Friday, July 19

Can’t read, can’t write, can’t comprehend – & won’t think…?

At a time when universities are understandably nervous regarding the establishment of the University Advisory Group (UAG) and the Science System Advisory Group (SSAG) it may seem strange – or even fool-hardy – to state that there are long-standing issues in the tertiary sector that need correction.

I understand that speaking of these, at this current time, will open me up to accusations of being a government stooge or fifth-columnist within the tertiary sector. So be it. I am in fact speaking up because I believe the UAG & SSAG are yet another example of governmental reform being focused on the easy targets and not being prepared to deal with the bigger questions.

I have worked in the tertiary sector for almost 30 years and a common complaint made by my colleagues, when speaking freely and candidly, is that the quality of students both entering and graduating the universities has greatly declined.  Yes, the best are as good as they ever were, but the majority of them are lacking the ability to read and write to what used to be a tertiary level expectation – both on entry to university and many, upon graduating. Of those who can, on a surface level, read and write to some satisfactory level, many lack the level of comprehension required to make proper sense to what they are reading. Their frame of reference is far too small. If you ask undergraduates for their honest opinion, many will say that they do not do the required readings (at most, they skim for 3 main points), they cannot concentrate to the degree required to read a journal article or a book chapter and that there are many words, phrases, and ideas within them that they don’t comprehend. I have found, over the past decade, that even a magazine article, written for that mythical creature, the educated general reader, contains words, ideas and references to issues and events that are beyond the ability of even, on the face of it, smart students to understand.

Yet even more concerning is the inability – or I should say, the increasing unwillingness – of many students to ‘think’.  Part of this is our fault – at tertiary level and in the NCEA schooling system. The expectation has grown, especially over the past decade or so, of being told what to think and being expected to regurgitate it, unthinkingly. As I tell my classes, regurgitation, when you are student, is for the weekend; you are – and should be – expected to think and question and query.  In all courses of study and subjects there is of course the central importance of learning the basic information and knowledge; the question is then however, what do we expect and facilitate students to do on top of this?  Just as importantly, are they capable of doing so – and are they willing to do so?

An increasing issue is the ever-decreasing frame of reference due to their withdrawal from any societal discussion, information or analysis that is not consumed via their social media feeds. I recently encountered a postgraduate student, already also a graduate of another degree in another faculty, who somehow had no idea that over the university mid-term break there had been the massive series of cuts in the public sector in Wellington. A large sociology and anthropology class today were – except for one student – also unable to answer that question. Too many of our students are reducing their information input and frame of reference to a very limited set of social media feeds – and have done since they were at school. This means there is no notion of a general knowledge of information, news and events to situate any course information into. We cannot assume there is any common culture of knowledge, any common culture of information, in any class. But worrying, most don’t seem to care that they do not know what it is assumed they should or would know. They are blissfully happy in their ignorance.

If we wish to change the university, we need to change the school system and its expectations. We need to make it harder to enter tertiary study, harder to stay at university – and harder to graduate. Any tertiary system that does not consider itself an elite institution, expecting an elite-level engagement of focus and study and participation is failing its students, its society – and itself. The knowledge economy arguments that drove the mass expansion of higher education over the past few decades have not been fulfilled in either of their expected economic or social outcomes.

Let’s be clear, we need far fewer students at university as there are not the number of jobs requiring what a proper tertiary education should provide. This is not a university issue: this is a business and government economic development issue. Secondly, if part of the role of the university is providing an educated, thinking citizenry, then we are also failing in doing this – and have for decades.

A solution is to have limited entry and limited progression in all subjects and courses. This would also require a substantial revision of the funding model away from the ‘bums on seats’ blunt funding we have seen – in various ways – for decades.

We also need to consider whether the current 3-year undergraduate degree does in any way properly equip most students with the knowledge, skills and abilities required? Can we seriously say the current subject major system (often only 2×300 level courses as a major in third year), in tandem with the condensed academic focus of a truncated semesterized system, undertaken in 3 years or less, is fit for purpose? Especially in world where lectures are recorded, attendance is not mandatory, readings are not done (and often unable to be done), and most students do not have to turn up in person?

Then there is what can only be termed the amoral extraction of capital from foreign students. Every academic will know of international students who have somehow ‘met’  the English language entry qualifications but in person, in class, cannot speak, think or write in English to the expected level. This often includes postgraduate students. This is a tragedy for all involved, including their classmates who may be expected to undertake group work with students unable to properly communicate or contribute in the expected fashion.  The growth of the international postgraduate student market also impacts the ability of many programmes to provide proper levels of tutoring support for their classes as the international students increasingly lack the broader societal and general knowledge and the English language verbal and written skills to effectively tutor New Zealand students.

What I am saying is the that the NZ university system is broken all the way down as it is constructed on top of a broken pre-tertiary education system, a broken international student recruitment system – and, an increasingly broken society.

If we are to review the university system, we need to return the university to an elite system of limited, preferential entry that is able to truthfully deliver on what it says it does. A university system that can fulfil its elite function of tertiary-level education, participation, research, skills and training for society.

But actually, if we wish to review the university system, we need to review the school system and the post-tertiary work and business environment as well.  For the universities are not the problem, they are the sign of the problem – the problems that feed into them and the problems they are expected to correct.

In other words, we need to review society: what is it, what do we expect – and what do we want? Only then we can include the universities as properly funded, staffed, equipped, elite partners in that new societal project; to seek to do otherwise is only going to relocate the current issues in various new and old ways – and nothing changes.