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September 27, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Stemming the flow: prerequisites to study

Demand for tertiary education is increasing, but the government is refusing to fund places for more students. Something’s got to give, and increasingly, New Zealand universities are being forced to manage enrolments. Victoria has introduced new enrolment criteria with which to vet 2011’s influx of first-year students. Salient feature writer Elle Hunt investigates what repercussions these new measures might have on enabling access to university study in future.

In May this year the door was shut: the University Council announced that Victoria University would accept no new domestic undergraduate admissions for the rest of 2010. The decision was unexpected—as VUWSA President Max Hardy told Salient at the time, it disadvantaged students who had been acting on the “entirely reasonable assumption that admissions would remain open”.

However, Vice Chancellor Pat Walsh put forward the case that the University had no other option if it was to meet its “legal obligations” to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC). If left unchecked, student numbers were forecast to reach 110 per cent of the ‘cap’—the number of equivalent full-time students (EFTS) that the TEC is prepared to fund, as negotiated in an institution’s individual investment plan. Victoria was therefore compelled to restrict enrolments, or stretch staff workloads and teaching resources.

Closing enrolments, then, was an effective stopgap for 2010—but patently not workable as a long-term solution to the issue of increasing demand versus financial restrictions. The Council has been aware that it would have to implement more enduring measures since as early as mid-2009: minutes of a meeting held on June 29 concede that “in the near future, the University would be forced into a position of managing enrolments, and the Council would need time to consider this in the context of quality and equity issues”.

A Managed Enrolment Working Party was convened, and tasked with devising a process and methodology for a fully managed enrolment system, to be implemented for the 2011 enrolment period.

“The recommendation from the Working Party to manage enrolment by controlling first-year admission numbers was the result of considerable review, analysis and debate,” says Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Professor Penny Boumelha. “Managing enrolments was necessary to ensure the quality of our teaching, and [that] learning outcomes for enrolled students was not compromised by taking on too many unfunded students.

“The University has been actively managing numbers since 2008 through a variety of mechanisms, but from 2011, there will potentially be funding consequences if the University exceeds targets—so careful consideration was given to what changes needed to be put in place,” she says.

“The way we have chosen to manage our enrolments for 2011 onwards is based on academic merit. This will have positive flow-on effects as students work towards gaining their qualification.”

Removing the guesswork from the GES

Professor Boumelha is referring to the most significant of the changes made to undergraduate enrolments: a ranking system known as the Guaranteed Entry Score (GES). Secondary school students seeking admittance to Victoria from 2011 will now have to achieve the GES as well as University Entrance (UE) in their final year of NCEA, Cambridge or Baccalaureate assessment. The GES for all undergraduate degrees is 120 points; achieving this (and UE) guarantees a student admission to university.

The GES enables Victoria to order prospective students based on their Level 3 results and qualification type. A student’s rank score is calculated from their 80 ‘best’ credits (which are weighted by level of achievement) in UE-approved subjects at Level 3 or higher. As a maximum of 24 credits in each subject are counted, it’s more difficult to achieve than UE—which requires at least 14 Level 3 credits in just two approved subjects, as well as a further 14 Level 3 credits in two domains or approved subjects.

Professor Boumelha does not expect the GES to cut off many secondary students’ access to University.

“We expect that most of our school-leaver applicants will be accepted into a programme,” she says. “The system just means that if we are oversubscribed, we are able to place some limits on the numbers accepted.”

VUWSA President Max Hardy believes the GES will have a greater impact.

“I expect there to be a lot of students who want to go into university that will not be able to, which will be very sad, as we’ll essentially be taking away their opportunity to education,” he says. “Not very many countries would do that to students.

“The other thing is, it may very well be that more students than the University expects will achieve the GES, and get into university, and the whole thing is a farce because student numbers exceed that 105 per cent [cap] anyway. It’s possible.”

Hardy notes that the introduction of the GES will primarily affect secondary school students’ subject choices. He points out that this will result in a “transition issue” for Level 3 students who chose to study subjects that are not UE-approved at the start of this year.

“Basically, it’s possible that the course choices you made at the beginning of the year just to get UE would have been different, had you known that you actually needed [to achieve the GES] from those courses,” says Hardy. “I thought that was particularly unfair on some high school students.”

