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Monday, 19 January 2015

Universities in New Zealand

Lately I've been, personally, feeling somewhat more mediocre and thoughts along those lines have probably informed these more general thoughts on the mediocrity of universities in NZ (or, at least, Auckland). The definite spark was a conversation I was having on an internet forum about an announcement by the US president to try and make "community college" free for Americans. For those who are unaware, community colleges seem to be somewhat like polytechnics in that they provide a form of tertiary education and it's generally reasonably practical in outlook provided by an institution largely for the community. However, they also provide the general education that the first two years of US university represents and one can transfer learning done at a community college to a proper uni. Some even actually offer degrees. The point, though, is that Obama's proposal would make the funding available for anyone with a grade point average (GPA) of at least 2.5. It's a good idea but it's the GPA thing that really made me start thinking.

For me, coming from NCEA, GPAs are pretty new so I am not so sure of the validity of the comparisons I will be using. But, basically, a GPA is calculated by dividing the total number of grade points earnt by the number available. In Auckland's case a mark of A+ is worth 135 points, with a 15 point reduction per each mark less (i.e. A is 120, A- 105 and so on). This means the maximum GPA is 9. In the US, the scale is different and only runs up to 4, in most cases. Now, my GPA is 6.5 which translates, in my view, to 2.9 (1dp). It is, as far as I can tell, a GPA that's okay. However, my fellow forumites had a pretty low view of a GPA that was under 3.0 and here I am thinking that something that ends up under that is okay (i.e. my 6.5/9). Hmm... obviously different standards applied. But, I did go back and pay closer attention to that scale. Let's make a comparison:


Mark Percentage Range USA Percentage Range Auckland Percentage Range Victoria
A+ 97-100 90-100 90-100
A93-96 85-8985-89
A- 90-92 80-8480-84
B+ 87-89 75-7975-79
B 83-86 70-7470-74
B- 80-82 65-6965-69
C+ 77-79 60-6460-64
C 73-76 55-5955-59
C- 70-72 50-5450-54
D+ 67-69 45-4940-49
D 65-66 40-4440-49
D-/E/F <650-39 0-39


Assuming that in all cases the C- is the lowest passing mark, it's pretty clear that NZ is more lax (I also checked Canterbury and Otago and they're pretty much the same as Victoria). Ignoring that there are some problems with percentage based systems to start with, the quality of work that will pass in New Zealand is, theoretically, lower than that in the States. Maybe it's more difficult work (believable) but, on the face of it, it looks like mediocrity.

This impression of mediocrity is built up even more so by admissions... it doesn't really take too much to get into a university in New Zealand. My grandfather was over for Christmas and he brought up the topic of my irritating and immature as they come thirteen-year old cousin's future, particularly with reference to beyond school. He brought out the standard line that you'd expect of an older man who grew up in England... getting into university is pretty tough. The reality rather surprised him. Basically, if you can't get eighty credits in NCEA, in level three, you're an idiot. If you can do that and still not obtain University Entrance you're either over-specialised or an even bigger idiot. Getting UE and those eighty credits is a rank score of at least 160; that's enough for a BA and other bog standard degrees. Well, not quite because a normal specialisation BSc is 165 and a BCom is 180 (with some subject specific requirements; however the Business School ego trips so that score doesn't really reflect its difficulty). Full disclosure, I got a rank score of 305/320 but I was aiming for 320. But the point is, getting into NZ's "best" university is pretty easy for non-idiots... Yeah, mediocre entry standards. Mediocrity.

That's not to say that New Zealand's universities are bad because I don't think they are. It's also not to say that ones in the States are necessarily better. To explain we'll recall an earlier post of mine where I established that I see university as part of the continuing story of specialisation in education. I would also agree with the view that university is meant to be challenging, which is where this 'rant' against mediocrity partially comes from. With the "compare with the States" methodology employed here, it looks like NZ doesn't do very well on that latter view of universities. In terms of the former, I think it's a different story. However, there's two other things that need to be said about university admissions.

The story that we get from US media is quite a simple one. It's that university (or college, as it is stupidly referred to there and in many other places) is something that people have to strive for to get into. However, many universities in the States do two specific things that I'd like to discuss (although I am aware of the first thing at only one uni).

