. Additionally, there are alternative entrance pathways such as bridging courses and foundational certificates that can help students just below the bar (or far below the bar) to develop the necessary skills to make it through a university degree.

So in short, University Entrance is a gate that limits entrance to university, except that there are a lot of exceptions. In many cases, there are additional gates, and in some cases you can still get through the gate without the required standard.

If that’s the case, does University Entrance really matter?
Well, the fact that UE isn’t actually the real entrance standard for the majority of courses and universities suggests that it can be ignored most of the time. We might as well not use UE because each university and course knows what they want from students. UE is a poor target for students to aim for if attaining the target doesn’t actually achieve the desired outcome of getting into university.

There is some value in having a “package” standard that easily communicates that the student has NCEA Level 3, sufficient credits, and meets literacy and numeracy requirements, but perhaps those could be stated separately (since we usually have to detail what UE is made up of anyway). For example, we could say:

The guaranteed entry requirement for the BE(Hons) programme at the University of Auckland for NCEA students is NCEA Level 3, a rank score of 250, 17 external Level 3 credits in Calculus, 16 external Level 3 credits in Physics, 14 credits in another subject at Level 3, and 10 credits in English at Level 2.

It’s more of a mouthful, but it much more clearly articulates what is needed. Rather than saying “here’s a university entrance standard, which we’re going to far exceed to the point that the standard is not necessary”, we can go straight to what the actual entrance standard is for each course.

Additionally, the fact that the majority of universities and their courses have higher entrance standards suggests that universities think UE is too low. This is partly because the universities need to ensure that students are of a sufficient quality in order to be able to provide education at a high enough standard, but also because there are a real logistical and resource constraints.

How are universities funded?
Funding for universities is provided for many different purposes, including research, campus life, and community outreach activities. The teaching funding is derived from two main sources: government funding (“Student Achievement Component”), and student tuition fees. I did some research about this as part of A Policy A Day: Free Tertiary Education, and it may surprise people to learn that even though students worry about rising fees and growing student loans, the majority of teaching costs are still covered by the government. The government-student split is actually something between 70-30 and 65-35, and the government spends upwards of $2 billion to cover funding for tertiary institutions to provide teaching and learning services.

That’s a lot of money; and with 370,000 domestic students enrolled in formal study programmes in 2013 (including both part-time and full-time students), each student (on average) puts a $5,400/year strain on the government’s finances. At the University of Otago, each student (on average) costs the government around $10,250/year. As much as we might like a society where everyone can enter tertiary education, there are real costs that add up quickly when we increase the number of university students. Unless we move those costs to the students and their families (which would only worsen the student debt and education unaffordability problem), the government simply cannot support thousands or tens of thousands more students.

Are university degrees standards?
Just like NCEA, university degrees are supposed to communicate to others (whether they are potential employers or people you want to show off to) that you have met a particular standard in a particular area. Partnered with grades in individual papers/courses, it allows a potential employer to quickly see what areas a prospective candidate is skilled in or has knowledge in. However, just like NCEA, the standards theoretically shouldn’t change, but actually do in the real world. There is no ability to guarantee that the provision of courses will be of an equal quality from year to year, and similarly assessment standards fluctuate, even if it’s just because the exam questions are slightly easier or harder than previous years. Accreditation of degrees should in theory ensure that degrees remain above a minimum expected standard.

The NZQA does accreditation for degrees for all tertiary institutions other than universities. In New Zealand, the primary accreditation is done by the universities themselves; the Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP) Academic Quality Agency is made up of the vice-chancellors of each university, one other Universities New Zealand appointee, and a student representative from the NZ Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA). There are rules under the Education Act 1989 that they have to apply, and generally the universities keep each other accountable to ensure that collectively their degrees are of a good standard. Each programme that is to be approved or accredited goes through a peer review by being assigned to academics from other universities in similar areas. This generally works out because universities are interested in maintaining their collective reputation as providers of high quality education.

Additional to CUAP accreditation, many degrees have additional NZ accreditation. For example, engineering degrees are accredited by the Institute of Professional Engineers of New Zealand (IPENZ), which sets additional requirements demanded by industry. On top of that, some degrees and universities have international accreditation. For example, the University of Canterbury Business School has initial accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), ensuring that their business degrees are at a standard that is equivalent or competitive with other degrees with similar accreditation overseas. In all of these cases, degrees are generally reviewed and re-accredited on a regular basis.

What does accreditation have to do with University Entrance?
Being forced to maintain minimum degree standards puts universities in a bind. Similar to NCEA, most faculties have expected distributions for their students. If the grade distribution for a particular class doesn’t match the expectations (within a reasonable range), teaching staff are required to either justify why the grade distribution should be retained, or otherwise scale the marks to match the expected grade distribution. This is done essentially with the assumption that the main reason a grade distribution doesn’t match the expected distribution is because the class has been assessed to easily or too harshly. It often fails to recognise that specific cohorts could have a disproportionate number of high achievers or low achievers. Scaling doesn’t always happen and sometimes an above average or below average distribution can be justified, but scaling does happen reasonably often.

