Submission on changing the New Zealand Master’s degree definition

Posted By TEU on Sep 13, 2012 |

Submission of the Tertiary Education Union Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa

On the New Zealand Qualifications Authority’s consultation proposal

“Changing the New Zealand Master’s degree definition”

13 September 2012

For further information please contact:

Jo Scott

Policy Analyst

Consultation questions

1. What, in your view, would be the impact on New Zealand’s international competitiveness and comparability, if NZQA allows 180-credit Master’s Degrees?

New Zealand is a small country, with a small community of academic researchers.  In a rapidly expanding global tertiary education ‘market’, it will be our ability to provide high-quality and unique tertiary education programmes that will differentiate our tertiary providers from larger and more prestigious providers in other parts of the world.  While many tertiary education systems internationally are moving to shorter, taught Master’s degrees, this may provide few opportunities for New Zealand institutions and risk compromising what should be viewed as our ‘point of difference’ – an emphasis on research-based Master’s degrees.

It would be rash to make changes to the structure of our Master’s programmes without at least first investigating the reasons why domestic and international students choose to complete post-graduate studies here.  Informal feedback we received from international students studying here included reasons such as:

Being able to undertake research in a supportive environment is highly prized – many jobs require a Master’s degree as well as field work experience.

Students choose New Zealand for the opportunity to study in a strong research-based degree – it is seen as increasingly unique and something to be valued.

A coursework-based degree can be completed at a more prestigious overseas tertiary provider.  International students come to New Zealand to complete their Master’s degree because of the research component.  This is seen as an advantage over other international tertiary providers.

We acknowledge that the proposal intends to secure the current requirements for research-based Master’s degrees.  However we are concerned that the changes proposed will further erode the integrity of research-based Master’s degrees and will dilute New Zealand’s international reputation in an already highly competitive ‘market’.

2.  What do you regard as the likely impact of the proposal on New Zealand institutions?

Because the proposal states clearly that one of the primary reasons to make the proposed changes to the Master’s degree structure is economically-based, we see a likely result being reduction in research-based programmes, if enrolment numbers in these programmes are not maintained or improved.  We base this on current practice in the sector, where programmes (undergraduate and postgraduate) seen as not performing from a purely economic point of view are quickly reviewed and frequently closed down.  Clearly this poses risks for the development of future researchers and for our ability to contribute new knowledge and innovative practices to New Zealand’s society and economy.

3.      Please explain your preference for either of the following options:

a.      Option One – entry requirements are left to individual providers to specify, as long as they are based on completion of a Bachelor’s Degree; or
b.      Option Two – entry to a 180-credit Master’s Degree must follow a three-year Bachelor’s Degree completed at a specified level of attainment (such as a grade point average) that is subject to programme approval by NZQA or CUAP?

We are reluctant to note a particular preference for option one or two, as we have so many concerns with the overall proposal.

However, of the two options, we see the second proposal as offering more possibilities for securing the quality of Master’s programmes.

4.      Can you identify any concerns with the proposed minor wording changes:

a.      on credit requirements for a Master’s Degree by thesis or primarily by thesis;
b.      that delete repetitive wording on credit requirements for each type of degree; and
c.       on individual admission requirements?

We see no potential issues with the minor wording changes identified in the proposal.

5.      You are welcome to provide any further comments on the proposal.

The TEU has concerns about the overall direction of post-graduate programmes in this country.  Increasingly tertiary providers are opting for coursework-based programmes that meet specific requirements for high-level skills and knowledge for (usually) a specific profession.  These programmes provide a valuable and high-quality post-graduate option for these professions, and their development is in line with international trends in this regard.

However, New Zealand is a small nation with a small research community.  If we want to be able to compete with bigger and more prestigious universities in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia then we need to retain a priority focus on quality, in-depth research-focused degrees, and not shorter coursework-based degrees.

The possible impact on our own New Zealand research is another area that causes us concern.  There is still a limited amount of research on New Zealand issues, and as a country we rely on Master’s students’ research to undertake initial explorations of issues or topics that might otherwise be ignored.  Often these research projects lead to further work that can have important or useful contributions to our society and economy.  If institutions are able to offer shorter coursework-based programmes, we believe there will be an increased risk to the sustainability of New Zealand-focused programmes and the research that may emerge from them.

Aside from the issues relating to potential loss of research capacity in our country, previous experience has taught us that international student enrolments are vulnerable to the vagaries of international economics and natural disasters.  This vulnerability will impact not just on the areas teaching course-work Master’s degrees, but potentially on the entire tertiary education community if there is an over-reliance on funding from international student fees.

The proposal to shorten the time for coursework-based Master’s degrees leads us to question the impact this will have on the teaching component of these courses.  Will this mean less time for in-depth reflective learning and less time for students to embed the theoretical components of their courses into their learning?  What might be the impact of this?

In summary, we believe that the best option for our Master’s and other post-graduate programmes is to re-focus our priorities to maintaining a high-quality research-based system that ensures students gain valuable skills, knowledge and experience in research.  This secures a unique place for New Zealand in the international education community as the place to enroll for high-quality research-based programmes where graduates can demonstrate evidence of having ‘worked in the field’ as well as having a solid theoretical basis to their qualification.  This is a major advantage for both domestic and international students, and should be protected.  Reducing the credit requirements for Master’s degrees will threaten this advantage in a highly competitive domestic and international education community.

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