Hardy also opposed the speed at which the decisions were made.

“When we knew in 2009 that we were going to do this, or something similar, we should have at least told people, or given a year for high school students to actually know the rules that they were going to be facing.”

Rachael Worsley is a Year 13 student at Waimea College in Richmond. She is one such prospective undergraduate that could have been cut off from university by the introduction of the GES, as she intends to start studying towards a conjoint BA/BCA in Psychology and Marketing at Victoria next year.

Worsley says that “unless something goes drastically wrong”, she is “pretty confident” that she will gain both UE and the GES, as all of her subjects are UE-approved.

“I’m really glad this turned out to be the case,” she says. “I have friends at school will struggle to get the [GES] on top of UE, as they’re taking unit standard subjects like Tourism and Psychology.”

The repercussions of rankings

Secondary school students that achieve UE but not the GES will be waitlisted, and accepted if places become available. Maori and Pacific students in this position will be prioritised above others in the same situation, so as to enable the University to meet its equity targets. Applications from students with disabilities who have failed to achieve the GES will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“Like all universities, Victoria is very concerned to address any equity implications which could arise from managed enrolment,” says Professor Boumelha. “Victoria is committed to providing sound pathways to university for under-represented groups.

“Maori and Pacific applicants who achieve University Entrance but do not achieve the Guaranteed Entry Score will be admitted, but asked to meet conditions that support their transition into the University and their programme of study.”

While Hardy allows that the University has an obligation to these students under the Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy, he considers this move “contentious in some ways”.
“There are three equity groups considered by the University: Maori and Pacific students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds—and [the latter] have not been prioritised, because it was difficult to do so,” Hardy says.

“The only way we could think about doing it was through deciles of schools—but then you’ve got rich kids that go to decile one schools, and poor kids that go to decile 10 schools.”

Victoria’s GES is not the first of its kind to be implemented in New Zealand institutions; in fact, it is more or less identical to the ‘rank score’ that was introduced by the University of Auckland for the 2008 enrolment period.

“Auckland was ahead of other universities,” Hardy says.

“They probably showed more foresight, really.”

The University of Auckland recently increased the requirements of its rank score: enrolment in a Bachelor of Arts now requirements a rank score of 140 points—20 more than are required to study towards the same qualification at Victoria.

“We said we’re going to do the GES like Auckland [University] does, to keep it consistent—which is eminently sensible—and a month later, they said that they were going to increase the score,” Hardy says. “Really, that’s just a bid from Auckland to establish itself as the best university in New Zealand…

“It does get worrying for the sector when universities are trying to differentiate themselves like that. I don’t think you should be playing those games. Victoria, Otago, Canterbury and Auckland—and maybe Massey—want to be the best university in New Zealand, and if Auckland starts [increasing admission criteria], those universities will follow suit, because they don’t want to look like they’re letting in more students.”

Other measures and changes

Although the GES is the most significant addition to the University’s admission requirements for first-year students in 2011, other moves to manage enrolments have also been introduced.

Professor Boumelha says two other “key strategies” will be put in place: firstly, the strict enforcement of enrolment deadlines, and secondly, introducing one primary enrolment period for the whole year. This will mean students must apply for the whole year, before 10 December 2010 for limited entry and distance courses, and 10 January 2011 for all other courses.

The University has also changed how it processes ‘special admission’ applications, from prospective undergraduates who are at least 20-years-old and lacking UE or a relevant Level 4 qualification. These applicants will now be assessed on their ‘university readiness’ by the Admissions Office, and will be ranked into one of four groups—A, B, C and D—based on their results.

Group A applicants, deemed “capable and degree-ready”, will be placed at the top of the waitlist, and will therefore be the first group to be approved into their chosen programmes of study—once all students with guaranteed entry have been admitted. Applicants from Group B will be prioritised lower, while those from Group C will be advised on possible foundation programmes or short courses by the University Preparation Team. Group D applicants will be denied altogether.

“What [the University] used to say is that [special admission applicants] were guaranteed entry, because they had the equivalent to the GES,” Hardy says. “That was the initial plan. Then they realised that they were going to have quite a lot more students than they had thought, and they decided Group A students were actually going to be shortlisted.

