Tertiary education: what needs to change?

June 2017

Education Review asked a handful of leaders from different corners of New Zealand’s tertiary education sector which aspects of post-school education policy they think are most important for any future government to address and why.

“Address policy and funding issues impeding progress” – Chris Whelan, Executive Director, Universities New Zealand

chris whelanNew Zealand’s current Tertiary Education Strategy (the TES) lists six strategic priorities across areas such as ‘delivering skills for industry’, and ‘boosting achievement of Māori and Pasifika’.

The best thing about the TES is that it is very high level and not overly prescriptive. It permits an appropriate level of innovation and differentiation by different tertiary education providers.

The worst thing about the TES is that it is very high level and doesn’t really say how the priorities can be achieved. It doesn’t systematically identify the things that are either currently impeding performance or that are likely to do so in future. It also doesn’t identify the funding and policy settings that would make the greatest difference in enabling the tertiary education to advance government objectives.

For example, in the area of boosting achievement of Māori and Pasifika, the TES notes that Māori and Pasifika are under-represented in degree-level education and incorrectly claims completion rates are below the rest of the population across the entire tertiary sector.

The current TES then provides some indicators of success (such as more Māori progressing to higher levels of study from school) but no analysis as to what Government could be doing differently to support this goal.

At Universities New Zealand, we’re aware of the following statistics:

In 2016, only 31.4 per cent of Māori and 30.7 per cent of Pasifika students in year 13 gained University Entrance, compared with 57.8 per cent of NZ European and 66.5 per cent of Asian students.

The range of grades achieved by Māori and Pasifika when they reach university is statistically about the same as for other groups.

Under SAC (Student Achievement Component) funding, all tertiary education organisations receive the same amount to teach students regardless of that student’s background and their readiness for university study. TEOs also receive an Equity Funding ‘top up’; it’s just $320 a year for each Māori and Pasifika undergraduate student. Māori and Pasifika are more likely to have barriers to overcome in reaching university and succeeding there. For example, they are more likely to have to leave home (and incur higher costs) to go to university, nearly half are the first in their families to attend university, and one third are parents.

We think that the Government’s priority for the next version of the TES should be to really unpick what these sorts of facts actually reveal and to put meaningful strategies in place to address them.

A TES that really advanced a priority like ‘boosting achievement of Māori and Pasifika’ should have strategies, such as supporting schools to bring University Entrance pass rates for Māori and Pasifika in line with the rest of the population. Similarly, there should be funding and policy support for schools and universities to work together to lift aspiration and preparedness for university among young Māori and Pasifika.

A new TES should systematically address some of the real government-owned policy and funding issues impeding progress in the six priority areas. However, it should continue to give institutions as much freedom as possible for them to innovate and find creative effective ways of supporting the priority areas that are relevant to their own communities and regions.

“We need better engagement between the world of education and the world of work” – Josh Williams, Chief Executive, Industry Training Federation

josh williamsSince the 1980s the foundation of much education policy has been based on the idea that learning is a lifelong effort.

Certainly, in the 2010s, it seems pretty clear that people are going to need to develop skills throughout dynamic, multi-faceted, and quite often precarious lives and careers.

Young people typically spend 12 or 13 years at school, but will spend upwards of 50 years in the world of work.

And that means I would like any future government to think hard about how we deliver more post-school education in and through workplaces – where skills are needed and simultaneously applied in the productive economy.

An industrial model skills strategy, where just about all the post-school education happens in pre-employment situations is expensive and inefficient. It keeps young people stuck in a transition system, and gathering debt.

More and more people gaining higher and higher qualifications does not, in and of itself, change the roles available in the labour market. And the OECD has recently told New Zealand it has the highest reported mismatch between the levels of qualifications people hold, and the job roles they then occupy.

So that leads to the other thing that a government can do – although not on its own. We need better engagement between the world of education and the world of work. The future of learning is blended. Working and learning and learning and working.

That means real work to connect up at the interfaces: secondary-tertiary, school to work, tertiary to tertiary, tertiary to work. Our tertiary system does not perform as well when the education is multi-mode or when more than one provider is involved, or when more than one provider type is involved. Or when the qualification is larger than what either industry or the learner needed.

Governments have Ministers, and Ministers have ideas. But we don’t need more schemes and pilots and limited innovation funds to do the right thing by students. We just need – as business as usual – the flexibility and equity that encourages the design and delivery of fit-for-purpose pathways, to get lifetime education to where it is needed, when it is needed.

