The Dominion Post

Sense in tightening University Entrance

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SOME 4400 school leavers have missed out on University Entrance this year when they likely would have got it before.

A drop was expected – the standards have been toughened – but the number is larger than predicted.

Why? It seems to be a combinatio­n of the stricter rules and confusion about exactly what they meant: the universiti­es report that able students are missing the threshold for inconseque­ntial reasons.

That’s worrying, though it seems everyone might have helped avoid it – those who devised the rules, schools who’ve had three years to communicat­e them, and students themselves, for whom UE can mean a defining direction for their future. NZQA now promises a speedy review.

On the broader point – the tightening up of entrance requiremen­ts – there’s really no question that this is useful.

University attendance has exploded in the past 20 years. This is mostly a great positive – more people across the spectrum gaining skills that typically pay better and expand their opportunit­ies. Yet there is also a sense that it has happened carelessly, driven along by universiti­es competing for ‘‘bums on seats’’ funding and piles of school leavers happy to postpone decision-making for a fun few years.

Anyone who’s spent time in a university over that period knows there are some students who shouldn’t be there – who are ill-equipped and uninterest­ed. University should be open to all, and great effort should be made to ensure a diverse student population, but it shouldn’t be a free ride. If students can’t string essays together, as has been reported, they shouldn’t be there, and if they can’t get the final school qualificat­ions (a requiremen­t under the new rules), they shouldn’t either.

As is often pointed out, some university students are better suited to other work – for instance in the trades, many of which are in high demand. Some only discover this once they are burdened with years of student debt.

The sector sees the problem – Universiti­es New Zealand supports tighter rules, while the University of Auckland is introducin­g its own, even stricter literacy requiremen­ts.

There is a limit to all this, and it wouldn’t pay to go too far with it. New Zealand allows those over 20 to enrol without UE, an apt second route to study for those with motivation and a few more years of life experience.

Likewise, there’s no returning universiti­es to the small elite institutio­ns they once were. The world has changed – so many more jobs require further training, and so many more young people are well set for university study.

But there is still a wider debate to be had about just how utilitaria­n universiti­es should be. Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce pushes one view – his strategy’s top priority for universiti­es is to ‘‘deliver skills for industry’’ and he is reforming university governance accordingl­y.

But universiti­es have also traditiona­lly been places of culture, criticism and open-ended experiment­ation. This role matters too, and we’d be poorer without it.

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