From deficit-mindsets to academic surpluses

Dr Eric Crampton
4 May, 2020

Among the more irritating education fads is the idea that schools need to teach a “growth mindset”. 

It is true that students who think they can improve wind up faring better than those who feel stuck in a hole from which they see no way out.

But teaching a growth mindset is hard. Or, at least, it is hard to find any substantial benefit from “growth mindset” interventions. 

Once stuck in a hole, it’s hard to change perspectives. As bad as that is in education, it can be worse. It can hit the whole country. 

Policy currently seems focused on trying to minimise Covid’s economic costs: putting large parts of the economy into hibernation, with government support to see things through. 

The medical battle is far from won, but if the government is successful in scaling up contact tracing and in quarantining all cases and contacts as they emerge, it is possible to see a return to near-normalcy in the not too distant future.

And that presents some opportunities that should not be missed. 

Most obviously, New Zealand should be able to join with others who have largely beaten Covid to re-open borders to quarantine-free travel. Once Kiwis can travel again from Auckland to Invercargill, there seems little reason not to also be able to travel to places like Taiwan – which has been more successful than either Australia or New Zealand in keeping Covid in check. South Korea should also be on the list, along with Singapore when its recent outbreak is back under control. 

Doing it right would likely require mutual monitoring of each other’s pandemic testing, monitoring, and containment regimes. That kind of quality assurance would strengthen our systems and help ensure that the larger Pacific bubble could hold. Doing it seems well worthwhile; the OECD has suggested that poor international connectivity underlies part of New Zealand’s weak productivity statistics. Reopening the borders to places no more risky than other parts of New Zealand would help in rebuilding business links and in restarting tourism. 

But there is more substantial opportunity, in some areas, for growing beyond what New Zealand had before the pandemic. New Zealand’s “lifeboat” status, when North America, the UK, and much of Europe are in turmoil, could particularly benefit our tertiary education sector. 

Right now, New Zealand’s universities are heavily into whatever is the opposite of a growth mindset. Having lost the substantial revenues that come from full-fee paying international students, some universities are discussing wage cuts; layoffs and redundancies would not be far behind. 

That kind of mindset is perfectly understandable. It is impossible for foreign students currently to return because the government has banned entry to all but returning residents. 

In February, when the government closed the door to international student entry, the universities argued that foreign students should be allowed to enter if they underwent appropriate quarantine. But nobody was ready to implement quarantine. Even returning residents faced chaos. The system was not ready. 

Things since have changed. Contact tracing has been scaled up, and hopefully will continue to be scaled up. Real testing capabilities have improved substantially. And it is now far more plausible that incoming international students would be successfully quarantined, tested where necessary, and only released into the broader community when cleared for entry. 

Re-opening the border to international students destined for tertiary institutes with approved and monitored quarantine facilities in time for the coming July semester presents a substantial opportunity. 

Academic life in North America and Europe will be in pandemic turmoil for the coming year, and maybe longer.

The North American school year begins in August, and epidemiologists are already talking about a second September Covid wave there. That will bring further cancellation of lectures and an end to all normal campus life. Those universities, like ours, are looking at hiring freezes and are potentially looking at layoffs. 

Spending a semester or longer in New Zealand will suddenly look a lot more attractive to students who might not have previously considered studying here – not only those who would have left home to go to the United States for school, but also to American, Canadian, British and European students who would otherwise have studied in their own countries. 

Our academic lifeboat looks awfully tempting. And where two weeks of quarantine would deter all but the most ardent tourists, students expecting to be here for the longer haul would find it a dawdle. But rather than return home and face a new quarantine period on return, those students would be more likely to take the place of other tourists during semester break.

New Zealand’s relative safety provides our universities a chance to grow and to expand their capabilities rather than decline – and to do it with real growth rather than government support. 

But doing it requires a shift from the government’s current deficit thinking to more of a growth mindset. Let’s hope they do not miss this opportunity.


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