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Polity: Minimum pass rates at University are silly

Written By: - Date published: 11:55 am, March 8th, 2014 - 21 comments
Categories: education, Steven Joyce, tertiary education - Tags:

The original of this post is here.

Universities are back in session, and in staff rooms around the country faculty are again trying to design classes that meet the government’s mandatory minimum pass rates.

If Universities (and Polytechs, Waananga, and others) do not meet a government-imposed minimum pass rate (which ratchet up every year, and may go as high as 85%), then the institution risks losing some of its government funding.

That is crazy town.

Some tasks are really hard, and it has to be OK in New Zealand to say to more than 15% of the people who show up: “No, at the end of the class you really don’t get it.”

Also, many of us have heard about the string of hilarious fellas who enroll in a Women’s Studies paper in order to, ahem, study some women rather than actually engage with Women’s Studies research. This policy penalizes the professors who tell those people exactly how much they learned.

Why would we want to penalise institutions that stand up for quality?

Sure, it much doesn’t affect the relatively soft disciplines like political science, which I used to teach. But for subjects where there is no room for interpretation, it gets much harder. What is a chemistry professor supposed to do if her junior class attracts a lot of non-chemists, who it turns out suck at chemistry?  Surely it can’t be good for New Zealand if some of them pass the class so the chemistry department can keep its funding.

This one goes in the “I don’t get it” file.

21 comments on “Polity: Minimum pass rates at University are silly”

  1. Disraeli Gladstone 1

    Good post. Even for so-called “soft” discipline, quality is still important. There’s no point passing a person for an essay which is absolute tripe.

  2. RedLogix 2

    The problem is that by itself a pass rate does not tell you the difference between good teaching and good students. (And it tells you even less about the quality of the interaction between the two.)

    Measuring complex outcomes with a single scalar variable is always wrong. It’s exactly the same reason why Tories always imagine that quality of life can only be measured by how much money you have.

  3. blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 3

    ” I don’t get it”

    Don’t you?

    Hopefully the following might give you some insight:

    Morons who are solely fixated on profit are unable to run universities let alone entire countries – Intelligent individuals do not solely fixate on profit – they know there is more to life, health, work, education and society than that.

    The morons want everyone to be as moronic as them.

    Vote the morons out is my suggestion.

  4. RJL 4

    I work at a tertiary institution and I can say without doubt that most tertiary institutions will already have internal processes that make frown faces at courses with pass rates less than 80-85%, and will also consider problematic any courses with pass rates close to 100%. Either is a sign that potentially something is wrong from an academic perspective, which is quite separate to any funding issue.

    Of course, the institution’s internal processes will give the academics concerned an opportunity to justify unusual pass rates — with the students all being rubbish a possible explanation. Although it is not a very plausible justification for a course with a reasonable number of students.

  5. Stephanie Rodgers 5

    Your example of people enrolling in Women’s (and Gender) Studies courses is funny! I took two myself back in the day, and can attest that if there were any such people in our class, they withdrew pretty quickly. That’s the thing about taking a Women’s Studies course for lolz: you’re now in a room full of people (both men and women) who really don’t have time for that kind of silliness.

  6. red blooded 6

    This crap has been imposed on schools for years. One of National’s core Education policies is that 85% of students should leave school with NCEA Level 2. This was announced at the same time that a review of standards saw most of the individual assessments at Level 2 become harder. Schools routinely have their results published in league tables and are identified as failing if they don’t meet this artificial target. Of course, this puts huge pressure on teachers to find soft options or get more involved than they should in the production of work that is going to be internally assessed.

    People who understand the difference between Communications Skills unit standards and English achievement standards can look at the record of a student with NCEA Level 2 and see what it’s saying, but how many people actually look that closely or recognise the differences?

    Artificial pass rates at tertiary level are a ridiculous idea. People may pay to go to university or polytech (& have to pay too much), but they don’t buy a qualification. That has to be earned and deserved.

    • greywarbler 6.1

      This is part of the target method of governance. You pollies dream up what you would like and then impose your wishes on the subservient entities that can bring this about. It’s expecting too much to set simple minimum standards on learning institutions. There are already research demands, publishing demands, and though it is reasonable to have expectations, they can’t be simple like FPP or holding out punishment of less money so squeezing more out of under-funded institutions. We aren’t a sausage factory.

      If only we could set targets on our politicians. If only we could take advice on what was achievable and threaten them with replacement if they did not fill expectations, or justify why we should risk for instance, our coastlines and food resources so we can make things and export more, in order to afford to import more because pollies have destroyed our economy by dropping reasonable protective tariffs to prevent dumping and under-cutting thus causing the inevitable rise in import substitution, to provide goods that we could make with the skills commonly found in our own country, thus affecting unemployment which rises as imports rise.

      • greywarbler 6.1.1

        ‘causing the inevitable rise in import substitution’
        I put that meaning to import substitution which I think is correct for these days. Import substitution used to be used about our own manufactured goods, when we were trying to limit the flow of money overseas and encourage business and jobs in our own country. Now we have reversed that excellent scheme on a shonky economic principle that has driven our country into near bankruptcy. It’s a cow of a situation. And only cows can save us from at least insolvency, the noble beasts that they are.

        Time for a change Labour, you sleeping princesses and princes, if you don’t wake up you’ll go into a coma, and we might have to slap you round the face to bring you back to consciousness.

