Monday, April 20, 2009

The University of New England's senior management blog

I was interested to learn that the University of New England has established a senior management blog. Hat tip to Gordon Smith for the lead.

When I first started blogging, one of my interests lay in the way that blogs and blogging might be used as a communications device within organisations. I teased out some of the issues here in Case Study: Potential use of Blogs as a communications device within specialist medical colleges.

While the primary audience for the UNE blog is internal, many of the posts will be of much broader interest to all those with an interest in Australian higher education.

In this context, I was struck by the latest post, Prof Graham Webb, DVC, on academic standards. This is an interesting post not just because of the topic, but because of the way it actually draws out some of the tensions within the Australian higher education system.

The question of the relationships between performance in final school exams and subsequent university performance is an old and vexed one.

When the University of New England itself began as a college of Sydney University back in 1938, there were serious concerns within Sydney about the likelihood of the new institution being able to maintain standards. This was due in part to the lower Leaving Certificate marks, in part remoteness from the mother campus.

To meet these fears, Sydney initially insisted on all exam papers being marked in Sydney. Embarrassment resulted as students from the new college started out-performing their Sydney counterparts.

The reason for this lay in part in differences in the composition of the student bodies. NEUC was admitting country students who had not had the same school access as their Sydney counterparts, but who were in fact just as bright and had higher motivation. Smaller student numbers, the residential nature of the new college and high staff motivation at NEUC all helped as well.

These were still issues when I became a student at the tail end of the old Leaving Certificate system. Most of the students I knew were the first in their families to attend university. Outside the relatively large international student cohort, most students had attended country schools. Again, average entry marks were lower.

Ideas of selection and cramming to get maximum Leaving marks were already well entrenched within the NSW school system. The problem was that relative performance in the Leaving certificate had become a very poor predictor of subsequent success as many force-fed students struggled.

Track forward, and we find similar problems today with the Higher School Certificate and subsequent UAI rankings. I have written a fair bit on this over time, driven by my own daughters' experiences with the system.

The Gang of Eight has a vested interest in the UAI system because it feeds their perceived competitive advantage.

With the exception of Western Sydney where distance has limited contact, I know the older Sydney Universities pretty well. My daughters have been students at three of them, many of their friends go to the fourth.

I accept that I am biased because of my UNE connections. My use of the term Gang of Eight shows my bias. However, as I see it, UAI rankings remain a poor predictor of subsequent long term performance. Worse, variations in UAI cut-off marks between institutions and courses say nothing at all about the relative standards of the education received. 

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