“It’s quite concerning, because [prospective students] over the age of 20 went from being guaranteed entry to not being guaranteed entry at all,” he points out. “If a lot of high school students pass well, you’ve got no chance of getting in.”

‘Personal interest’ and ‘discretionary entrance’ applications will continue to be considered. Students who complete the Certificate of University Preparation at another institution with an average grade of ‘B’ will be admitted, as will students who hold a Certificate of Foundation Studies.

However, Hardy notes, the government is attempting to discourage universities from offering foundation programmes such as the CUP (“they want polytechs to do that”), and this could impact peoples’ access to study in future.

“That would really significantly damage peoples’ ability to get into uni, because you’re not only saying we’re not admitting you, but we’re also not going to give you the opportunity to prove that you can upskill yourselves,” he says. “We want [the University] to keep offering those sorts of opportunities.”

The implications of managed enrolments

David Do, Co-President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Association, believes universities are being forced to manage enrolments because “the government has chosen not to properly invest in higher education.

“This is another symptom of the government failing to properly support increased demand for higher education, and failing to support access to those who need education and upskilling at this time,” he says. “Capped funding is leading to institutions shutting their doors to new enrolments.”

Do points out that managed enrolment will increase competition between secondary school students for entry into universities. This, he says, will widen the gap between “the haves and have-nots—those who went to well-off schools and those who [didn’t]”. He also notes that “academic performance at a university is not necessarily correlated with high school performance”, but ranking systems such as the GES “will shut out potential high achievers”.

“The moves away from open-entry—a system that gave all suitably qualified New Zealanders a fair go—mean that thousands of potential students nationwide have been affected. Maori and Pasifika students… and workers looking to upskill are among those who may miss out.”

While Matt Huntington of Universities New Zealand allows that “the demand for places in our universities is much greater than the number of EFTS the government will fund”, he points out that universities set their own criteria for selection into programmes.

“Note that not all universities are going this route [of managed enrolment].”

For this reason, Hardy wants Victoria to justify its management of enrolments more fully.

“The University’s argument is that each individual student costs money, and if they don’t get more money from the government as they enrol more students, the quality of education will decline,” he says. “We want the University to substantiate that—to actually explain to us how much extra students will cost, rather than just saying, ‘We can’t enrol extra students because it costs too much’, which we don’t accept as a full justification.”

Figures suggest, however, managed enrolments are inevitable, for at least the next few years. A Ministry of Education study, entitled Future demand for tertiary education in New Zealand: 2009 to 2025 and beyond, anticipated in June 2009 that demand was likely to increase in future—not only due to the recession (and associated unemployment and reduced labour market opportunities), but also because of population growth.

“I think demand is projected to increase over the next two years, but it may well drop after that—it fluctuates,” Hardy says. “The recession is used a lot as the reason why, but the two biggest indicators are how many 18- and 19-year-olds there are, and how many people finish seventh form the year before.”

Hardy is right: the study predicts a decline in the number of 18- and 19-year-olds after 2012, which will affect numbers of students enrolling into bachelors-level study. It also explored the potential of managed enrolments:

“If demand for places in tertiary providers increase and this demand is not met… competition will increase for those places that are available… Alternatively, higher standards may be used to reduce student numbers progressing to the next year of study. If this does occur, there are implications for equity of access to tertiary education and the longer-term prospects of increasing New Zealand’s human capital.”

This last point aligns with Hardy’s concerns.

“We think that a university education is a public good—it’s a right. Education is a right for every New Zealander, and tertiary education is one of the ways that we grow as a country, and we bring people out of poverty,” he says.

“Some people would prefer to go towards a more elite system, which doesn’t treat education as a right for everybody. Particularly as tertiary education is paid out of everybody’s taxes—we should all have a right to access it. So I think the big problem is that you’re taking away people’s opportunities to aspire to tertiary education, and that’s a really sad thing.”

The government’s refusal to fund increasing demand for places has put universities in an awkward situation: increase admission requirements and be thought elitist, or allow all comers and foot the bill. It’s clear that the management of enrolments, as contentious as it might be, is an inescapable reality for most tertiary education providers in New Zealand—and until the sector receives considerably more financial support, it’s likely to remain as such for some time.


About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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