Preserving innovation

Penelope Baldwin (centre), of Kind Grocer, and chef Emily Jolry say the innovative and flexible...
Penelope Baldwin (centre), of Kind Grocer, and chef Emily Jolry say the innovative and flexible approach of the Otago Polytechnic Bachelor of Culinary Arts, where Prof Richard Miller (left) teaches, gave them vital tools and guidance for their vocational pursuits in the revitalised Vogel St warehouse precinct. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The Government plans to amalgamate all 16 of the country's vocational training institutions. Bruce Munro examines the track record of centralisation and takes a walk along Vogel St to discover what is at risk. 

Richard Mitchell looks at this street and sees the unseen.

Standing on the paved corner of Vogel and Water Sts, in Dunedin's thriving warehouse precinct, the view is of gaggles of office workers making the most of a sunny winter lunchbreak, walking past repurposed goldrush-era buildings sporting fresh livery and contemporary signage, each group headed for their favourite eatery.

For the professor of culinary arts, however, the scene is overlaid with invisible strings, a web of connections between buildings and people, stretching the length of this street and beyond, in time as well as space.

"One of our first pop-ups was in the basement here," Mitchell says, gesturing at the three-storey, 1883, National Mortgage and Agency Co building that is now home to Wine Freedom and Psychology Associates.

The main winners in Dunedin's heritage reuse awards announced last night: NMA Building.
The National Mortgage and Agency Co building that is now home to Wine Freedom and Psychology Associates.

It was 2013. Otago Polytechnic's bachelor of culinary arts degree was in short pants but already trying to run. Mitchell was looking for an engaging way to teach a new intake that included chefs seeking to demonstrate skills they already possessed.

A request went out on social media for pop-up restaurant ideas. A law firm got in touch.

"We ended up `kidnapping' a group of lawyers and their friends," he says, clearly relishing the memory.

"We put them in the basement and gave them a dining experience that was described as `Better than one of Heston's restaurants, in London'."

The tasty and innovative learning experience was possible because Mitchell knew the owner of Wine Freedom.

"And because we were able to be flexible in the way we were delivering the curriculum," he says.

"We could take it out of the classroom and do whatever we wanted with it."

Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Kerr believes the motivation for centralisation is...
Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Kerr believes the motivation for centralisation is ideological. Photo: Peter McIntosh
It is a pleasing memory. But something has him unsettled.

It is the Government's plan to merge New Zealand's 16 vocational training institutions into one national school. The plan includes a centralised governing body that would control capital and operational budgets, staffing and learning management systems for all polytechnics.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has given several reasons for the impending radical restructure.

The number of domestic students training at polytechnics and other training institutes fell significantly during the six years to 2017, while, at the same time, workplace skills shortages grew quickly, Hipkins said.

Vocational training institutions were in a difficult financial position. Last year, the Government spent $100 million bailing out four polytechnics.

"We know that several more are on borrowed time," he said in February.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins speaks at Otago Polytechnic in March about the sector...
Education Minister Chris Hipkins speaks at Otago Polytechnic in March about the sector restructure. Photo: Peter McIntosh

 

The strong labour market is encouraging young people to move directly into the workforce rather than continue in formal education, whereas both should be possible, he added.

"And our system isn't geared up for the future economy, where re-training and up-skilling will be a regular feature of everyone's working life."

Centralisation, Hipkins believes, is the answer to all these woes.

"It's time to reset the whole system and fundamentally rethink the way we view vocational education and training, and how it's delivered," he said.

That plan does not spare the profitable and successful Otago Polytechnic.

A polytech that, in 2018, had 5554 equivalent full-time students across its three campuses - Dunedin, Central Otago and Auckland - a rise of 8.3% on the previous year.

A polytech that supported 2846 full-time equivalent jobs in Dunedin through direct expenditure. A polytech campus whose direct economic benefit to the city last year was $179.4 million, and $444.5 million globally.

Hipkins' plan is still being considered by Cabinet. No-one is saying when a final announcement on the future of the polytechs will be made.

Otago Polytechnic graduands parade up George St. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
Otago Polytechnic graduands parade up George St. Photo: Gerard O'Brien

In the meantime, the cornerstone concept, centralisation, is being questioned by research and experience from within the education sector and beyond it.

