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Unitec Lecturer Challenges Accuracy Opinion Piece

Unitec Lecturer Challenges Accuracy Opinion Piece

Opinion By Peter Thompson, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication, Unitec New Zealand.

A Response to Sione Palu's article "Unitec is a University Wannabe" which was a Response To Keith Rankin's " Universities of Technology"


Sione claims that 'Unitec is a University Wannabe'. Well yes and no. As Keith Rankin pointed out in his earlier piece, Unitec's argument was based on the need for dual-sector institutions which address a range of learning needs, from vocational trades through to degree and postgraduate level programmes (a complex issue which Sione has effectively overlooked in her 'response' to Keith). This isn't a post-hoc response as Sione contends- it was part and parcel of Unitec's rationale for requesting redesignation. Personally, I think you can make an argument either for or against Unitec, depending on the criteria being assumed. What should be noted though is that Unitec was not aspiring to be recognised as the same kind of university as, say, Otago or Auckland.

Sione notes that an international panel their findings to NZQA and government "which concluded that Unitec is not up to the required standards to be called a university* Unitec did not like the findings of the international panel, so Dr. Webster still insists that they will pursue legal action against the government". Sione goes on the comment that "This hell-bent effort of Unitec to get a university status by taking legal action against the government shows an arrogant attitude. They know that they aren't up to the mark as the panel concluded in their report".

To my knowledge, Unitec has not yet received (or at least not made public) the specific findings of the international panel, and it was the task of NZQA to interpret those findings. It is true that the government decided not to allow Unitec to be redesignated. However, the specific criteria by which it came to that conclusion have not been made explicit. The fact of the matter is that Unitec won its legal case against the government- so it is hardly fair to label Unitec's attitude as 'arrogant' or 'hell-bent' (although those terms would seem to be an apposite description for a government which put two bills before parliament in attempts to prevent Unitec's application from proceeding before it had even considered the evidence).

The courts ruled that the government had acted unlawfully by instructing NZQA not to proceed with Unitec's case through the existing framework. Moreover, the court ruling ostensibly required Unitec's application to be considered on the basis of the same criteria as was AIT when its application was processed in 1998. Herein lies a key reason for Unitec's refusal to accept the government's decision: If one examines the criteria used to redesignate AIT as a university (proportion of staff with PhDs, proportion of students enrolled in degree/ postgraduate programmes, peer-reviewed research outputs, etc.) it is apparent that Unitec surpassed the profile of AIT in virtually every category, in some cases by a considerable margin.

Thus it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that despite the legal ruling the respective benchmarks employed were not identical- the goal-posts must have been moved, so to speak. The unconfirmed explanation is that NZQA were instructed to use the profile of existing universities to establish the benchmark. But that would mean that Unitec, with its range of lower-level vocational programmes running alongside its degree and postgraduate ones, could never hope to match the profiles of Auckland, Canterbury or Otago. Indeed, if one evaluated all the existing universities against the average profile characteristics of the NZ university sector as a whole, then by mathematical necessity, one or two at least would not satisfy the criteria, and would presumably have to relinquish the title! (In fact you would logically then have to repeat the exercise over until only one institution worthy of the title remained- but I digress).

So Sione is issuing criticism without considering the facts of the case here. She then goes on to argue that "I am amazed at how Unitec run degree programs for subjects, which are vocational, and it is beyond comprehension why NZQA should have approved such degree courses. I would not be surprised that in the future Unitec with NZQA approval would come up with degree programs such as: B.Sc in rubbish collection, B.A in carpet cleaning, B.Tech in manicurist or a PhD in clairvoyant and alternative medicine*. As Unitec does have a tendency to teach degrees in everything and anything, we cannot simply allow our national reputation to be associated with qualifications as 'B.Sc in rubbish collection' [sic]"

Such comments are not only baseless- they are wilfully ignorant and professionally offensive. Just which programmes is she referring to? All of Unitec's degree and postgraduate programmes have been accredited by NZQA panels including representatives from government, industry, community and the Vice Chancellors' Committee. The programmes have to demonstrate appropriate pedagogical design and academic robustness as well as a capacity to address the requirements of the community. Moreover, the programmes are externally monitored by university-sector experts. No university is required to subject its programme initiatives to such stringent processes (although one hopes they would). It is therefore impossible for any polytechnic-sector institutiton to run degree programmes in trivialised subjects in the manner that Sione suggests.

