Real Issues No. 283 - University, Transport, Ed.

Published: Fri 14 Dec 2007 10:51 AM
Real Issues No. 283 - University, Transport, Education
Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 283
13 December 2007
Excellence not elitism
Drugged driving
A report of two halves
Choosing stability over freedom
Recognising beauty
This week the University of Auckland Council passed a policy which will, from 2009, allow them to restrict the proportion of undergraduates they admit to courses. Although the reasons for this policy change are largely pragmatic, it may signal a move away from the ideological drive to push as many people as possible through university and could be the first step towards a more strategic view of New Zealand's tertiary sector.
The decision was motivated by the University's 2005-2012 strategic plan, which aims to prevent any further increase in student numbers, instead focusing upon the quality of degrees and their postgraduate programme. The reform of the government tertiary funding model is another factor that has led to the decision. It will mean that funding will no longer be based on the number of students enrolled. As a result, the University of Auckland has projected it will lose around $2 million in 2008 due to the enrolment of 200 unfunded students.
One of the main points of contention over the change has come from the New Zealand Union of Students' Association who claim it will 'exclude the participation of key under-represented groups within New Zealand's largest city.' The University has responded with the establishment of a taskforce designed to address such issues through 'affirmative action' policies. However, dealing with this problem at this stage is missing the point. Access to university should be related to a student's ability and the fact that students from some ethnic groups are likely to be over-represented in those missing out highlights an important deficit arising out of the school system. The issue of equity in education must first be addressed at this level. The focus should be on a high quality of secondary and primary school education across the board, rather than on using positive discrimination policies, that simply ignore problems lower down the system.
The decision by the University of Auckland will foster a greater appreciation for university attendance and encourage those who would go to university on a whim into more productive pathways. Rather than creating an elitist institution, the new policy represents a step toward fostering the kind of excellence which is often absent in our tertiary institutions.
The Land Transport Amendment (No. 4) Bill currently before Parliament would create an offence of driving while under drugs, using a similar scheme to current drink drive provisions. Submissions on the Bill close tomorrow. The need for the Bill, which has been sent to the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee for consideration, is backed up by recent research that shows driving while under the influence of drugs can be just as harmful, if not more so, than alcohol. The Bill seeks to do two things -- it will restrict access to personal details from the Register of Motor Vehicles, as well as creating the offence of driving, or attempting to drive, 'while impaired by a drug or drugs.'
If passed, the Bill will set up an offence of drugged driving that attracts the same penalties as drink driving. For a first or second offence, the maximum penalties would be three months' imprisonment or a fine of $4,500, while for a third or further offence an offender could receive a maximum of two years' imprisonment or a fine of $6,000. The test will be whether a police officer has 'good cause' to suspect that a driver has taken a substance, at which point the individual may be required to undergo a blood test. The Bill offers a defence for prescription drugs, which will hopefully prevent innocent individuals from unknowingly breaking the law.
A study also released this year backs up the need for the Bill. Research undertaken by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Ltd, upon commission of the Police, showed that 'up to 33% of deceased drivers in 2004-2005 had drugs and alcohol present in their bloodstream.' Further, supporting research was released by the University of Otago in October, which surprisingly found that 'for young adults there is a greater risk of driving under the influence of cannabis than alcohol, and the results are more harmful.'
The finer details of this Bill are causing some discussion, but in principle it is supported by all the political parties. It is an encouraging move, especially when considered in light of this latest research. We should be ensuring that our roads are not only safe from drunk drivers and the dangers they bring, but drugged drivers also.
Read the Land Transport Amendment (No. 4) Bill
A new OECD report contains some encouraging findings about New Zealand pupils' performance. However, it shows that we must do better for pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that simply spending more is not the answer. The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2006 study is undertaken triennially and tests the knowledge and abilities of 400,000 15-year-olds in 57 countries, including all 30 OECD member countries. This year's study focused on science, whereas the previous two studies focused on mathematics (2003) and reading (2000). New Zealand scored fifth in science, seventh in reading and eleventh in mathematics, taking a place among the top seven countries overall.
Encouragingly, New Zealand had the highest percentage of pupils reaching the uppermost proficiency level (Level 6), at 4 percent, compared to the OECD average of just 1.3 percent. However, it also had a very high percentage of pupils at Level 1 or below, at 14 percent. Our least proficient pupils performed more poorly than those in many low-performing countries. Socio-economic differences accounted for most between-school variations in performance in New Zealand, and New Zealand was one of the two top-performing countries where socio-economic background played a huge part in the variation in pupil performance (16 percent).
Although New Zealand scored quite highly in all areas in the study, scores dropped for mathematics and reading since the 2003 study, which is disappointing, especially considering the rise in spending on education in recent years. This mirrored the findings for most OECD countries, where average primary and secondary education expenditure increased by 39 percent between 1995 and 2004 but average achievement has stayed relatively flat since the first PISA study in 2000. This demonstrates that simply pouring money into education is not enough; money has to be used wisely to improve results.
One way this can be done is to give schools greater autonomy to run themselves, as greater autonomy was found to be a factor in improved performance. Although the study showed that pupils in schools with relatively greater autonomy were not consistently better performers than those with less autonomy, countries where it was more common to have greater autonomy performed better than those where it was less common. Improved access to schools for pupils and their families was also found to be a factor in better performance. Adopting measures like these is important if we are to give all pupils a decent opportunity to excel, regardless of their socio-economic background.
Would you choose 'freedom of the press' in preference to 'social harmony and peace?' According to a BBC poll only 56 percent of people, from a sample of fourteen countries, would do so. Placing restrictions upon the freedom of the fourth estate for the sake of 'social harmony' fails to see the important role it plays in keeping the rest of society accountable and informed. A populous from whom information is withheld is devoid of the power to make change when necessary. The poll also looks into the performance of 'news organisations' and differences between 'public' and 'private' ownership.
Read World Divided on Press Freedom
Another stepping stone to the culture heritage of New Zealand has been added with the naming of University of Auckland professor Michelle Leggott being installed to the office of Poet Laureate for 2007-2008. By recognising an artist, such as Michelle Leggott, we recognise the value of their art. In doing so we acknowledge the contribution that works of beauty bring to wider society and the culture in which they exists.
Read some of Michelle Leggott's works on-line at the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre
'Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.'
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)
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