Sunday, March 27, 2016

Discussions on Q26

Discussions on Q26
Q26 What are the pros and cons of different quality assurance arrangements for universities to those for ITPs, wānanga, and PTEs?

One of the major cons of the quality assurance arrangement for universities through the CUAP is the potential for divergence of certain non-professional programmes from similar programmes in other English-speaking countries.

An explicit comparison of NZ's BSc and BA degrees with those in other English-speaking countries, including the UK and the US would make the quality assurance arrangement for Universities through CUAP more meaningful and internationally synchronised. To ensure graduating students are up to speed with international standards and expectations in a fast-changing world, it is equally important that curricula are revisited periodically (minimally every 5-10 years) to ascertain whether they continue to meet these objectives. Let us focus for example on the course requirements for a Bachelor's degree in Statistics/Mathematics in the US (regionally accredited programmes) and the UK. See the following URLs:

A simple theme emerges across all these programmes. All of them require multi-variate calculus and linear algebra as a minimal requirement in a Bachelor's programme in Statistics, for example. Furthermore, the American Statistical Association (ASA) Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Programs in Statistical Science (PDF), circulated as excellent reading by a recent NZ Statistical Association President, states, "Mathematical foundations: Graduates should be able to apply mathematical ideas from linear algebra and calculus to statistics, and to set up and apply probability models."

Unfortunately, students from NZ (from more than one University) can complete their BSc (Hons) in Statistics with no course work in multivariate Calculus or Linear Algebra. Similarly BSc (Hons) students in Mathematics can complete their degree without doing a course in advanced Analysis for example (usually considered a requirement in the US and UK). A systematic comparison of various non-professional majors in NZ with their counterparts in the US or UK may shed further light on the extent of this problem.

Such students are typically asked to repeat up to a full year of undergraduate courses upon conditional acceptance into PhD programmes in the US (case studies will be provided upon request). Fortunately, good students do take more than the minimal required set of courses and the best students routinely go to the top 10 Universities in the world for further studies. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most students who need more structure and guidance regarding the required coursework.

At the very least, we need to let our students know what combination of courses are equivalent to a BS programme in Mathematics/Statistics at any accredited US State University or to a BSc (hons) programme at a typical UK University. Therefore an explicit comparison of NZ's BSc and BA degrees in terms of the defining coursework of a major such as Statistics or Mathematics with those in other English-speaking countries, including the UK and the US, would make the quality assurance arrangement for Universities through CUAP more meaningful to the student. Further, re-evaluating course curricula periodically (minimally every 5-10 years) in a comparative international context, will ensure NZ students receive the most relevant and up to date training in their field of study, in this fast-changing world.

The following natural questions arise:
How can such degrees in NZ Universities be considered to be quality assured in an international sense? How can the system be encouraged to compare and contrast its quality assured degree with those from the UK or the US in an independent and unbiased manner?

The reasons for the perpetuation of such "quality-assured" programmes in NZ that continue to diverge significantly from similar programmes in the US/UK (in some cases, including BS/BSC(hons) in Mathematics/Statistics) will be discussed as part of other questions. Some such reasons include:
  • systematic and gradual grade inflation aimed at easing of standards to be more inclusive of a larger number of students and/or a broader range of student backgrounds (in terms of prerequisites) and thereby increasing the flow of EFTS into a programme, 
  • requiring courses in linear algebra or multivariate calculus from another course code (possibly in another Department or even College within the University), say Mathematics, may lead to perceived loss of EFTS to the major's course code or Department, say Statistics (See Question 70 on funding shift inside a TEI),
  • pressure for course/degree/qualification completion to justify course offerings and 
  • the phenomenon of personally-validated curricula, whereby a few strong personalities within a Faculty, who personally went through Bachelor's programmes outside the major field of study in question or ones without international standards/accreditation, strongly oppose any  democratic effort to bring courses up to international standards, to some of the currently diverged programmes in NZ.
Clearly, ensuring international standards for NZ's BSc and BA (hons) degrees (in all non-professional majors) by independent comparisons with accredited degrees in other English-speaking countries, including the UK and the US, will help protect the "New Zealand" brand and help answer: Q45 Is the “New Zealand” brand an important part of international competition for students, staff, and education products and services? What should providers and government do to manage or enhance this brand?
See Discussion on Q45.

Also see discussion and comment on Joyce says migration not education will close the IT Skills gap.


  1. "Personally-validated curriculum" arguments are quite common in my Department. The typical argument is: "I did not need to study such and such subjects, I am doing just fine!".

  2. I have my statistics BSc and MSc from NZ, and am currently working on my stats PhD in the US. As I was thinking about doing my PhD overseas while doing my MSc it would have been very helpful to have known the US PhD requirements, I would have taken different courses during my time in NZ to prepare for this.
    Instead I had to pass an undergraduate maths course (which isn't credited to my degree) before I received full admittance to the PhD program, pass graduate level real analysis courses for which I had no preparation, and pass very theoretical courses which again I was not prepared for.
    On the upside I have done very well in the more practical courses, which I think NZ prepares students for more than the US does.

  3. We provide service courses to several other departments and "personally validated curriculum" arguments from the staff in those departments are endemic, even though the value of covering topics such as calculus, and particularly linear algebra, are well understood within our department. Faculty from other departments have even stated to us explicitly that their students don't need to know maths, stats, comp sci, or - when that is challenged - to claim that in any case even those students who didn't learn the basics at high school will somehow pick up everything they need in terms of quantitative chops without taking any formal papers in those areas. Presumably this happens by osmosis, despite the evidence that somehow it didn't work for them at high school. The root of the problem is that the current funding model for higher education in NZ means that EFTS = political clout, especially since there is virtually no research funding for the M in STEM, and therefore large faculties can make idiotic decisions, to the detriment of their students, and never seriously get called on it. It is rather depressing.

  4. Calculus is fundamental to the understanding of densities and distributions. Linear Algebra, and various extensions, is the mechanics of regression. These are not enough; there are huge subtleties in the use and interpretation of regression coefficients. But they are an important component of the understanding.

    Occasionally, I have encountered senior students who are very good at handling the computing side of doing a regression, but who have close to zero understanding of how the coefficients relate to the data used. It is not just international requirements that are the concern. We need to be able to have confidence in NZ graduates who are employed as statisticians in NZ.

    Additionally, there is insufficient attention, for statisticians employed in CRIs and elsewhere, to in-service training that will update their stills. For those who have a reasonable background in calculus and linear algebra, a large part of the training will be exposure to modern methodology (in important areas, there have been big advances in the tools that implement methodology in the past 5 years) and to practical examples of their use. The notion that one trains a statistician, releases them to the wild and that is it, should have been buried long ago.

  5. Before meeting international standards, NZ Unis should try to agree on consistent national standards. Note the following remarks on the issues paper (page 86):

    "Students face costs in switching providers. Recognition between providers of one another’s learning credits is inconsistent. Therefore, even if a student comes to view another provider as better, they may be reluctant to shift if they have to repeat learning. NZQA’s Credit Transfer and Recognition project is looking at ways to promote the recognition of prior tertiary education via agreements between providers (NZQA, 2015a)."

  6. Personally validate curriculum also causes a divergence in Applied Mathematics programmes from the recommendations made by the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). Read the 'SIAM Education Committee Report on Undergraduate Degree Programs in Applied Mathematics' ( to appreciate the extent of this divergence.