COVER STORY : The NZQA Revolution – An unfortunate experiment?

It started out as bold, reforming strategy designed to leapfrog New Zealand back to the top of the world in education excellence and enlightened learning. But now, 20 years on, the prognosis is not so good. Education is back at the top of the reformists’ waiting list. They want to operate on the organ that was implanted to pump new life into every aspect of our education system, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. The New Zealand Institute of Management, for one, believes NZQA has “failed to deliver” and last month, in the closing days of heated election campaign, it compiled comprehensive briefing paper “to the incoming government” which it presented to all the main political parties. The paper points out why NZIM holds NZQA responsible for many of the problems in management education and training in particular, and for the confused state of education in general. Has the introduction of NZQA and its rigid unit standards-based approach to education been, to coin phrase, another “unfortunate experiment”?

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority has radically transformed New Zealand education. It is the legacy of reformist Labour government elected to power in 1984, and subsequent National government that held the line on many of its predecessor’s economic and social reform initiatives.
Now the future of NZQA, at least in terms of its independence of the Ministry of Education, is in doubt. It may find itself back under the wing of the Ministry from which it was deliberately separated after the old Department of Education was recreated as Ministry, the NZQA and the Education Review Office (ERO).
NZQA is facing both public and political backlash from the controversy generated by its inept handling of the introduction of NCEA in secondary schools, and for its inflexible and bureaucratic approach to enforcing standards-based training and education in the tertiary and private learning sectors.
NZQA has, say its critics, forgotten what it was designed to achieve which was, according to the 1989 Education Act, “to establish consistent approach to the recognition of” academic and vocational qualifications. NZIM accuses it of becoming “preoccupied with qualifications” and forgetting about learning.
Others, including the State Services Commission’s recent “independent” reviews of the organisation, have accused it of mismanagement, poor performance, lacking capability and inconsistent leadership.
Even the Authority’s founding chief executive, David Hood, concedes that, despite his best endeavours to guard against it in the early years, NZQA has become an “intractable and bureaucratic organisation that is focused on process” rather than working to facilitate learning. “I constantly used to talk to the staff about the dangers of becoming bureaucracy and all that meant,” he says. “It became compliance focused and therefore rigid and inflexible in its approach [to working with others],” he adds.
Hood believes political interventions, particularly from 1996 on, contributed to NZQA’s loss of focus and shift toward more compliance-driven and less learning-centric organisation. He points, for example, to National’s decision to replace Education Minister Lockwood Smith, who became an NZQA advocate during its establishment years, with deputy Prime Minister, Wyatt Creech, who promptly stripped NZQA of its policy function and handed it back to the Ministry.
The relationship between the Ministry and the Authority never was, and still isn’t, very good. “I was warned years ago that the Ministry would, in time, rise again like phoenix from the ashes,” says Hood.
After losing its policy function, NZQA became an implementation, rather than creative, organisation. It lost people who understood learning and became even more inflexible about rolling out and enforcing rigid unit standards-based education and learning regime. The result, according to NZIM is “confusion between qualifications and learning that has led to the fallacious view that gaining qualification is mark of effective learning”.
NZIM’s briefing paper was prepared by the Institute’s national chief executive, David Chapman, and policy manager Batch Hales. In it, they suggest NZQA has failed to meet its objectives and some of its statutory functions as defined in the Act under which it was created. Qualifications do not “have purpose and relationship to each other that students and the public can understand” and there is no coherent “flexible system for gaining qualification”.
There are instead separate and parallel systems for course description, funding, accreditation and approval. There is, they say, duplication of qualifications and resources, little crossover between systems and sectors, lack of accountability and public money is wasted.
NZQA was forged in the heat of radical and rapid economic and social reform. It followed from series of far-reaching moves including the disbanding of University Entrance, the rationalisation of industry training organisations and desire to overhaul the apprenticeship system, plus the loss of major government organisations like the Railways, Post Office, Forest Service and others that comprehensively trained their employees. Industry, with the support of the government, wanted to create one coherent, flexible and accessible stepladder of national qualifications for employees at almost every level.
The concept of central authority to manage the different school and post-school qualifications had its genesis in various proposals to coordinate School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate, bursary and scholarship. From multitude of reports and working party findings compiled between 1985 and ’89 came government decision announced by Education Minister Phil Goff in August ’89 to set up National Education Qualifications Authority (NEQA).
The authority would, he said, take over the functions of the Secondary Schools Board of Studies, the Universities Entrance Board, the Trades Certification Board, few other bodies and “several divisions of the Education Department”. The objective was to “overcome the present confusion and lack of coordination of educational qualifications”.
NEQA became NZQA and New Zealand turned to Britain, and Scotland in particular, for model on which to base its specifications for National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and the wholesale adoption of modular learning – despite the fact the approach was controversial and far from proven, even in the countries which had adopted it.
Universities and polytechnics resisted the NQF concept for two major reasons:
• It would mean losing “ownership” of their qualifications – their capital and competitive edge in competitive market.
• They were concerned about the NQF approach to teaching and learning – considering it “vocationalising” academic courses by atomising them to set of tasks. The disquiet was fuelled by studies that questioned the commodification of learning, the emphasis on ‘outcomes’, modularisation, and defining knowledge by level and credit.
NZQA has never entirely abandoned the fight to control these organisations. It has, for instance, insisted that all tertiary courses are now written in terms of outcomes. It did, however, fail to get the New Zealand Diploma in Business, the biggest tertiary business and management qualification in the country, rewritten as unit standards.
“No other country in the world has gone to such extremes about adopting and enforcing unit standards approach to education, particularly beyond the trades training level,” says Chapman. “There are some aspects of management education that just can’t be taught in this way. Task-related training is ideal for the trades but for management, where it is all about behavioural change – absolutely, positively no.”
The Education Act gave NZQA direct control for the approval of private training establishments (PTEs) and their accreditation to offer courses. NZQA and the government’s funding bodies have,

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