Student engagement at New Zealand Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics
This report from Ako Aotearoa and the Australian Council for Educational Research analyses how students are engaging with their studies in Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) in New Zealand.
Date completed: June 2011
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To find out more about the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE), visit the ACER website.
The Australasian survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE)
The Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) provides data which tertiary institutions throughout New Zealand and Australia can use to attract, engage and retain their students. The data collected offer rich insights into how students perceive their educational experience during tertiary study and how they interact with the opportunities provided. Collecting data on how students are learning and the outcomes they are achieving allows tertiary education institutions to understand what really counts in terms of quality. As a record of the tertiary student voice, it is evidence that cannot be ignored.
The AUSSE has been run in New Zealand and Australia annually since 2007, and responses have been collected from around 120,000 students so far. It is, by far, the most comprehensive and highly validated tool for gathering evidence of student perspectives and reported behaviours available in Australasia and is linked with similar international collections run in the USA, Canada, Mexico, South Africa and China.
The number of students entering into tertiary education in New Zealand has been steadily increasing over the past decade (Ministry of Education, 2010a), and while student enrolments are growing and are high relative to OECD averages, the number of students leaving with a qualification is low compared to other countries (Scott & Gini, 2010). Data from the Ministry of Education show that attrition rates are high and completion rates are relatively low across all sub-sectors of tertiary education, with students studying at ITPs having greater attrition and lower completion rates than their peers studying at the same qualification level at universities in New Zealand.
At a time in which demand for highly-skilled workers is increasing in New Zealand, and the economy requires more people to have better skills, there is increasing emphasis on the quality and relevance of the tertiary education which people experience (Earle, 2010). To improve the quality of tertiary education in New Zealand, it is valuable for educators to have insights into those practices which engage students, stimulate learning and which are intrinsic to their educational success rather than only focusing on attrition and completion rates.
In 2010 a pilot study using the AUSSE survey was conducted by the Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) with ten ITPs throughout New Zealand, with support and funding from Ako Aotearoa. Over 2,200 responses were collected from students studying at New Zealand Qualifications Authority levels three through seven. Responses from these students are analysed and presented in the following report and compared with responses in the university sector and with international collections.
The AUSSE provides an immensely rich data source which will be of considerable value for institutional self-assessment and quality enhancement. This report reflects on just some highlights mined from that source. In particular, the AUSSE explores six areas of student engagement that are related to institutional support for students and students’ involvement in certain types of educational activities. These engagement scales, derived from corelated questionnaire items, include academic challenge, active learning, supportive learning environments and work integrated learning. The AUSSE also measures seven broad learning outcomes, which include higher order thinking, general development outcomes, career readiness, departure intention and overall satisfaction.
It is important to note that the findings discussed in this report are based on data aggregated over the ten ITPs that participated in the trial of the AUSSE survey in 2010. A variety of ITPs participated in this pilot study and as a result there are diverse findings among the different ITPs (in addition to diverse findings between discipline areas within the same institutions). For ITPs interested in better understanding the way in which their own students are engaging with study and how they can improve their students’ experience, it is critical they look at their own AUSSE results and compare these with those reported here to determine the extent to which their own results fit the general trend.
While the dataset allows comparisons between the experiences of students in different types of institutions, these need to be understood with due regard to the demographics of those students. In particular ITP students in the sample tend to be older than their university counterparts, significantly more are the first in their family to undertake a tertiary education and a greater proportion are studying part-time and/or extramurally. It is also important to emphasise that multi-year data that identifies changes over time is often more powerful than the snapshot a single year’s data provides.
General findings from the AUSSE ITP pilot
Overall, most students at the ten ITPs at which data were collected were satisfied with their experience at their institution. Three-quarters (75.5 per cent) rated the overall quality of academic advising at their institution as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. The majority of students (77.7%) rated their overall educational experience positively and 80.9 per cent said that they would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ attend the same institution again if they had the chance to start over.
