Codes of practice

February 2012


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PETER COOLBEAR analyses the implications of codes of practice for domestic tertiary students.

Decisions about tertiary education – what, where and when – are some of the most important decisions people take in their lives. But how informed are those decisions? Four decades of research literature on student engagement tells us that the relationships between students and the education organisations they belong to is crucial to student success, but do we manage mutual expectations between students and providers as well as we should?

How good are providers at setting out for prospective students the level of service they provide? How well do prospective students understand their responsibilities and obligations before enrolling and paying fees? What is the essence of the contractual relationship when students enrol? Is it fully explained? What are the protections offered and rights of students if things go wrong?

For the past ten years New Zealand has had a mandatory code of practice for international students, but surprisingly there is no equivalent systematic provision for domestic students.

With the support of the Tertiary Education Commission Learner Advisory Committee, NZUSA (the National Students’ Association) and Te Mana Akonga (the National Maori Tertiary Students’ Association), Ako Aotearoa commissioned Network Research (Networkers) to undertake a stocktake of codes of practice for domestic students offered by our tertiary education providers.

The first key finding of Networker’s study is that this is a highly complex area. The contractual relationships established when students enrol come in many guises: they may be described as provider-student contracts, codes of practice or service guarantees: often they are implicit rather than explicit. They may have several dimensions, covering some or all of the following: pastoral care (the key focus of the code of practice for international students), teaching and learning, the regulatory context and third party agreements, where some provision is sub-contracted to other (often specialist) organisations.

All too often these contractual elements are not coherently presented in ways that are either readily available or meaningful to learners. Very often the detail of what is expected of students and what might be provided by organisations is not made available to students until after they are enrolled.

The second critical issue is that a real tension exists between institutional aspirations to develop positive, reciprocal relationships with their learners on the one hand, and regulatory and managerial pressures on the other.

Presently, there is much talk amongst educators and education policy makers about making our tertiary system more focussed on meeting the diversity of students’ needs: that the system and the organisations within it should be more student-centric. In an ideal world tertiary students should be learning partners within learning organisations.

Networkers’ study found that most tertiary organisations in New Zealand – in fact 70 per cent of survey respondents – do in fact aspire to this: they recognise that students have a strong voice and are critically important stakeholders in the further development of the organisation. However, the reality is often quite different. Many current codes of practice are highly organisation-centric and are simply designed to regulate student behaviour. Significantly fewer organisations make overt commitments to their own service performance.

While the stocktake was able to identify leading providers that are actively exploring increased student democracy within their policy development and concerned to facilitate student input, more than half the organisations surveyed noted that safeguarding the reputation of their organisation and risk management were key factors driving the content of student codes and agreements.

In our view it is important these tensions are recognised within organisations and openly discussed. Our stocktake identified some New Zealand tertiary education organisations that are notably successful at doing this, with overt commitments to ensure that the student voice is heard and acted on across the organisation.

That these issues are tackled on an organisation-wide basis is critical. A third key finding of this project is that there is often a lack of consistency with which codes of practice/student contracts are applied across organisations. This appears to be particularly problematic on multi-site campuses or where third parties are involved in part of the educational delivery.

Why is all this so important? It’s not just about simple contractual relationships in terms of having an explicit set of mutually understood guiding principles and obligations as a reference for when things go wrong. Ultimately it’s about achieving better outcomes for learners in our tertiary system.

Over the years, a wide range of student satisfaction survey data suggests that a good majority of tertiary students are relatively happy with their experiences with providers. However, course and qualification completion rates suggest a great many students are not actually getting as good value from their tertiary experience as the data might suggest. It is our view that a stronger focus on realistic, reciprocal codes of practice between providers and students can be an effective way of raising expectations on both sides. Such codes will help students make better choices, and will make an important contribution to ensuring that more students get best value from their tertiary education experience.

Peter Coolbear is the director of Ako Aotearoa. Both the full Networkers report and a summary document of key findings and recommendations are available