Ron Dullard - Schools do not exist just to fill Universities

The claim by WA public universities that high school students are not ready for university, as reported recently, demands a response. The stated position of the universities, and their entry agency the Tertiary Institutions Service Centre, demonstrates a lack of understanding of why and how schools operate.

Further, some of the statistics quoted to support their propositions are misleading. Schools do not exist solely to provide candidates to fill up universities.

TISC believes that it was intended that only 10 per cent of Year 12 students would undertake Stage 1 units - the easiest of the three stages at which upper school subjects are offered - but that this percentage is now 36 per cent.

A quick review of recent history of subject selections would have corrected this misunderstanding. In 2005, immediately before the implementation of new courses 7483 (or 39 per cent) of students were enrolled in four or more Wholly School Assessed subjects, roughly the equivalent of Stage 1 units. These were the courses that students not intending to go to university would usually study.

Subsequently, legislation in 2008 mandated that students had to remain at school or in approved training to age 17. This has further increased what we might loosely call non-university bound students to well above this traditional level. Put simply, the concern about the fact that 36 per cent of students are now studying stage 1 courses would seem to indicate a lack of awareness about who attends schools in WA.

The figures also fail to mention other important achievements of the non-university cohort. For example, in 2010 nearly 22,000 units of competency, which contribute to TAFE qualifications, were completed by students in WA schools.

Further, in Catholic schools last year, 2216 Certificate Level I or higher qualifications were completed by students. Other education systems could boast similar vocational achievements.

The direct implication in the article in which the universities were quoted is that schools are dumbing down standards to avoid scrutiny in the league tables.

To the contrary, schools are carefully counselling students for success not only in Year 12 but beyond their secondary education. This includes training, employment and not just university studies. All schools have developed individual student counselling processes which match students’ needs, abilities and interests to their school studies. Parents are also part of this decision making process.

It also needs to be recognised that schools have finite resources and cannot offer a full range of courses. They select courses and stages to meet the needs of their students.

The choice available to non-university bound students has in fact decreased significantly since 2005. In 2005, there were about 120 Wholly School Assessed subjects (equivalent of Stage 1 units) compared with 68 TEE subjects (equivalent of Stages 2 and 3 units) in Year 11 and 12. Now there are about 110 Stage 2 and 3 units compared with only 60 Stage 1 units.

Despite the realignment, for those students not suited to Stage 2 units, Stage 1 provides an appropriate study program - just as it always has for about 40 per cent of Year 12 students.

The proposition that “universities were being forced to explore alternative entry methods to circumvent the current system” as suggested by one university chief is also manifestly incorrect. For many years, universities have provided alternative entry pathways in recognition of wide and varied student achievement.

The fact that deregulation of the tertiary sector has opened up more funded university places does not provide a licence for university leaders to blame schools for not providing the extra students they need to secure the lucrative per capita Commonwealth funding.

Rather their efforts would be far more productive if they engaged with schools and sought partnerships where students can make a smoother transition to university studies. It is the responsibility of universities to focus more on the quality of students that graduate from university, and the processes and support required to reach that standard, rather than on students entering university. This will occur when high quality needs-focused teaching in the universities is sustained.

It is quite interesting that the level of scrutiny of secondary schools is not extended to universities. For example, the public might be interested to know the levels of good standing of students after first year university studies, dropout rates, the length of time taken to complete the average degree at university, the match of enrolments to industry and community employment demand and overall employment rates of graduates in the years immediately after leaving university.

Schools know their students and encourage them to achieve their potential - they are certainly not failing our kids. Secondary schools provide high quality teaching focusing on the needs of individual students, allowing them to succeed at school and in post-school destinations.

I challenge the deputy vice chancellors quoted in the article to spend some time in these schools to see this in action.

Ron Dullard, Director of Catholic Education in Western Australia

Courtesy of The West Australian​