Chamber of Commerce backs polytechnic

Otago Polytechnic lecturer Alan Fraser helps construction trade skills carpentry student Susha...
Otago Polytechnic lecturer Alan Fraser helps construction trade skills carpentry student Susha Than (20). PHOTO: GERARD O'BRIEN
Top-quality people could choose to study at other places if Otago Polytechnic loses its edge under a Government plan to merge the country's polytechnics, the Otago Chamber of Commerce says.

The chamber has thrown its weight behind a campaign to keep Otago Polytechnic largely autonomous as part of an alternative centralisation plan proposed by Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker.

The polytechnic brings in about $300 million to the economy of the wider Otago region each year.

Chamber chief executive Dougal McGowan said the polytechnic's particular courses and ``top-quality people'' meant it would continue to be an important cog in the wheel of the city years down the track if it maintained its autonomy.

Local institutions should have their own courses that delivered for their own community, he said.

"I think what [polytechnics] need to have is some ability to create their own decision-making, and make sure they are able to meet the needs of not only their local community but the wider community they are there to serve,'' he said.

An example in the Dunedin area was construction, including anticipated demand for work in the city's CBD.

"You've got the new hospital, but you've also got a changing environment where we're really looking to develop co-location of light businesses around light industries.

"We've got tech industries, start-up industries.

"The polytech's played a really strong role in both of those sectors over the last 50 years in Dunedin. There's a really strong experience they have in that sector,'' Mr McGowan said.

Mr Ker's alternative showed "a deep and insightful analysis of what is being proposed'', he added.

In 2017, the polytechnic's annual report stated it contributed 3.4% to Dunedin's gross domestic product the previous year.

While Mr McGowan hoped the Government's model would not put that in jeopardy if it went ahead, there was always a risk that that could happen, he said.

A public meeting will be held tonight at 5pm, and Education Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed he will be speaking.

Thirty or 40 years ago, it was found a heavily centralised model like the one the Government was putting forward - involving one governing council to manage all 16 institutes' capital and operational budgets, staffing and computer systems - did not work, Mr McGowan said.

Escea Fireplaces founder and Otago Polytechnic engineering graduate Nigel Bamford said he feared if decisions were made in Wellington rather than Dunedin, the polytechnic would lose its "nimbleness'' and businesses dealing with it - for instance when it came to working on projects or establishing internships or partnerships - would lose patience.

"[Centralisation] only ever leads to slow decision-making.''

Otago Southland Employers Association chief executive Virginia Nicholls said the secret of Otago Polytechnic and the Southland Institute of Technology's success was that they were "very innovative'' and she supported Mr Ker's approach.

The more than 1100 members the association represented across Otago and Southland thought Otago was "a very successful polytechnic'' and was doing a good job.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull has said he backs Mr Ker's plan. Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said the council had enjoyed and valued its relationship with the polytechnic, particularly the crossover with the engineering department.

"The region needs trained engineers to address water, climate change, biodiversity and urban development challenges.''

elena.mcphee@odt.co.nz

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