In March, Vaneeta D'Andrea, who researches tertiary teaching models, was visiting Dunedin when Hipkins outlined the proposed changes to Otago Polytechnic staff.

Afterwards, in an open letter to the Minister, D'Andrea said it was not clear to her what problems were being solved by the proposed restructure.

"It is my view that the unintended consequences of a centralised model would most likely outweigh the `benefits' desired," D'Andrea wrote.

Instead, she advocates a model that includes educational quality monitoring and fiscal monitoring at national level within a devolved institutional model.

Also eschewing centralisation is the Government's own Department of Internal Affairs.

Since 2011, the DIA has been experimenting with a ground-up, rather than a top-down, approach to addressing social issues.

After decades of central government telling communities what their problems were and parachuting in specialists to fix them, it is now considered best practice for local communities to be in the driver's seat.

The Terminus building at Queens Gardens.
The Terminus Hotel building also has two food outlets, Moiety and the Tart Tin.

At any given time, the DIA's Community-Led Development Programme has more than a dozen communities on its books, each receiving a share of $4.56 million a year, for up to five years, to develop and execute local solutions to locally identified needs.

Beyond our shores, the assessment of centralisation is no rosier.

Last year, a review of global studies examining the impact of local government amalgamations found several common threads in the findings.

The paper, Municipal Amalgamations and their Effects, published in Miscellanea Geographica, drew together 50 years of research.

It concluded that amalgamations produced some cost savings, but that they were limited to general administrative expenses; the quality of local services changed little; and, local democracy was diminished.

So, if not there, then where?

Mitchell says Vogel St is a living example of what Hipkins is seeking - something Otago Polytechnic already has and could help others gain - but which the Minister could let slip through his fingers if he does centralise the country's vocational training institutions.

The street's first significant eatery, Vogel St Kitchen. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The street's first significant eatery, Vogel St Kitchen. Photo: Peter McIntosh

From Queens Gardens to Police St, this 400m strip of revitalised commercial heartland pulses with energy injected by the local polytech's bachelor of culinary arts.

After that first basement pop-up, the NMA building's top storey hosted a one-night restaurant for 60 people. The building's owner, award-winning heritage property redeveloper Stephen McKnight, loved what was done. He then worked with BCA students to develop a restaurant concept and menu for his refurbished 1880s Terminus Hotel building on the northeast corner of the warehouse precinct. Today that building has two food outlets, Moiety and the Tart Tin.

Another pop-up event was held in what is now the offices of law firm Gallaway Cook Allan, at 123 Vogel St. The event was to help law firm staff get familiar with what would be their new offices. A couple of the BCA students who helped make it happen later went to work in London restaurants.

Across the road from the law firm is Heritage Coffee, owned by Riah McLean, who also established the street's first significant eatery, Vogel St Kitchen. Heritage Coffee's manager and head chef is Jayden Lawrence. Lawrence and two other Heritage staff are BCA graduates, as is the vegan food specialist at Vogel St Kitchen.

At the south end, on the rise, is Precinct Restaurant, owned by Liz Christensen who, yes, you guessed it, is a BCA graduate.

Christensen trialled various business models during her third year of the course, Mitchell recalls.

Photo: Peter McIntosh
Across the road from the law firm Gallaway Cook Allan is Heritage Coffee, owned by Riah McLean, who also owns Vogel St Kitchen. Photo: Peter McIntosh

"Liz's thing is about storytelling with food. She crunched the numbers and decided she couldn't do that as a standalone business."

So, she bought catering business Inspired Pantry from two previous graduates of the pilot programme that preceded the BCA.

Her business has had "massive growth".

Between the catering, the restaurant and the food experience and design work, the number of staff she employs has grown from "three or four to somewhere in the 20s" - including three BCA graduates.

The common denominator in this surfeit of inner-city vitality is the bachelor of culinary arts.

The BCA has a design-led approach, Mitchell says. By that he means, not so much making things pretty, as solving problems.

It was the first such course to use such an approach. The international interest has resulted in speaking engagements in Portugal, New York and London.

