Making a real difference for underserved tertiary learners



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Peter Coolbear believes more targeted investment and incentivisation is needed to bring meaningful change to New Zealand’s tertiary education sector.

Peter Coolbear, Director, Ako Aotearoa

Peter CoolbearIn early November Ako Aotearoa had the great privilege of co-hosting our first Pacific Tertiary Education Fono with the Association of Pasifika Staff in Tertiary Education (APSTE). Held in The University of Auckland’s wonderful fale and with generous support from the Tertiary Education Commission, this two-day event provided the first major opportunity for Pasifika tertiary educators across the sector to collectively engage at strategic level with a wide range of government officials about how to reduce the achievement gap for Pasifika learners and, by implication, other priority learners.

So what were the take-home messages for me?

The first was a timely reminder that we are often careless in the way we unpack the problems here. We tend to focus on the educational needs of priority learners and identify the issues in terms of ethnicity (especially Pasifika or Māori) and/or the needs of underprepared young learners. We need to be realistic. Many, and possibly most, underlying barriers to educational success are fundamentally socio-economic ones. Whatever their ethnicity, students from lower decile schools are,
in general, much less academically prepared than their counterparts from high decile schools.

Results of research into the correlation between school decile and the percentage of students gaining University Entrance reflect this starkly. Despite exemplary work in some schools, New Zealand’s compulsory system does not rectify all the problems of socio-economic disadvantage. Nor can tertiary education providers be expected to be the universal remedy for the barriers to educational success that poverty brings.

This doesn’t mean to say that both parts of the system couldn’t do better. And this is the second take-home message. We have a moral purpose to provide the best possible opportunity for success for all learners who enrol with us.

The sad fact is that our ability as a sector to serve first-in-family learners hasn’t improved that much over 40 years. Qualification achievement rates for Pasifika in SAC funded courses are still 16 per cent below the overall average. In industry training the gap is 10 per cent. While acknowledging some fantastic exceptions across the system, we are still rediscovering the same issues and identifying the same barriers to learner success: our provision, in general, remains far less culturally inclusive than it should be and we are far less student-centric than we ought to be.

So how do we break this cycle? I believe that the Tertiary Education Commission’s new outcomes-focused investment initiatives provide an opportunity. Clearly the recent approach of just putting parity of achievement targets in tertiary investment plans hasn’t worked: we need more specifically targeted investment and more sophisticated incentives and instruments to make that investment work.

The Ministry of Education published data in 2013 identifying the median cost to the individual of not completing the qualification they had enrolled in. The simplest economic modelling from that data suggests that the cost to the country of each non-completion is well north of $100,000. If each tertiary education organisation were incentivised by a premium of $5,000 for every student whose previous schooling was at deciles 1–3, who then successfully completed their first year of tertiary study at Level 4 or above, we might have the incentivisation for providers and the wherewithal to take holistic care of these students and support their success. (By this I am talking about extending pastoral care and support well beyond the classroom and linking into the communities we serve). With a potential return on investment of more than 20:1, surely this is a very attractive offer for New Zealand Inc.

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