  7. geoff 7

    The whole tertiary education system is a scam.
    Hordes of naive young people running up huge, debilitating debts just so a few thousand people get relatively good middle-class jobs.
    Standard bachelors degrees provide very little advantage in earning potential compared with people who have no tertiary education.
    But they help hide youth unemployment so who cares cos the debts that get run up are just private debts, right? Suckers!
    Except that the government considers student debt as an asset on their books so the greater students get into debt the better off the country is!
    Win Win!

    • Lanthanide 7.1

      “Except that the government considers student debt as an asset on their books so the greater students get into debt the better off the country is!”

      In strict accounting terms, perhaps. But for every $1 they spend on student loans, they realise 60c back in repayments, after accounting for inflation and foregone interest etc.

      The other factor in student funding for universities is that the government pays a huge amount of money to tertiary education providers, and this does not count as an “asset” of anyone’s books. For example, international students pay $37,100 per year to do an engineering degree at Canterbury, because they don’t qualify for any government funding. Domestic students pay just $6,725 for the same course. The government is chipping in $30,375 per engineering student per year before student loans even come into the picture.

      • Murray Olsen 7.1.1

        The government would be chipping in $30,375/year per engineering student if the cost to the university were $37,100 and no funds from elsewhere were used for that course. I wouldn’t be surprised if Canterbury were overcharging the international student. In fact, I’d be surprised if they weren’t.

        On pass rates – university administrations have been putting pressure on departments to pass more students for at least 20 years that I am aware of. Some departments will give conceded passes in the first year, which do not let the student enrol in any second year papers, but are not technically a fail. Even so, the level of a Bachelor’s degree has dropped to the extent that they are only useful for aspiring political candidates to put on their CVs.

      • Disraeli Gladstone 7.1.2

        The sums don’t quite add up. Universities make a profit off international students. Your post isn’t wrong, the government does chip in a fair bit after domestic students pay for their course, but:

        Domestic Fees + Government Funding < International Fees

  8. red blooded 8

    To be fair, education is not just about employment. That’s the line that gets pushed by the NACTs, who see no value in having people with developed analytical skills, roaming minds, wider cultural boundaries or a deeper insight into the workings of the world, of the human mind or power structures within society. My MA in Political Science did bugger all for my employment options, but that wasn’t my intention in pursuing that line of study. If we accept that tertiary education is only aimed at making people more employable then we keep on scaling down the arts, languages and social sciences. Society needs people with a balance of skills and knowledge, and not all if that relates to whatever type of employment they eventually take on.

    • blue leopard (Get Lost GCSB Bill) 8.1

      lol for National and Act having people with developed analytical skills, roaming minds, wider cultural boundaries or a deeper insight into the workings of the world, of the human mind or power structures within society really works against the chances of them ever getting elected …little wonder they are trying to ban such states of mind and being from occurring….

    • geoff 8.2

      I completely agree but loading young people up with debt that they will saddled with for most of their lives while in return they get a bit of paper that doesn’t help them earn more money is just a cynical scam.
      There has got to be a better way.

  9. Ad 9

    Minimum pass rates for tertiary education will generate the same false disciplines as exams for primary school students. From that one would conclude that tertiary educators would screen harder for the lazy, the morons, or the misdirected. This is where the hard ruler of performance metrics works better on those over 18 than it does on those under 10.

    On the downside, lecturers will find themselves, like primary school teachers, spending more than perhaps 25% of their time on the discipline of testing, rather than on teaching. This leads of course to inefficient teaching.

    On the upside, I would hope that it has a cooling effect on a percentage of both local and international students being used by their institutions as diploma-mills. While we have gone beyond the “bums on seats” funding model, there’s little doubt New Zealand’s top tier of universities is slipping. The global rank of that institution really does matter to the degree you hold, when you put it to the job market. I would hope this signal to effectively weed out the non-performers faster starts to address this global slippage by increasing the overall quality of students who take tertiary study.

  10. karol 10

    I agree that there shouldn’t be minimum pass rates, and the whole bums on seats approach undermines real education. Ultimately, it produces many students who just want to pass, rather than really engage with subjects.

    I disagree with the characetrisation of “soft disciplines”. I’ve taught some of that. Quite a few students have difficulty grasping some of the key social science concepts. I’ve also taught a few business/science students, more used to the whole right/wrong answer approach. Some have difficulty with developing an argument and/or grasping some sociological concepts. This is especially so when it comes to understanding the realities of life for many people – life is messy and doesn’t always fit into neat formula.

    A subject is only as hard as you make the pass criteria.

    • Stephanie Rodgers 10.1

      I agree with your point about ‘soft disciplines’! I still like to reminisce about my tutorial buddies who in third-year English papers had trouble identifying Swift’s Modest Proposal as satire, or in second-year German history were confused by the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism wasn’t seen as a detriment by many people …

  11. DS 11

    The real problem with this sort of nonsense is that it provides a massive incentive to dumb-down papers: lecturers become too terrified of failing anyone.

  12. vto 12

    imposing minimum pass rates at university would be like imposing minimum success rates in business

  13. Suzy Q 13

    I’m academic staff in one of NZ’s universities. We were simply informed by our School that our courses had to have a 65% completion rate, and that this percentage would likely increase. No instruction on how to carry out those orders properly, and certainly no resources to do it right (for instance, extra tutorials for struggling students). The punishment for not following the requirement is that the funding for the ENTIRE COURSE is withdrawn from the School’s budget retrospectively. RJL’s post about too high and too low failure rates is interesting, but I’ve never heard such a discussion in my university. Also strange is that the 65% completion requirement applies at all levels and all disciplines — I don’t know if that’s my university’s interpretation of the the government policy or the government’s actual policy. Either way it’s no way to run a quality higher education system. I’m curious if other countries in similar situations have done such things.

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