So in the scenario where University Entrance is low, and large numbers of low achieving students flood universities, they have two choices. They can either fail more students in order to maintain their minimum standard of degree and keep accreditation, or maintain the same grade distributions and lower the standard of the degree and risk losing accreditation. Which one happens? Unfortunately it’s difficult to know. Without being inside of the system and going through the processes, it’s difficult to find out which direction the teaching staff move towards, although it does not stop students and others from speculating.

Back in March 2014, former university lecturer and Conservative Party leader Colin Craig told an audience at the University of Auckland that when he taught, there were many students that he thought should fail, but was overruled by his department. Why? He thought that the university was more interested in “having bums on seats”. Once a university has built a new shiny building with thousand-person seating capacity, they have to fill it up somehow.

Realistically, universities in New Zealand are unlikely to lose their accreditations if they complete the process correctly. Sometimes questions are asked and improvements suggested during peer review, but for the most part if a university wants to offer a course, remove a course, or rename a course, it will be allowed to. So therefore, if there are more students entering university who are insufficiently capable to survive the rigours of a university degree, the universities are more incentivised to maintain the grade distributions – leading to an overall decrease in the quality of university education.

Of course, this is not what academics want. Lower standards don’t produce good outcomes. Smart students getting high quality education and earning degrees that mean something is what strengthens the economy. It was never meant to just be about getting the letters after your name; it’s what you learn getting those letters that is supposed to prepare you for your career. Therefore, universities want University Entrance to be high; low enough to get plenty of students into the university and keep generating funds, but high enough that only sufficiently capable and good students can get in. I’ve heard many lecturers in recent years bemoan the introduction of NCEA, which coupled with a new University Entrance and increasing numbers of students attending university lowered the standard of students significantly. For them, teaching to the new average is tiring, and they can’t engage with the students in the way that they want to. They spend far more time and resources catering to students at the bottom of the cohort than they used to. Maybe that’s what they should do; it depends on whether you think tertiary education is a right or a privilege.

What do university students think about University Entrance?
It ends up being a rather similar story to the secondary school students, with the exception that everyone has achieved the University Entrance standard already. The students closer to the bottom of the standard think it’s at roughly the right place, and usually don’t care whether it gets moved higher or lower. The students at the top academically think that it should be moved higher, and a lot higher. For one thing, their degree needs to mean something, and it needs to communicate to an employer that someone with a BCom is better at doing commerce things than someone without. If less academically capable students can also obtain a BCom and enter the jobs marketplace, then the degree becomes less meaningful to employers. These degrees that they work hard towards for 3+ years have to be valuable, and preferably present a positive return on investment.

Another common gripe of students is group projects. Universities are increasingly using group projects in assessments because chances are, employees will have to work in groups in the real world. More often than not, groups are randomly assigned to encourage students to work with people they haven’t met before and to increase group diversity (which theoretically produces better results). The idea that your grades can be affected by the action or inaction of other people frightens and angers many students. It’s made worse when those grades could make the difference between graduating with Honours or not, or winning a scholarship or not, or getting a life-changing job or not. This would not be a problem if all students were highly capable and worked well in groups; unfortunately with increasing class sizes the “tail” is increasing. Almost every graduate has a horror story about group projects. They want it to be harder for students to get into university so that their own experiences can be better.

Beyond group projects, the quality of the class cohort has a multiplicative effect on the overall quality of the class. When the quality of the students is higher, they are better equipped and able to help each other get through university. When you have a group of academically underachieving students and one good student, that good student gets pulled down by their friends in a subconscious but usually consensual manifestation of tall poppy syndrome. When you have a group of academically high achieving students, they push each other higher so that they all achieve better than they would have acting individually. When the average performance of the student body is higher, it makes it easier for good students to find other good students, and ultimately achieve higher academically.

At what standard do universities and university students want UE?
Realistically, the current university entrance standard is probably a bit of a compromise. In a culture where “everyone ought to get a degree”, secondary school students and parents want UE to be low. However, universities and university students want UE to be as high as it can be without it making university education too small and financially unviable to provide (or so high that those students can’t get into university themselves). Where we ended up in 2004 after the introduction of NCEA was somewhere in the middle. In 2010/2011, they decided it was a bit too low, so they moved it higher. To hazard a guess, universities and university students probably want it even higher. Students who don’t meet a higher UE should go through a bridging course to bring them up to a higher standard. Of course, it’s not accurate to portray hundreds of thousands of people as having the same opinion, but this is just a general characterisation.

So in this section we discussed why universities care about university entrance, how universities are funded, university accreditation and the implications on UE, and a brief discussion on what university students think about UE. In the next section, we will look at the university grading, and what happens once students have obtained university entrance and enter the hallowed halls of higher education.

Part VI of this series - University Grading and Outcomes, is available here.

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