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Access Debate Draws Differing Views On Universities' Relevancy

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Māori Party Co-Leader Dr Pita Sharples' call for open access to universities for Māori, made last week in a speech delivered at Victoria University of Wellington, has met with differing responses from opinion writers for two weekly newspapers.

An editorial in the National Business Review, headed "Universities should lift sights not lower them", said that higher education was about creating a more informed and equipped population, and "lowering standards is not a way to do this". However, the editorial took a positive view of universities' economic contribution, referencing evidence that a one percentage point increase in the size of a country's tertiary educated workforce would boost GDP growth by about six per cent.

Writing in the Sunday Star-Times, columnist Michael Laws observed the oddest aspect to Sharples' view that "Māori kids should get some automatic right to attend university" was that universities were still relevant. Laws went on to state that universities were "past their prime", the academic standard of undergraduate degrees had been "declining for decades" and the "effective (sic) full-time student funding model has devalued tertiary education".

The NBR editorial noted that many countries had adopted strategies to best exploit their advantages, innovation and research and pointed to the OECD emphasis on the need for higher skills to foster greater levels of entrepreneurship and increase an economy's ability to absorb, implement and adapt ideas generated by others.

However, Mr Laws' questioning of universities' relevancy appears to overlook their role as principal research providers in this country and their role in the innovation system through basic research. He provided no evidence to back his view that the standard of undergraduate degrees had declined and failed to reference the university system's quality assurance arrangements. His column also did not acknowledge that per student funding models had international acceptance as the most practical basis for public support of tertiary education students.

A central point in NZVCC advocacy in recent months has been the need for universities to work in partnership with government to maximise universities' contribution to economic recovery and growth. The NBR editorial backed that position, observing that universities "offer the best opportunity to combine knowledge and wealth with a resultant lift in the country's overall growth potential".

Meanwhile, the NZVCC's contribution to the debate surrounding Dr Sharples' speech, made in his capacity as Minister of Māori Affairs, was through a media release headed "Universities active in support of Māori achievement". That activity was identified as programmes to ensure increased Māori participation and success in university education.

The release referred to active mentoring and monitoring for Māori at university at programme level during the first year of study with appropriate interventions when students encountered difficulties. Research had shown that approach greatly increased the likelihood of Māori students completing their qualifications.

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