Tertiary institutions say secondary students reach them under-prepared and with a poor work ethic

Universities say high school students are coming to them under-prepared and with a poor work ethic - and they blame the NCEA system.

A confidential report by the Tertiary Education Commission reveals a high level of concern in engineering departments at universities and polytechnics about the quality of math and science education many students are receiving.

The report, obtained by the Listener under the Official Information Act, shows that 15 mostly unnamed universities and polytechnics have serious concerns about new students.

One submission to the TEC from Victoria University and Wellington Institute of Technology said students who received merit or excellence NCEA grades generally coped well with tertiary study.


But most who got an "achieved" grade did not, and many would've had a "fail" grade under the old system.

The submission, by Professor Dale Carnegie, said students tended to "game play" NCEA at school but ran into problems when they realised this was not possible at university.

One of the institutions surveyed said many of its new students - who had been assessed under the NCEA system at high school - were not prepared for tertiary study.

"An extremely significant concern is the poor preparation of the bulk of our student cohort following NCEA study."

Another tertiary provider said it had had to provide "repeated" remedial courses to help students get to the level needed for its engineering course.

The report also said there was a need for high schools to make sure that students interested in taking up engineering at university studied the subjects required.

"Some students have good results in mathematics and science, but not in calculus, algebra and physics," it said.

First-year engineering students were not "well grounded in mathematics" and even moderately achieving high school pupils struggled to connect what they had learned at NCEA level with the demands of tertiary study.


Engineering and science are regarded as important subjects in improving New Zealand's knowledge base and economic growth, and have been earmarked as a priority by the Government.

The report's findings have hit a nerve with some educators, who say students today are the hardest working they have been and NCEA has proven itself as a solid system.

Secondary Principals' Association New Zealand president Tom Parsons said the assessment system used widely in schools was the best the country has had in years, compared to past exam systems such as School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Entrance.

"I can tell you that the old system was not as good as NCEA," he said. "What's happening now is that there's a big move to make sure there are no students leaving high school with no qualifications.

"Students today work harder. They are assessed throughout the year and there is more pressure on students than ever before. For institutions to turn around and say that NCEA is not creating good work ethic is stupid."

Mt Albert Grammar School principal Dale Burden dismissed the report, saying the NCEA system was the best.

"I'm a bit annoyed that they could criticise the work ethic of kids. I think that's a bit harsh.

"The students who I teach and see at school today work a lot harder than we did - we just had the exam at the end of the year.

"These students work hard throughout the whole year. There's lots of assessments and lots more accountability than there ever was.

"I really would take issue with work ethic because the students work very hard overall."

Mr Burden said maths and the sciences were hugely popular subjects at his school and a large number of their pupils went on to study engineering at tertiary level, many at the University of Auckland.

"We got 42 scholarships in mathematics last year and 92 scholarships overall. A large number of those students are maths students ... and they do really well (at tertiary level)."

Tertiary providers' concerns might have more to do with the curriculum than the way students were assessed under the NCEA system, he said.

"The way NCEA is assessed is obviously different from Bursary. If they aren't prepared and coming in without the right knowledge ...

"NCEA is assessment, it's not curriculum. It assess the curriculum. So if it's a curriculum problem - that they're not learning the right stuff - then the question is has the curriculum changed and is that the problem?"

NZQA responded to the Listener's report, saying other research findings strongly contradict the opinions of providers cited in the TEC report.

"Feedback is also telling us that NCEA prepares students well for tertiary study and further training. The mix of internal and external assessment in NCEA gives students achievement results that show a rich and accurate picture of their skills and knowledge and this is what employers, university and polytechnics, both in New Zealand and overseas are wanting to see."

See NZQA's full response to the Listener's article here.