Change brewing for tertiary sector

Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith wants to see more flexibility in the sector. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The Government has revealed its initial response to a tertiary education report that recommended a major shake-up to the system, but won’t be adopting some of the more radical suggestions. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Students will still have to sit University Entrance exams, while quick “micro credentials” will be trialled as a new approach to tertiary education is formulated.

Tertiary Education Minister Paul Goldsmith announced the direction the Government would take in improving the industry on Wednesday, following consideration of a Productivity Commission report that identified several problems within the adult education sector.

It found that the tertiary system was not “student-centred” and, while it was doing a good job to support and protect providers, it was failing to try to adopt new ways of delivering education.

It made a raft of recommendations, including re-introducing interest on new student loans, improving career services in schools, providing more incentives to invest in teaching quality rather than research performance, and scrapping University Entrance.

The report was met with a lukewarm response from the industry, who criticised the Commission for ignoring issues such as funding.

Goldsmith released a response to all 50 of the Commission’s recommendations on Wednesday, adopting some, rejecting others, and marking the remainder for consideration.

Essentially, and as expected, the most radical suggestions were dropped.

Bringing back interest on student loans had already been flagged as a no-go by Goldsmith, who also shot down the idea of doing away with University Entrance and allowing institutions to set their own requirements.

“I just don’t see there’s a major problem to deal with there, I think the system works relatively well.”

There are areas that Goldsmith believes are not working well though, particularly a lack of flexibility in the system.

The Government’s plan

Four areas of focus have been singled out as areas for improvement, with a new tertiary education strategy to be developed and released in 2018.

They are: creating a more student-centred system; meeting the needs of industry and employers; improving performance; and encouraging innovation and new providers and models.

Goldsmith’s speech, held at BusinessNZ headquarters, focused heavily on improving training for the trades, which he said had been treated as an inferior option.

His words would have pleased the business and manufacturing communities, who have been concerned about a skills shortage in the area.

“We do need to see more of our bright and talented young people becoming electricians and tradespeople, so that’s a more attitudinal change we need,” Goldsmith said.

One of the more interesting announcements was the trial of “micro-credentials”, small courses that focused on specific skills and could be as short as a few weeks.

NZQA will trial three such programmes during the next six months and report back to the Minister.

Goldsmith said the industry needed more flexibility to prepare for a future where people would be working in multiple industries across their lifetime and needed to pick up additional skills in “bite-sized” ways.

It would be important that NZQA focused on ensuring the quality of any such courses and he did not believe they would water-down the education system, he said.

Other areas that will be explored are work-integrated learning and the current performance-linked funding model that punishes institutions when students leave before the end of a course.

More emphasis would be placed on career advice in schools and work would be undertaken to decide whether tertiary providers should pay rates.

If this was introduced, Goldsmith said it would likely be substituted with money from the Government, but at the moment there were concerns that institutions were not using their land in efficient ways because they did not pay rates.

In its report, the Commission suggested that the tertiary sector was too research focused with not enough emphasis on quality teaching but Goldsmith disagreed with the view and said it was important for universities to retain their world-class ranking.

“I don’t wholly agree with that; the University system includes magnificent teachers and they have very much a focus on quality teaching.”

He did believe that it was important to encourage innovation, which could be stifled under the current system, so introducing “safe harbour” from performance measures to enable providers to run experimental courses would be investigated.

Reaction from the sector

The announcement was received with cautious optimism from most interested parties with one caveat: the devil will be in the detail.

Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan was pleased to see the Minister pledge to support the country’s high-quality tertiary education system and described the Government’s response to the report as “sensible”.

Taking more time to come up with a robust way forward was important, but it meant another period of uncertainty for the industry.

Whelan said the funding model should be a priority for any new strategy, as since 1991 it had been locked down with institutions being funded based on their method of teaching.

Times had changed with technological advancements such as online learning, but many were struggling to fit their funding requirements into a model that was not fit for purpose, he said.

“The world’s moved on…effectively everyone’s getting the same funding regardless of quality.”

Whelan was supportive of micro qualifications, believing they would slot in well as modules to skills-based training courses.

Gareth Hughes, the Greens tertiary education spokesman, said he was pleased some of the more radical recommendations such as scrapping University Entrance and reintroducing interest on student loans had been ignored.

But he was concerned over other recommendations marked as “more thought needed” by the Government, such as an idea to introduce a tender process to supply particular fields or regions, which Hughes said was “madness”.

He said it was also disappointing that other, more sensible suggestions had been ignored, including increasing the student loan repayment threshold and exploring a progressive payment scheme.

The Greens were supportive of introducing micro qualifications to address industry shortages, but wanted to see more details about how it would work, he said.