A dose of reality in the workforce for a year does more to prepare students for university than high school exams, new research shows.
Students who perform below average at school are more likely to succeed at university if they take a gap year.
The research was done by the Ministry of Education and looked at how students who had achieved the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) level 3 and attained the University Entrance standard performed in their first year of university study.
It found that among those with lower school achievement, students who took a year off before starting their tertiary studies – particularly students from low-decile schools – showed higher levels of performance at university than those who progressed directly to tertiary study after leaving school.
"The improvement in university performance for students who took a gap year probably derives from the fact that only motivated or confident students enrol in tertiary studies after taking a break," the researchers concluded.
"Those students who are not motivated, or lack confidence in their ability, do not continue with their studies."
Gap years have long been popular in the United Kingdom where even Princes William and Harry took a year off to travel and gain work experience before commencing their studies, but in New Zealand it has been more common for young people to take their "OE" after completing their tertiary studies.
The research findings are significant because the government has foreshadowed that from 2012 some tertiary education funding will be tied to successful student outcomes – including the proportion of students progressing to higher levels of study and completing their qualifications.
That means universities may have to become more selective about who they enrol.
Up until now, a student's academic success at school has been accepted as the best predictor of tertiary performance but this new report punches holes in that theory.
It argues that depending too heavily on school results will discriminate against some minority groups and potentially deprive the universities of some better performing students.
Twenty-year-old Glen Watson is in his first year of study towards a Bachelor of Applied Science at the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology.
He juggles his degree studies with working 30 hours a week as a fitness instructor and is consistently getting As and A+ for his assignments, although he was only a mediocre student at school.
Watson told the Star-Times the two-year gap he had between finishing school and starting his degree course – in which time he qualified to be a personal trainer and worked in a gym – had given him focus and helped him work out exactly what he needed to do to succeed.
"The motivation to upskill, increase job opportunities and potential earnings is definitely there now.
"I'm not sure it would have been if I'd done this straight from school. I think, too, because I'm working in the field, my understanding and thirst for knowledge is greater," said Watson.
"If I had come straight from school, I probably wouldn't have had that thirst and I think I would have been intimidated by the exams."
Other findings from the research indicate lower-achieving students from low-decile schools perform better in their first year of tertiary studies than similar students from high-decile schools.
The course of study also appears to make a significant difference to the likelihood of students with below-average school achievement passing most of their university courses.
Students enrolled in creative arts and teacher education qualifications were more likely to pass their courses when compared with students enrolled in engineering, natural and physical sciences, society and culture, and management and commerce qualifications.
- Sunday Star Times