NEW ZEALAND: Tougher university entrance possible

New Zealand's universities want the standard required for university entrance from school to change and at least one vice-chancellor says it should be tougher. The country's universities are currently under pressure with more enrolments than they are funded for by the government, and some suggest that a different entry standard could help them manage enrolment applications better.

Dugald Scott, chair of the university entrance sub-committee of the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors' Committee, said there had been informal talks about university entrance and there was a general view among university leaders that it needed to change.

However, universities cannot change the standard as it is set by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) in consultation with universities.

Scott said the mood for change was driven by modifications to the school qualification, the NCEA (National Certificate in Educational Achievement), and by universities' current difficulties in dealing with more enrolments than they were funded for by the government.

Though universities could introduce enrolment restrictions on a programme-by-programme basis, it made little sense to do that on a large scale across many programmes if it resulted in an entrance standard different from university entrance.

He said a tougher standard might be needed. "If numbers are restricted, one has to look at a system for fair selection."

University of Canterbury Vice-chancellor Dr Rod Carr expressed concern about admission standards for school leavers and for those gaining special admission because they were over 20. (New Zealand allows access to most university programmes for anyone over the age of 20, regardless of their prior education record.)

"There are students turning up at university who are not well prepared to study here," he said.

Carr said it might be time to revisit the regulations allowing open entry to people aged over 20, but it would be a job for government, which he noted was mindful of student progression and completion rates.

"I suspect there should be more of an entrance requirement than merely passing an age," he argued, but said moving the open-entry age limit up a few years might also work.

Carr said a higher entrance standard would help universities manage their enrolments to stay within government limits.

Though universities could limit access to particular programmes because of resource constraints, it was not clear from the Education Act that they could do that across all their programmes.

If the government told universities to limit the number of students they enrolled, universities would argue that they could not control who enrolled because it was controlled by NZQA's university entrance standard and by the over-20 regulation.

So long as that was the case, universities' main option for keeping student numbers within agreed limits was to enforce standards for progression to second year courses.

* John Gerritsen is the editor of New Zealand Education Review.