Friday, 26 November 2010

It has recently been my misfortune

to have to read a number of student essays, university student essays.
As I write this there are also ongoing student protests in the United Kingdom over the need to pay university fees and the likelihood that these fees are set to rise. A university education in the UK and Australia is now seen as a right rather than a privilege - regardless of ability.
In Australia there is now an unspoken assumption that all school students will aim for university.
The overall curriculum and structure of the education system is designed with this in mind. There are earnest debates about ensuring that "disadvantaged" students are not disadvantaged.
Students from schools which perform well find their overall marks reduced so that students from schools which do not perform as well will not be disadvantaged. Universities are required to take into consideration a range of other factors when accepting students into some courses.
It is all done in the name of ensuring that all students are given an "equal" opportunity.
There are fees, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme, other schemes, grants, special assistance etc etc. All these things are supposed to ensure that no student misses out.
The reality is rather different. There are able, indeed very able students who do miss out because of quotas in courses. There are students whose apparent family income is taken into account and who therefore fail to obtain grants. There are other students who come from backgrounds which are given "special consideration". They can obtain places in preference to more able students simply because university funding depends on this. There are students from overseas who pay full fees which help to fill university coffers.
My own view is that primary education is a right. Some form of secondary education is also a right but there should be a greater diversity available. I know there are arguments about "everyone has the right" and "students that age do not have the maturity to make a decision and might regret making the wrong choice" etc. There will be a few who make the "wrong decision" but the vast majority will make the decision they feel is "right" for them.
Tertiary education is not a right. It should depend on genuine ability. Truly able students who are not able to pay should also be provided with financial assistance. We should take in limited numbers of the very best students, students who genuinely want to be there and who are both willing to do the work required and reach the desired standard.
The essays I read were from "borderline" students. They are struggling. They should not be at university, indeed do not really want to be there. The spelling is poor. The grammar is poor. The arguments are lacking. There is an overall failure to understand the material that has been presented. These students will however get a passing grade - just. They will further erode the value of an undergraduate degree.
I do not believe the "right" approach to tertiary education is doing anyone any favours.


Sheep Rustler said...

I agree with you. But certainly in Victoria there is quite a variety of options post Year 10. Not all students are herded into VCE (though many schools may give this impression) and many opportunities for further education exist outside of universities. We have a thriving TAFE sector which offers post year 10 as well as further ed. Of course many students face parental pressure to do VCE and university and many of them are unhappy and don't necessarily do well. There is also the two-tier system, which I abhore, of having HECS places with a higher cut-off than full-fee paid places in exactly the same courses - so the less bright kid with the wealthy parents can do the same course as the one who had to work hard to get good marks.

catdownunder said...

I can never understand why South Australia ditched "Technical High Schools" - students still went on to university from there but many others found the practical emphasis just to their liking. A former governor of SA (Sir Eric Neal) is an old scholar of Thebarton Boys Tech - and a strong supporter of technical education. Now we teach almost no tech subjects - although there is, supposedly, some vocational training in Year 10 plus - more in rural areas perhaps. From what students tell me though the vocational training leaves a lot to be desired.

Sheep Rustler said...

We got rid of the Technical High Schools, too, which was stupid, but TAFEs are pretty much filling the gap now. The system is not perfect but there is an increasing realisation that alternatives need to be provided. OF personal interest to me, because I have one child who wants to go to university and do a double degree and a Masters and is perfectly capable to doing them and getting into the courses, and the other needs alternative provision from Year 11 onwards we think. So I will be getting to experience many facets of the system over the next few years!

Amanda Acton said...

I feel weird when I see SA and it doesn't mean South Africa. :P

I've had a similar experience now that I'm an older student. I was horrified to find that I had to do a subject called "Communications: Professional Practice One" This is essentially a language class, with emphasis on correct business world practice. I'm an art student. We had to write "Who I am" essays and business letters etc. Except, I felt like I was back in preschool. Firstly, because "Who I am" is a topic for little people and secondly, it wasn't just a topic. We were guided through the essay with ten questions that had to be answered. Highly Structured. The marks given in the class were high, despite some horrifying work. I found myself wondering how they got through high school in the first place.

Luckily, I am at a technical university. The theory portion is extremely small and we focus on the practical. We MAKE art. Yet, there is this undercurrent from many people that technical universities are somehow inferior. I can't see how, we're actually getting the experience of doing the stuff instead of learning how to answer "intellectual" questions.

I have another two years of "Baby" language classes to get through... save me now... :(

catdownunder said...

Can't you just show them you are writing a book? I was once expected to do a subject because it was required of everyone - which would have been fine except that a chapter in the textbook was written by me! I pointed this out and was, thankfully, given credit for the entire subject - as were a number of my fellow "mature age" students!

Amanda Acton said...

Sadly not. I managed to get out of the computer classes by writing a quick test. (They started with, "this is how you turn on a computer." No... really.)

Can't challenge for any of the other subjects though. The lecturer was nice enough to let me know I'll be bored. Erm... thanks.