New Zealand seeks to drive up degree completion rates

When too many students fail to graduate, small investments can make a world of difference, says commission

July 8, 2024
Annual charity duck race held in Dunedin, NZ to illustrate New Zealand seeks to drive up degree completion rates
Source: Mathieu B.Morin / StockimoNews / Alamy

Smaller is sometimes better, according to the architect of a New Zealand scheme designed to supersize programmes that help students complete their courses.

New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) is gearing up to announce the first cohort of successful bidders to its Accelerating Learner Success Fund, which provides dollar-for-dollar grants to help tertiary institutions scale up projects to boost qualification completion rates.

TEC chief executive Tim Fowler said one-size-fits-all scholarship schemes were a costly and inefficient method of improving New Zealand’s degree-level completion rates, which average 62 per cent across the country and languish at 50 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively, among Māori and Pacific Island students.

But targeted initiatives such as microloans and “intrusive advising” can deliver great bang for buck, he said. “If universities have pilot projects that demonstrably improve completion, then for every dollar they spend on that work, we’ll put in another dollar to speed up its implementation.”

The scheme involves two annual grant rounds of NZ$5 million (£2.4 million) each. Mr Fowler said that even the most considered initiatives would make little difference unless they were part of organisation-wide approaches.

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“What we want to see is a multi-year strategy owned by the council, led by the senior leadership and bought into by the whole organisation. [This entails a] change of mindset from a view that the student needs to fit in around the university to the other way around,” he said.

TEC research has identified more than 300 initiatives across the country’s eight universities over the past decade, he said. “Hugely passionate people often with subscale programmes operating in single departments are not going to make much of a difference.”

The TEC’s “learner success framework” outlines principles and tools to guide institutions in this work, adapting overseas lessons for a New Zealand context. It draws particularly from work at Georgia State University (GSU), which managed to boost its completion rates by about 70 per cent in a little over a decade.

GSU’s strategies included reorganising the teaching of “catapult courses” – pivotal subjects that disproportionately influence students’ chances of success. It found that its students who earned top grades in these classes had proved 37 per cent more likely than their average peers to complete their degrees. Those who earned Ds, on the other hand, achieved overall graduation rates some 45 per cent below average.

Improving students’ marks in these subjects by one band boosted overall success rates by about 20 percentage points, according to GSU. Typically, the catapult courses were in fundamental subjects such as first-year mathematics, English and communications.

Mr Fowler said he wanted universities to consider completion as “one of their differentiating factors” and a drawcard for future students. But it required long-term commitment, he stressed, with results becoming evident only after perhaps seven years of sustained effort.

“It’s a challenge, and it’s not one that we’re expecting to be resolved overnight,” he said.

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