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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Combating the ‘Cs Get Degrees’ Mentality: Is performance-based funding the answer?

We have all heard the phrase ‘Cs get Degrees’ bandied about, and many recent graduates will have experienced first hand that, particularly in the ‘current economic climate’, degrees don’t seem to be worth as much as they once were. Maintaining the standard of tertiary qualification in New Zealand seems like an inherently logical objective. The Tertiary Education Strategy 2010-15 released by Anne Tolley—before she was relieved of the tertiary education portfolio—expands performance-based funding of universities beyond the research to the teaching aspect of universities. The measure of performance will focus on course completion and student retention over the course of multi-year programmes. Although the Strategy does not contain a great deal of detail, essentially there will be a system of financial incentives and sanctions applied to tertiary education providers for completion/non-completion and retention/non-retention of students.

Such a system will have obvious implications for the policy initiative currently being implemented of managing enrolments. Tertiary education providers are going to want to accept only those students they are confident will complete. Leaving managed enrolments aside, however, there is another implication of this policy which requires some consideration.

The objectives behind this aspect of the Strategy include ensuring that “qualifications are high quality and relevant for [the requirements of the Government, students and their families]…better course and qualification completion and progression rates for students as a result of higher-quality teaching and learning”. Apart from there being no indication that performance-based funding of the teaching programme will actually involve the evaluation of the quality of teaching itself, a system of financial incentives and sanctions focused on completion and retention also risks creating a perverse incentive—encouraging providers to lower the standard of a given programme or course in order to ensure students pass, and they continue to receive funding and are not penalised for non-completion/non-retention.

The goal of raising the standard of tertiary education qualifications, and combatting the popular mindset of ‘Cs get degrees’ is a laudible one. But will the performance-based funding of teaching programmes implemented in this way achieve this goal, or might it do more harm than good? Are there other measures of performance and other elements of the teaching programme which would be more effective in assessing performance and ensure quality education?

The next Education Action Group meeting will be on Wednesday 8th September at 4:30pm in the VUWSA Meeting Room on the ground floor of the Student Union Building.

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