University entrance rates plummet

Schools and universities across New Zealand have been startled by an unexpected slump in the pass rate for students to gain entry to the nation’s universities.

Results just announced show only 58% of students who last year completed Year 13 – the final year of schooling – achieved a university entry score, down from 70% in 2013.

The drop means only 20,578 teenagers gained the qualification generally required by universities and polytechnics for entry to degree courses this year – about 4,400 fewer than normal.

Universities are now dealing with hundreds of applications from students who narrowly missed out on gaining university entrance and are hoping to be accepted anyway. Schools are also helping former students gain enough credits to get over the bar.

Revised university entrance standard

But the jury is out on why the slump has occurred. The 2014 cohort was the first to face a revised university entrance standard, aimed at ensuring students are better prepared for higher education studies.

The standard is slightly tougher than before and requires more credits. It also changes requirements around the number of credits that must be obtained from an approved list of subjects.

Previously, students had to get 14 credits in each of two such subjects, but last year’s students had to get 14 credits in each of three.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata says the fall in the pass rate is because university entrance is harder: “Any time a standard is raised, numbers qualifying will drop,” Parata says.

But when the New Zealand Qualifications Authority announced the changes to university entrance in 2011, it predicted a minimal impact on the pass rate – not the big fall that has occurred.

Chair of Universities New Zealand, Harlene Hayne, says the eight universities expected a smaller drop in the pass rate and it is not clear why so many students have fallen short.

"Certainly the number was higher than expected, but again, assuming that all of the students were very well aware of the changes, I'm not sure what else we can make of the very high number of students who didn't make the cut,” Hayne says.

However, some school and university leaders say the early indications are that the shift from two to three approved subjects has caught out many students.

Review needed

President of the Post Primary Teachers’ Association, Angela Roberts, says a review is needed to determine whether students’ poor planning or lack of ability is to blame.

“If they’re missing out because they’re not ready to go to university, well that’s obviously not a problem,” Roberts says. “But if they’re missing out because they’re not jumping through the right bureaucratic hoops, I think that’s a concern.”

Victoria University of Wellington vice-chancellor, Grant Guilford, says his institution has received double the number of applications from students who narrowly missed out on university entrance.

Guilford says the university is working with about 175 students who would have achieved an entrance score under the old system and there is no single area in which the students had fallen short.

“It appears that the changes to the university entrance requirements, that have been quite well signalled, haven't been picked up for some reason,” he says. “Some of these students are turning up at our door just not quite with the requisite requirements even though many of them are academically capable individuals.”

The Qualifications Authority, which sets the university entrance standard, says it will hold a review to determine what has happened.