Moreover, while it is true that Unitec does run many vocational programmes, not all its degree courses are 'vocational' in the sense that they offer only industry training. Degree and (particularly) postgraduate programmes still require an appropriate theoretical basis even if they do have an applied element. The postgraduate theses and dissertations are externally examined in exactly the same manner as their university counterparts. Had Sione possessed the wherewithal to visit Unitec's website before passing pronouncements on its programmes, she would have been quickly disabused of her misconceptions. Being generous, I can only assume that she has confused Unitec with one of the institutions which abused government funding mechanisms for community education courses.

Not satisfied with this, Sione continues her rant by commenting that "It is obvious that Unitec is more interested in boosting student numbers rather than having a rigorous process in selection of high-achieved applicants to degree courses. This means that applicants who have been rejected for admission to any university perhaps for academic under-achievements are more likely to be accepted at Unitec."

For a start, judging by the amount of taxpayers' money spent on advertising by Universities I don't think Unitec has a monopoly on being interested in boosting student numbers. Although Unitec may, in some circumstances, receive and accept applications from students who have been unable to gain entry into a preferred university programme, this would be atypical in my experience. Unitec attracts a far broader student demographic than most universities. The last time I checked, the average age of our degree programme students was around the mid-twenties. This reflects a fairly high proportion of students continuing their education after a period of work as well as adult learners wishing to re-train. Among our more traditional school-leaver applicants, Unitec is often a first choice because we offer programmes that are simply not available elsewhere. In many cases, Unitec's dual-sector focus has allowed students to 'staircase' their progress from foundation-level programmes through to degree and even postgraduate level. Many such students would never have entertained the notion of studying at a traditional university, and in some cases they might not have been deemed worthy by a university admissions panel. The critical issue which Sione overlooks here is that students ought to be judged by their learning after completing their studies, not by their ostensible potential at the time of application.

Sione then warns of the threat Unitec's aspirations pose to New Zealand's academic reputation, and suggests that public perceptions overseas tend to regard New Zealand qualifications rather homogenously. I'm not sure what evidence for this there is, but even assuming this is so, then any damage must already been done by the range of polytechnics offering degree courses. (Of course, there is no damage because there are no degree courses in rubbish collection.) Furthermore, if one looks at the UK where virtually all the former polytechnics assumed the mantle of 'university' during the 1990s, it seems clear that people have become more discerning about individual schools and programmes, and indeed, many of the top research departments reside in what used to be polytechnics. Despite the objections of many in the traditional universities (and I confess I was sceptical myself at one time) this has not led to a wholesale dilution of academic quality and a collapse in national academic reputation. What it perhaps has promoted(along with PBRF-style research rankings) is more discerning evaluation of individual departments and programmes and a weakening of the snobbery implicit in the assumption that historical tradition and reputation alone guarantees quality.

Sione carries on to emphasise the importance of research as the key criteria determining university status, which is indeed a key characteristic. But identifying Unitec's absence from two engineering/computer journals by way of example, she suggests that if Unitec is granted university status "then the government might as well grant university status to Manukau Institute of Technology, Te Wananga o Aotearoa, Open Polytechnic and so forth". To my knowledge, none of these institutions (except the Wananga through virtue of translation) has any pretension or aspiration to be redesignated as a university. If Unitec's degree and postgraduate research profile were compared with the rest of the polytechnic sector, it would seem conspicuous and anomalous because of its dual sector operation (although I am aware of many highly respected academic researchers right across the polytechnic sector). Indeed, contrary to Sione's suggestion, many Unitec staff have their research published or cited in peer-reviewed journals and present their work at academic conferences. The fact that Unitec staff are not represented in one particular journal area does not discredit their presence in many others.

Sione then rattles off a list of NZ university achievements and some of its high profile scientists. Although Unitec cannot boast Nobel prize-winners among its staff, neither can most other NZ universities. In any case, while a high profile professor may boost the academic reputation of a department, it is questionable whether their mana ought to be conferred on the institute as a whole, or whether they have much time to spend helping students. The presence of a Rutherford or a Hawking might be good news in the maths and physics departments, but it would be largely irrelevant to law and medicine. Thus their absence is hardly a legitimate pretext to criticise an institution or the hard-working, under-recognised academic 'plodders' who do much of the substantial work in an academic department.

I've ended up saying more than I intended on Sione's article. I realise that it was an opinion piece, and if Sione thinks Unitec shouldn't be a university, then fine. But if one is going to uphold the principle that we are entitled to our opinions then one must also concede that those subject to those opinions are entitled to defend themselves against prejudice and unjustified criticism when those opinions are made public.


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