“Best possible outcome for all learners” – Stanley Frielick, Director Ako Aotearoa

stanleyAko Aotearoa’s vision is ‘the best possible outcomes for all learners’. We achieve this through working with educators and organisations to enhance the effectiveness of tertiary teaching and learning practices.

The tertiary system as a whole works reasonably well for a large proportion of students. However there is much more that can be done to optimise the system for student success, as noted in the recent Productivity Commission report. While this was controversial in some respects it does provide significant insights into the workings of the system.

For example, we agree with the Commission that funding and quality assurance systems do not reflect government commitments to improving educational outcomes for Māori and Pacific students. Even after taking account of differences in pass rates, socioeconomic status and other variables, the success and retention rates for Māori and Pacific are still unacceptably low. We would like to see a concentrated policy focus from the next government – with appropriate funding support and incentives – to resolve this long-standing inequity in our tertiary system. Ako Aotearoa has done significant work in this space that can contribute to new policy.

We were encouraged by the Commission’s view that the system is ‘co-produced’ through the collaborative efforts of students and teachers. This resonates with the meaning of ako. But we need to envisage learners as much more active participants in the system of education, with a role to play in areas such as organisational governance, quality assurance, and assessment processes. The increasing importance of student input needs to be recognised in new policy initiatives – as evidenced in our Student Leadership Summits and learner voice projects.

As the report noted there is ‘considerable inertia’ in the New Zealand tertiary education system. This inertia limits innovation and reduces responsiveness to student demand. While some educators use technology for teaching in innovative ways, there is a lack of institutional capability to scale this activity. As demonstrated in several of our projects, there is considerable scope for policy development and funding that incentivises innovation at scale – with a focus on reducing costs for students, promoting open and accessible learning resources, and leveraging the affordances of new technologies to increase retention and enhance learner success.

The quality of tertiary teaching is a major factor in student achievement. Ako Aotearoa plays a leading role in the debate on what counts as good and excellent teaching. We are particularly encouraged by the Commission’s recommendation that New Zealand should develop frameworks of standards for tertiary teaching to recognise and reward capability, and that incorporate effective modes of teaching for Māori and Pacific students. We are currently supporting projects to trial the UK Higher Education Academy accreditation framework and adapt this for the Aotearoa context. Supporting this recommendation with sound policy will ensure that all students benefit from an internationally benchmarked indicator of high quality teaching.

In short, Ako Aotearoa would like to see that the next government implements effective policy on the issues we have highlighted. The whole sector needs to collaborate on enhancing the performance of the tertiary system for all learners. This means swiftly increasing the achievement rates for Māori and Pacific students, building institutional capability for effective and innovative teaching, and developing a more dynamic and responsive system that is focused on student success.

“Barrier-free education for all” – Jonathan Gee, National President, New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA)

jonathanAs the national voice of students, NZUSA is committed to improving the lives of students in tertiary education. Our vision is for a barrier-free education for all, where tertiary study is accessible to anyone and where financial support meets the needs of students going into thousands of dollars of loan debt. We believe that this starts with putting students at the heart of the system.

Empowering students

An effective tertiary education system is one that meets the needs of students and supports them to succeed. In order for this to happen, students need to be empowered to have real agency in the system. For example, a ministerial direction requires tertiary institutions to involve students in the setting and monitoring of Compulsory Student Services Fees (CSSF).

However, there exist both good and bad practices across the sector. One of the principal problems is the lack of systems to use student voice to enhance academic quality. The Productivity Commission has also signalled the need to better empower students. Any future government should therefore explore establishing a National Centre for Student Voice to help establish best practice systems for involving students as co-producers in tertiary education.

Access to tertiary education

Tertiary education has been proven to take families out of the cycle of poverty, yet too many school leavers still do not get the opportunity to be exposed to this transformative experience. A national first-in-family scholarship will help raise participation and target under-represented communities in the sector.

Prospective students are also locked out through the unsatisfactory careers advice received in secondary school. Better student information and careers education is urgently needed to allow school leavers to make well-informed choices about their future.

Student support

Tertiary study should be a way out of poverty, not a way into it. Student support is failing to keep up with rising rent prices, putting many students under significant financial distress, and therefore hindering the positive outcomes of study. With only 33 per cent of students having access to student allowances, any future government should urgently explore improving eligibility for the allowance and providing relief to rising rent costs.

Student loans should be kept interest-free. The unfair 12c (in the dollar) repayment system for any graduate earning over $19,084 (just two-thirds of minimum wage) should be scrapped in favour of a more progressive system. This would reduce the number of defaulters and also stem the tide of graduates leaving for overseas in the hopes of gaining higher incomes to pay off their mounting debt.


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