Saturday, April 13

The broken system – and broken social contract – of tertiary education in New Zealand

Welcome to the online universities of New Zealand, a significant change in tertiary education that has become the new normal by default, backed up by university policies requiring lecture recordings for students. Of course, as in all bad policies, there are internal consistencies and one of the central ones arises from an idealistic belief in human nature and student behaviour and motivation.

Lecture recording policies will tend to note that a student undertaking their studies by only, or primarily accessing, recorded lectures may suffer an impact on their grades and learning outcomes and that face-to-face delivery of lectures are the primary lecturing method to be used. It is also common for such policies to state in principle that lecture recordings are not to be regarded or consistently used as a replacement for in-person lecture attendance and that watching lectures in quick succession is not recommended. We could say this is a rational appeal to ‘the better nature of an 18-22 year old’…

Of course, such policies never state that it is not recommended that students watch or listen to lectures at advanced speed levels even though I heard from IT and Student Learning Advisors that students were able to jam the recordings up to 7-times normal speed, just so the course analytics would show that they had ‘accessed’ the lecture recording. While that ‘chipmunks on helium and speed’ option has been moderated, we still allow lecture recordings to be accessed and played at more than normal lecture speed. 

But principles, as we are all too well aware,  are useless  – or at best aspirations – unless backed up by policy that reinforces them. Universities don’t do this. Rather, they now require both the universal recording of lectures and demand the general availability of these recorded lectures to students. If there are to be exceptions, then there are bureaucratic, administrative and technological hurdles and implementations to be followed. For time-poor, under-resourced and despondent academics it’s not worth the effort.

The other issue is that the recording of lectures and making them available is not actually matched by students accessing them. I have just been in a faculty meeting where a colleague demonstrated, via lecture recording access analytics, that most students do not access the recorded lectures while also now not turning up in person to lectures.

This is not an isolated case. Across the universities of New Zealand, lecture rooms and lecture theatres are increasingly empty. Many of those enrolled in a course are not turning up in person, but also, not listening to the recordings that, as a cohort, they demand.  Those ever fewer students who do turn up in person are increasingly disillusioned, as university is nothing like what they had been led to believe it was – or could be. There is also a widespread and serious issue of rapidly declining staff morale building because of this situation.

Compulsory lecture recordings were instituted during the state of emergency of covid; the extraordinary situation seemed to demand a universal response. But as we exited the covid years the demand for, and expectation of, universal lecture recording has remained. New Zealand universities have an emergency response now codified as the new normal. We need to remember this is not the case in many other tertiary systems; they have returned to a non-recording, in-class in-person expectation.

To engage with this issue we need to put it in a wider context of the crisis of tertiary education in New Zealand. If fewer and fewer students attend in person on campus then we have all these underutilized campuses and buildings. Alternatively, while some students may be on campus but watching lectures in libraries and other study spaces (sometimes even when the lecture is in progress, if live-streamed), we still have rooms and lecture theatres sitting more than half empty. So lecture recordings are creating a space-use issue. But what can universities do with such spaces? They have become an ever-increasing underutilized cost. 

There is something pedagogically wrong across all universities, but especially in all those degrees that do not require laboratories and workshops. Remember, most students not turning up to lectures also do not listen, or properly listen, to recordings of lectures. Some courses attempt to direct student attendance by offering attendance grades, so you get marks for just turning up. Some add participation grades onto this, yet there is a wider issue here because most students do not do any preparatory reading for classes or tutorials, in part because many of them admit they lack the ability to comprehend or focus on most traditional university-level readings. Therefore, what is offered in such ‘participation’ tends to be the under-articulated and under-prepared opinion of feelings and emotions and whatever their social media feed has provided. Even very good students who do turn up usually lack the wider general frames of knowledge and understanding required to put any readings or lectures in a coherent and informed context. Universities have been unable to tackle the issue that social media has created a culture of distraction, so even in class students will be distracted by what is on their computer screens or on their phones. TikTok is now creating even more issues of distraction, concentration and comprehension. Such in-class issues are magnified when students are attempting to listen to lectures off campus.

If students are increasingly completing their degrees without attending or often never regularly accessing or listening to lectures, then we have the situation of an under-educated, under-socialized cohort still able to graduate. And this is not to even begin addressing the inability of students to write with a basic level of literacy and competency. Remember, our disengaged and underperforming tertiary students have somehow been successful enough in the school system to have attained a level of literacy and competency theoretically enabling them to enter university with the required skills and knowledge to succeed. But this is not the reality. Many students coming into university are unable to consistently and coherently put sentences down on the page and effectively articulate an argument or an idea. Many are unable to properly read or comprehend at the expected level. Many are unable to concentrate for more than 10 minutes. It’s all too hard. The tertiary system is failing because the school system feeding into it is failing, and the school system is failing because society is failing. There is no longer any social contract; not between citizens and the state and not between fellow citizens; and certainly no social contract within the university.

Ideally, students would be required to turn up in person and put phones down and laptop screens to one side. Classes would be all taught at the level of a participatory seminar and readings would be done beforehand as all would be expected to contribute. Postgraduate classes and strongly vocational courses are perhaps the last vestiges of such a university experience (and even they suffer many of these issues to varying degrees), but most students are only undergraduate students in large, non-vocational courses, increasingly doing a form of online education – and let’s not even begin to consider what AI is doing, nor not doing, for their education.

We are also losing the social cohesion and social development element of tertiary education if we do not require on-campus, in-person attendance, participation and in-class articulation. Imagine if we decided all pre-tertiary education was to have an online option and in-class attendance was optional if recommended. Of course, we saw this in the covid years and the socio-educational disaster of this will continue to impact New Zealand for decades. Why then do we seek to implement (and in fact reward by default) such behaviour at tertiary level? I am not so idealistic as to believe that students have always turned up to lectures.  We all missed or skipped lectures, often because of hangovers or deciding to go to the pub. But we also knew that to pass we had to catch up on lectures missed by borrowing someone’s notes and this required an expectation of in-class attendance and socialization. There was an expected culture of students having to attend, and if not attending, catching up by engaging with fellow students. The provision of universal lecture recordings desocializes students, but more so, replaces the active cognitive  ‘catch-up’ task and demand of reading, re-writing and thinking with, increasingly, the option of passive, distracted listening – and for many, this is only ever an ‘option’.

As a long-term academic in the university I am worried, as a parent I am worried, but as a taxpayer I am very worried. Universities, by facilitating, in fact encouraging, such behaviour are failing taxpayers who contribute substantially to the costs of universities as physical institutions and educational providers. Such behaviour is also failing students who are paying for an education that says, in effect, don’t turn up, don’t do the readings, don’t listen to lectures  – and you’ll still be OK.

If we dig deeper, then we have to deal with those issues of a failing primary and secondary education system because our tertiary students are somehow the ‘successful’  outcomes of these schools;  issues of student loan access and repayment thresholds and educational funding costs which mean students are over working outside university; the availability and quality of student housing;  the massive issue of student mental health; and the requirement by employers for students to be available on demand – or else. We also have to deal with wider issues of university funding,  both externally by the government and internally within universities for departments and programmes.  For universities as institutions, and faculties and departments within them, are all afraid that if they make it too ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ for students to ‘gain access to information’ then student numbers will drop and/or relocate to subjects and degrees where they can attend in a defacto on-line manner.

We have to ask what is the meaning and value of a 3-year degree undertaken in such circumstances when we are graduating under-educated, under-socialized, under-motivated and often barely literate students?  If New Zealand has a productivity crisis now then just wait until the covid-education and post-covid-norm cohorts enter the workplace!