Friday, January 05, 2007

Gripes About Australian Education - 2

In my last post I looked at some of the rigidities, difficulties and pressures created in NSW by the HSC/UAI combination, by the need for schools, parents and kids to try to manage the process to get the best numeric outcome.

One of the difficulties here lies in the uncertainties associated with the process. In the words, of my eldest, how was I to know that English would be my best subject?

This was a subject that Helen struggled in to some degree, a subject where we arranged some external tutoring, a subject where her place in class was lower than in most other subjects. Then come the HSC her exam mark was far better than expected, miles in front of the raw school assessment, with the assessment itself being scaled up by a substantial margin.

Conversely, drama was one of Helen's favourite subjects and one she was good at. Unexpectedly, in drama the exam mark was lower than expected, with the no scaling up of school assessment.

I had attended all of the class and individual performances and did not understand this result. I still do not, even after hours spent analysing the official data.

The best I can work out is that the examiners must have marked the school very hard in the performance segment of the examination, bringing the overall exam mark down. Since, as seems to be the custom in many schools, the school itself had marked the assessment tasks hard, the combined effect was negative.

Whatever the reasons, the outcome affected Helen's UAI since she had chosen to do just ten subjects to allow her to also concentrate on other things including her role as prefect. Should we have discouraged her from pursuing the prefect position and then investing so much time in it? I don't think so, because she did blossom in the role. But I can understand why some parents do discourage their children's extra-curricular activities.

Under the NSW/ACT system students have to nominate their university/subject choices. In doing so, they are advised to make a number of prioritised choices. Universities then make offers based on student UAIs.

For most students, the process of selecting universities/subjects can be complex. In some cases, students know exactly what they want to do. However, in most cases they are not certain and go through something of a search process.

I watched all this with interest in the case of Helen and her friends, am now watching the same process with Clare and her friends, some of whom did the HSC this year.

The starting point is just which university you might get into and in which subjects, given your expected UAI.

Unlike the US where students consider universities across the country, Sydney students are almost entirely stay at home. This is partly a matter of culture, increasingly a matter of economics. As the costs of university education increase, the added costs of living away from home become a greater burden. So most Sydney students look first at local institutions. Here the combination of subject choice with expected UAI narrows the field.

Other factors then come into play. These include travel time, where friends are going and the prestige and culture of the institution itself.

Because Sydney University is still seen as a university, that institution attracts students who still see a university education in broader terms as compared to the narrower vocational focus. Conversely, UTS is less attractive to those seeking a broader university experience, while the University of New South Wales suffers because the large number of overseas students is seen as adversely affecting campus life. For Eastern Suburbs' kids, the group I know best, Macquarie and Western Sydney are just too far away, while Western Sydney also suffers from lack of prestige.

At the end of the day, it all depends upon just what offers you get. In Helen's case she wanted to do business studies as a first choice with Sydney and UTS as her preferred institutions. The business studies choice dictated the final outcome.

I actually do not understand quite why current students have such a strong preference for commerce or business studies, although that is a matter for another post. In any event, that preference means that UAI's for commerce/business studies can be quite high. In Helen's case, her UAI would have allowed her to do Arts at Sydney, but in terms of her preferred subject choice the only business studies option was UTS Kuring-gai.

Students make their institution and subject choices based on the best information available to them at the time. A considerable number, perhaps as many as a third based just on the sample I know, find their initial choices unsatisfactory.

The reasons for this vary. In some cases, they simply find that they prefer a different subject mix. In other cases, they find the teaching unsatisfactory. Bright students who have done advanced work at school may find initial subject content boringly elementary. A significant proportion are disappointed with campus life at the institution of choice.

Helen is probably a fairly typical case.

She found that she was interested in a broader range of subjects, the long travel times to Kuring-gai became a burden, while participation in campus life proved difficult at such distance. Given her interests and friends, she found herself working at one geographic point, studying at a second point, playing netball with a University of NSW team as a way of continuing sport with friends, organising a drama performance at Sydney University with a friend there.

In these circumstances students need to consider choosing new subjects or even new institutions. However, a new set of institutional rigidities now come in. Again, we can take Helen as a case study.

At school she was told not to worry too much, that there were fourteen different ways of achieving the same thing. Her parents repeated this message based on our own experience. Start now and you can always switch later. Unfortunately, this advice is at best only partially correct.

In Helen's case, she presently wants to maintain a business studies major, she would like to do honours although this has still to be defined, she would like to consider doing some new subjects in arts, politics and economics, and she would like to play a more active role in campus life in the same way that she did at school. So she needs to look at new course options, possibly a new university, recognising that this may add an extra year to the degree.

To this end, she looked again at Sydney University. This is just down the road, she had played water polo for a Sydney University team, she has friends there, she and a friend are mounting a SUDS sponsored drama performance in February. In all, she already knows the University pretty well. However, Sydney University is still just not on. The reasons are instructive.

