Guest Post – The state of tertiary education

As I reflect on the state of our tertiary education quality I am saddened by the fact that my original  assessment that it is poor is now supported by up to date real facts data collection.

I should explain perhaps!

I have been in the non-formal tertiary teaching sector with specific expertise in business as it is in the real world.  I have more than thirty years of teaching in this sector and have won a number of awards for my work.  Which I always assess on how many business people I have nurtured and mentored to  success.   

I was always somewhat contemptuous of the academic approach to teaching business.  I had had MBA students come through my classes, and when I asked them why, they would say that they wanted to learn what it was really important in business in New Zealand, not what happened to Enron in the US.  I know that in part my slight contempt for the academic approach was because I was not an academic, didn’t think like one and didn’t want to either.

But in recent years as owner of a PTE (Private Training Enterprise) teaching business studies to level 7 standard (university level) I have had to meet with many academics, learn academic jargon and present my learning, students, organisation, research and other add ons to education in a manner to ensure that I am treated with some respect and not thrown out of the door.

But the closer I get to the bureaucracy of education the more I realise my original bias was in fact not as far wrong as I hoped!

We are currently hearing how the PTEs are providing low level low quality courses for Indians who want to buy residency.  And that they should be shut down because of the low standard.  Talk about a low standard of analysis of the problem!  And presumably the policy maker who provided the back ground papers for the Leader of the Labour Party came out of one of our universities – a product of the superior teaching of a university!  Forgive me if I choke.

The closer I work with University staff the more I discover how the universities have developed systems that stops the development of the highest possible teaching in its tracks.

The tall poppy syndrome that keeps the good educators at the bottom is stunning.  It is of course all internal politics, and was amply demonstrated by the books by CP Snow and 70 years later nothing has changed.

I was talking to one new tutor at a university the other day, and found that she was given a folder of tutor power points to take into the classroom which she was to use and no other assistance.  And she was a new migrant so her background knowledge of NZ was zero.  The same material is taught to everyone year after year, with no or very little evaluation of its current relevancy.  The same  social and political biases are therefore consistently present year after year.  There is no teaching of other ideas and other ways of teaching particular information year after year.  Teaching people to question and analyse existing preselected material does not actually teach them how to select a broad selection of information in the first place.

An interesting example of that was in one class, with predominantly female Maori students we were studying leadership.  As we discussed the research on styles of leadership, my class were getting more and uncomfortable.  When I asked what the problem was they mentioned that there was nothing in the models being examined that resonated with them.  I decided to explore this further and as we delved into the historic research that provided the basis for all following research studies we found that most theories were based on psychotherapists and their ilk from Europe in the early to mid 20th century.  Which my students noted was very different from the lives of Maori women in 2017.  We used that as a starting point for new research on leadership which is ongoing.

But the point is that the old traditional thinking has so permeated academia that no-one dares question its validity.

The quality of assignments and assessments is another contentious issue.  We provide students with marks so they know what they know and what they got wrong, and where they did not manage to con the tutor!

I was therefore surprised when I engaged a tutor from a government owned Tertiary Education Organisation and found that he had only marked his students as  passed or failed.  Apparently his TEO never provided marks as they wanted to assess the totality of a person’s knowledge.  This was an organisation that is approved to provide Masters and PHDs.  What nonsense is that I have to ask.  If you are hiring a nurse you want to know that she has passed the relevant units of learning!  I want to know she can prove that she knows how to put in a line, or to recognise a heart attack!

Marking passes or fails is such a cop out!  It is impossible to provide quality control.  But this organisation grows and grows.

For New Zealand to compete at an international level we have to have the best teachers.  We must provide the best supports for them to do their job brilliantly, but must also have first class quality control.  NZQA tries, but their staff are not good at working out cause and effect!  They make us do huge time wasting things that do nothing to increase the value of the teaching to the student, and everything to do with providing make work schemes for public servants, and boxes to tick so they can prove that they have managed risk. (a bit cynical there!)

The university system requiring quality research to be the key component of the organisation, with teaching as a very definite second cousin is part of the problem.  Researchers are not often brilliant communicators.  The more complex our world gets the better our lecturers have to be to interpret that world.  But they are not.  They are researchers, not educators.  And the educators are treated like second class citizens in the education sector.  And yet they are key to our success as a nation.

To get to the point.  It is essential that the current Labour Party policy to get rid of all low level courses which they confuse with low quality courses is dumped.

If someone went out to the elections with a platform of providing the best educators in the world that people wanted to pay to come to so they could take the knowledge home would be wonderful.  We can do it if we have the courage to kick out the poor quality organisations – including the government owned ones.  We should employ public servants who understand the business of education as well as the need for quality quality quality.

Students must also speak up if they are not getting value for money.  And 120 students for lab work which is currently occurring in more than one university is ridiculous.  That would be less than two minutes help per student per day.  That is not acceptable with the fees that students pay, which of course is only a small cost with the state (you and me) picking up the rest.

If you want quality – pay for it and demand that you get it.  But of course education requires a considerable input by the student themselves.  They have to actively engage in the process of learning.  They have to learn to analyse, to work and to think.  If we can get brilliant educators we can then demand brilliant students.

 

-Frances Denz

 


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