Precinct Food's Liz Christensen outside her cafe in Vogel St. Photo: Peter McIntosh
At the south end, on the rise, is Precinct Restaurant, owned by Liz Christensen who is a BCA graduate. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Australia's premier tourism and hospitality training provider, the William Angliss Institute, is looking to emulate the BCA. As is an institution in Sweden.

"We're seen as the benchmark, internationally. People come to us for advice.

"Some of them think it is witchcraft. They say they couldn't do what we do."

What gives the BCA its wings is permission from Otago Polytechnic leadership to be flexible and try new things.

"That comes from a culture that supports considered risk-taking to push the boundaries, to connect with communities and be responsive to those communities."

Mitchell is deeply impressed by what he has experienced and been allowed to do.

"I've never experienced that in any other educational institution. It's liberating, it's challenging, it's hard work. But it allows us to do some things that mean we are leading."

His experience is shared by Penelope Baldwin, owner of Kind Grocer, and its chef Emily Jolry, both BCA graduates.

Jolry did an internship at the Tart Tin during her studies, while discovering her passion was artistic expression.

The main Dunedin campus of Otago Polytechnic. Photo: Gerard O'Brien
The main Dunedin campus of Otago Polytechnic. Photo: Gerard O'Brien

Baldwin was already a trained aromatherapist and knew she wanted to focus on gaining business skills. In her third year, she started a bitters company, Botanical Kitchen, five years ahead of the curve.

"Our curriculum is flexible enough," Prof Mitchell says,"that Penelope could bring her existing knowledge and we folded that into the teaching - she works on projects, she brings what she's already got - and that allowed her to explore that and develop it and turn it into new things."

Both Baldwin and Jolry say the study programme's flexibility was vital to finding the path ahead.

That is what most troubles Mitchell about the centralisation plan. The bureaucracy, the standardisation, the loss of flexibility he fears it will herald - all killers of responsiveness, innovation and excellence.

"The outcome they are trying to achieve is excellent but I don't believe centralising is the solution.

"If we have to get approval centrally, or abide by a rigid central structure, that's a problem."

Centralisation to tackle the perceived wastefulness of competition is thoroughly flawed, he says.

Street garden in the warehouse precinct in Vogel St.
Standing on the paved corner of Vogel and Water Sts, in Dunedin's thriving warehouse precinct.

"Healthy competition leads to innovation. If you're striving to be `better than', the only way to do that is to be `smarter than'."

Instead, he says the Government should be encouraging a blend of competition and co-operation; "co-opetition", as he calls it.

Otago Polytechnic is already talking with other innovative New Zealand training institutions to share ideas to improve what they each offer in their patch.

"That's co-opetition. We're co-operating so that we grow the pie and we all get a bit bigger slice."

Mitchell admits the BCA, because it is a degree-level course, will not be impacted directly by the national review of study programmes.

But, if the plan goes ahead, an even more important element could be lost, he says. Otago Polytechnic would cease to exist in its own right. With the institution would go its distinctive values and approach.

"Like, [chief executive] Phil Ker's mantra, `It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission'. That gets stuff done. That will be lost.

"And that's how innovation happens. Innovation is a culture, not a series of procedures or policies."

Ker, the polytech's long-serving head, does not believe centralisation is the obvious solution to any of the problems the Government has outlined.

The real motivation for centralisation, Ker believes, is ideological.

"It appears to be a deeply held belief that centralisation leads to efficiency. But I'm not sure that efficiency is really the issue for us ... It's a rundown sector."

"A fit-for-purpose funding system would eliminate most if not all the financial woes," he says.

At risk, he says, is the ability to be agile and responsive institutions that contribute significantly to their regional economies.

"And we risk losing innovation. I've yet to discover a centralised model for anything that goes with an innovative service. I can give you example after example where the opposite is true."

On the return leg down Vogel St, the sun is still shining. But Mitchell is not warmed by it. He can see unseen threads, past and present, but he is not sure he can see them stretching ahead.

What the BCA has achieved, the way it operates, is the acknowledged way of the future for education, he says.

"And if we're already doing it, what are we fixing? What's broken?"

If in the future, everything has to be approved by some sort of head office there will be no opportunity to be world-leading, he says with feeling.

"If everything becomes vanilla, standardised, that's the death of innovation - which is exactly the opposite of what the Minister is hoping to achieve."

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