Firstly, I'd like to talk about a scheme employed by the University of Texas that, when I encountered it a few years ago, disagreed with me. Basically, their scheme looks at the top 6-10%  (it varies) of each cohort in a particular school and those pupils within the pre-set band are eligible for automatic admission. I've heard that it's a form of affirmative action and in that sense it cleverly exploits the light-segregation that still exists in many parts of the USA (i.e. certain neighbourhoods are still largely of a single ethnicity, although this is no longer enforced by law). That's not the problem that I took with it, though. The issue I had was that the standard of competition at one school is not necessarily the same as at another. In other words, what might put you within the top 10% at one school could be the same level that you'd see at another school that would only put you within the top, say, 17%. According to this, the 7% from the second school who would fall in the top "10%" at the first school then get chucked in a more broadly competitive pool, which means they have to be better than all the other people who missed out on automatic admission. When I first encountered this scheme that really got on my nerves as being chronically unfair for my example's 7%. That's not actually true. In actual fact, it is a very clever scheme that, to an extent, counter-acts the whole wealth prediction factor of education. Those pupils from poorer areas are competing to enter, first and foremost, on a level playing field with peers who come from the same background to get in. But, for the most part, it's a purely academic endeavour with a slight geographical influence. Which sort of brings us to the next point.

There's an episode of Bones where Cameron's daughter is trying to get into uni and Cameron writes up an essay to support her admission. Wait, what? You write an essay to get into university? And, hang on. isn't there some film where the main characters bomb on their pre-SAT and then conspire to steal the answers? Yes, yes there is. What, though, is the point here? Well, I see university as being a continuation of education and, as such, I think admissions should be based almost purely on academic performance. The story is different for things like scholarships but, in all honesty, I'd prefer they were based purely on academics and/or need. Writing an essay or attending an interview as a regular part of admissions is, to my mind, inappropriate. It's fine for getting into something specialised within the uni (for instance, a friend of mine admitted to second year medicine had to go to an interview) or when the applicant is applying with qualifications from out of the country (i.e. it helps the administrators determine just how comparable the results are). University is not something that only the "moral" or the "worthy" should be able to attend. Admissions shouldn't require some sort of examination of motives. It should be for those bright enough to attend. Which is really where I draw ire with the idea of the SAT. Entry should be based purely on performance in school. That is, don't divorce school work from work for university entrance, even in a limited fashion (I am given to understand that the SAT is only partially the basis for any decision making). So, here, we have something that I think NZ's university system does better.

Now, we're back on point after that brief detour through some talking points in American universities (but, judging by the History Boys Oxbridge routinely desires interviews so it's not purely American). What do NZ's universities do quite well? Well, they're much better than American universities at continuing that theme of specialisation. In the US it is, in fact, entirely common to not start working towards a major until two years into a four (not three, as in NZ) undergraduate degree programme. That's quite bizarre. Even with all the Business School's core courses, first years at Auckland do at least something that is relevant to their end goal. Furthermore, these US universities conspire to create this strange situation by having their students do general courses in subjects. Frankly, it's like starting year nine at college from what I've been told. In other words, all the specialisation is still too come. Mind you, I'm pretty sure NZ's secondary schools are better than those in the US and that a greater degree of subject freedom is placed in the hands of senior pupils than those poor souls in the States. In that context, it makes more sense to be working on an intended specialisation, with some broader stuff, straight away. The General Education components that Auckland now uses are small fish in comparison to the main Thing, and that's the best of both worlds. Students get a degree of more advanced broad education but they're pretty firmly on that road of specialisation.

There's one final thing to say before I wrap this up... university seems to be far more settled in the States. Just last year, National proposed some reforms of the more administrative parts of NZ's universities that were very poorly received. While I can't remember if the reforms reflect changes that have happened in the States, I am pretty convinced that it would be more than just people who are at uni or are university staff, that get involved and discuss it. Maybe it's because NZ's pretty young as a country but stuff like that is big, and bad, news (like a lot of National's intrusions in education... note the extreme unpopularity of its education ministers... although, not all). It should have been an issue that troubled National, certainly more so than Kim Dotcom (boring) or housing prices (where National's staunch view that foreign buyers aren't responsible is probably the most socially responsible position it's had in a long time; in contrast with the xenophobic scare-mongering of the left *cries inside*). That's what I mean by settled.

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