In general, students studying at ITPs demonstrated outcomes that might be expected to be appropriate to the level of qualification being studied. Consequently, reports of higher order thinking increased with the level of qualification students were enrolled in, with bachelor students showing higher general learning outcomes than students at other levels of study. Diploma level ITP students scored significantly higher on the career readiness scale than students studying for other types of qualifications. Interestingly, ITP bachelor students reported higher levels of active learning than either their New Zealand university counterparts or ITP students studying for lower level qualifications. ITP students were more likely to be involved in work-integrated forms of learning than students at other tertiary institutions, reflecting the vocational focus of many ITP qualifications. Most ITP students also reported some involvement in activities that help them prepare for their future careers, and reported slightly higher levels of career readiness than students at New Zealand universities.
Supporting students who consider leaving
An area of overall concern for ITPs is the high number of students who report that they have seriously considered discontinuing their current studies and leaving before completing their studies. Nearly 60 per cent of students enrolled in bridging programmes, 45 per cent of certificate students and around 40 per cent of diploma and bachelor level students indicated that they had seriously considered or planned to leave before completing. These rates are much higher among ITP students than among New Zealand university students. In many areas, however, ITPs seem to be doing a good job of supporting uncertain learners. For example, overall satisfaction rates for students on bridging programmes are particularly high.
This also provides a focus on the results for specific student groups of interest to the sector, including Māori and Pasifika students. As there are relatively high numbers of students studying extramurally at ITPs, extramural students’ engagement with study is also investigated in detail.
Māori students reported even higher intentions to leave before completing their studies and were less satisfied with their overall experience at their ITP than other students. This is despite the fact that Māori students were more likely to be involved with active forms of learning, and reported higher levels of interactions with staff.
Pasifika students reported somewhat lower levels of departure intentions than other students, along with somewhat higher feelings of institutional support. Pasifika students also reported much greater rates of general development and learning outcomes and felt that their experience at their institution had helped them develop generic skills more than other students. Pasifika students also felt themselves to be more career-ready and indicated that they had spent more time preparing for their future career than other students.
While extramural students reported lower levels of engagement with study across the board, these students also reported lower levels of departure intention and slightly higher satisfaction with their experience than other students. These data suggest that, overall, ITPs are meeting extramural students’ expectations well.
Despite high numbers of students considering departure before completing their studies, most respondents do intend to complete or continue with their studies in the following year. A link between the level of support provided by their institution and students’ departure intentions was also revealed, suggesting that providing greater levels of academic and non-academic support to students may help more students continue their studies and complete their qualification. This is a clearly an area that each institution needs to unpack carefully and look at what it is doing well in terms of supporting its students to succeed and what disincentives to completion, such as quality concerns or boredom, are within its control.
Values-based education: Understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and sustainability
At the request of the sector, two unique questions were included on the ITP AUSSE survey instrument. These asked students about the extent to which their experience at their institution contributed to ‘developing a greater understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi’ and ‘contributing to living in a sustainable way’. These questions were included because many polytechnics felt that they reflected some of the values their institutions hold. Given this context, results were somewhat disappointing. Over half of all ITP students (54.3%) stated that their experience at their institution had helped them ‘very little’ to develop a greater understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi. Similarly, 40 per cent of students reported that their experience had been of ‘very little’ help in contributing to living sustainably.
Degree level study at ITPs compared to universities
The AUSSE provides the opportunity to begin to compare the reported behaviours and perceptions of students studying at degree level at both ITPs and universities. There are many more similarities than differences between the two groups of students. Bachelor degree students studying at ITPs were found to be similarly engaged with academically challenging activities, active forms of learning such as making presentations and contributing to class discussions as degree students in universities in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. These scale scores were all significantly lower than for US university students, however.
ITP students reported somewhat higher levels of staff student interactions than those in universities and similar overall levels of support (although first year students in ITPs identified a more supportive learning environment than their counterparts in universities). As might be expected, because of the nature of the programmes offered at ITPs, bachelor level students at ITPs are significantly more involved in work integrated learning activities than university students in New Zealand. Overall satisfaction rates for the two groups of students were relatively high, but significantly higher among university students.