1. She still cannot get into either commerce or economics because of the way they do the assessments. To shift at the end of first year, the University rules provide for a 50:50 weighting between the previous UAI and the first year university results. Her credit average UTS first year results cannot bridge the gap between her UAI and the commerce and economics entry UAI requirements. There is no provision to take other things into account.

2. As before, she can get into Arts. However, here she faces two distinct problems.

  • The first is that, based on the advice from the University, it is highly unlikely that she will later be able to shift to either commerce or economics should she want to no matter how good her results. So if she goes to Sydney, she is stuck in Arts.
  • This brings up the second problem, the rigidity in SU course structures. When my wife did her degree at Sydney, she and a friend did almost identical subjects, with one graduating with honours in Political Economy, the second honours in Arts. This type of flexibility is apparently no longer possible. Many of the subjects that Helen is interested in, economics and government relations are examples, are not in Arts. This creates real longer term problems when it comes to considering possible majors and honour's year.

So now it's all back to the drawing board while we reconsider options. Should she stay at UTS perhaps trying to shift to the city campus, accepting the perceived UTS limitations? Should she move to Sydney, accepting the severe limitations there? Should she consider other alternatives such as combined economics/arts at NSW, assuming that she can get in?

There are a number of lessons in this story from a parent's perspective.

The first is the continued importance of the broader university experience for at least some students. I see this when I look at Pippa doing medicine at Newcastle who has apparently been having a magnificent time or Rachel at Sydney with her involvement in student activities. Conversely, I also see it in Helen with her disappointment at UTS. There is more to life than the narrowly vocational.

The second is the extent to which students are disappointed by their initial institution/subject choices. This appears to be far higher than I had realised, so the need for flexibility has to be factored into planning.

This leads me to my third point, the importance of institutional rigidities, including the continuing dead hand of the UAI, in limiting student choice. Students and parents must factor this into initial choices. What is the full range of course options at any institution? How easy is it to switch courses? How easy is it to switch universities? Should we consider the non-Sydney option?

There is also a lesson in all this for the Sydney universities themselves and especially the University of Sydney.

You cannot assume that just because you are a member of the gang of eight, have a large immediate local marketplace and an apparently strong market position, that your market position is unassailable. If you cannot offer good teaching, a rich student experience and substantial student flexibility, then you become just another commodity supplier.


Anonymous said...

Jim, I have had the UAI process explained to me endlessly, and I still don't understand it. I have even said cheeky thing like, "Why don't the add in the student's height and weight????" Naturally that has not gone down well. Mathematicians just look at me sadly...

It does seem that the school assessment is moderated by the exam result, so a good result pushes the assessment up, but there are so many other mysterious factors, such as allowing for the overall performance of all candidates in that subject in the school -- having "duds" in a group can depress everyone's outcome, it seems. Then there is the perceived difficulty of the subject: Ancient Greek, for example, probably rates much higher than Drama.

Sorry, I am one confused "expert" here, though I usually can advise students fairly confidently about which English course is likely to produce the best UAI for them; wrong choices there can be disastrous.

There's a lot worth thinking about in your posts. With permission, I may refer and quote, probably on the English blog.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, quote to your heart's content. If it would help, I can give links to the various statistical explanations.

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Anonymous said...

Universities aren't commodotiy suppliers. They are behave like monopolists.

The reason Sydney University is the most prestigious is almost entirely because it's the oldest university.

Oxford is more prestigious than Cambridge, Harvard is more prestigious than Yale.

Sydney is more prestigious than New South Wales.

It's all pretty silly, because it means that universities don't compete on merit, just on age. The oldest institutions may accrue the best faculty and students, but there's no incentive for the experience to be more rewarding, innovative or even good.

Anonymous said...

You make a fair point anon.

Anonymous said...

I left Australia 10 years ago and attended Sydney Uni in the late 80s early 90s. The impression then and into the mid 90s, when as a teacher my pupils were heading off to university, was that Sydney's prestige was waning and that in specific courses UTS and NSW were far superior. This was a promising development, not so much because of the increased prestige of other institutions, but because students were starting to look at courses first and institutions second. This is certainly the case in the UK and is the only feature of the UK system which I think is enviable. When courses at universities have prestige rather than the institution those providing the course can make a huge difference. When institutions are a more important consideration than the course itself things stultify. If we can get Australian students to look at courses first rather than institutions, and it was starting to happen in the 90s, then university departments and schools will be able to compete and develop regardless of where they are housed. ON a final note, if you ask any Mathematician, Physicist, Art Historian, Classicist or Arabist how Oxford and Cambridge rank, the latter wins hands down. Age doesn't matter, nor should it. What ultimately makes a course good is firstly, the quality of the pupils opting for it. A course with a good reputation attracts good students and (in theory) snow balls.