Future of polytechs: Ker's master plan

Phil Ker.
Otago Polytechnic's Phil Ker wants a new entity established to take advantage of the benefits of centralisation, while allowing providers to maintain their autonomy and retain their character, culture and branding. Photo: ODT files

Otago Polytechnic head Phil Ker admits he was not  pleased when plans were unveiled to centralise New Zealand polytechnics. But his frustration  galvanised him into action and he devised a plan to ‘‘refine the reform’’.

Reporter George Block outlines Mr Ker’s issues with the current plan and his alternative. 

What's his problem?

Last month, Education Minister Chris Hipkins unveiled the Government's plan to reform the vocational education sector.

Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker said there was much to like about the proposals, including the focus on better serving students in work and a commitment to a new funding model which ''addresses the complexity of delivery in New Zealand and the inadequacy of current levels of funding''.

However, the proposal to merge the 16 existing Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) into a single new body which would take over programme design and administration drew the ire of many in the South, home to the high-performing Otago Polytechnic and Southern Institute of Technology (SIT).

Mr Ker described the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology model proposed by the Government as a ''head office-branch'' structure.

In his view, that model would do disservice to communities, employers and students.

''The inevitable bureaucracy inherent in head office-branch models will seriously compromise flexibility and responsiveness of the branches, as well as the motivation and abilities of the branches to innovate.''

But the long-time Polytechnic head acknowledged there were advantages to a centralised structure, namely economies of scale in ''back of house services and curriculum development''.

So how would he do it differently?

As a result, he believed the answer was to a establish a new entity to take advantage of the benefits of centralisation, while allowing providers to maintain their autonomy and retain their character, culture and branding.

They would only be subject to intervention if they experienced financial or educational issues.

When the proposal was announced on February 13, Mr Ker was none too happy at the prospect of the polytechnic he had stewarded for the past 17 years losing its autonomy to a national head office.

But he soon resolved to devise an alternative.

''[I thought] well, what the hell, we'll knuckle down and come up with an alternative,'' he said yesterday.

In his words, he is proposing a ''parent-subsidiary'' model in lieu of the ''head office-branch'' model put forward by the Government.

At the heart of his model is a parent entity with the working title ''Polytechnics New Zealand''.

It would be responsible for the planning, co-ordination and oversight of the providers, which would retain operational control and independence, as well as their own unique character and branding.

The management of the providers would also be independent of the parent entity, unlike the Government's proposal, where the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology would take over management.

''It's a system with a head office, that makes its decisions about the system, but leaves the decision-making to what is an independent legal entity that's delivering teaching or research services.

''Under Hipkins, what was being proposed was operational decision-making from the head office.

''[Under Mr Ker's model] It would be with the providers ... there would be no operational decision-making about what providers were doing made by the head office.''

While his proposed Polytechnics New Zealand head office would focus on managing the effectiveness and efficiency of the system as a whole, it would also have the power to intervene when needed, he said.

''...which is a really important part of the proposal that we've put forward [and] something that should have been happening, but wasn't.''

For example, if an individual provider was failing to a supply a crucial course, the head office could ensure that course was provided.

''Equally, if someone failed their quality review ... then head office would intervene.

''Unlike the current model, which is essentially punitive, the head office would put in a proper supportive intervention, with people with the expertise to help the provider turn their business around.''

The problems the theoretical Polytechnics New Zealand would tackle could be either financial or educational issues, he said.

''Unfortunately, up until now, we've only ever thought financial problems needed intervention.

''But we've got a number of providers that aren't cutting it educationally, either.''

He suggested the proposed model could also involve a Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) mechanism.

''The theory is that if an institution has a specialisation, then that status could be afforded to the institution, which would then provide leadership for the whole network,'' he explained.

''For example, we probably have leadership in what we call Capable New Zealand, a recognition of prior learning.

''We're by far the best known and see the most business [in this area].

''That's an example where we might be given the status of a Centre of Vocational Excellence for recognition of prior learning.''

But what are the odds?

Proposing a new model is all well and good, but is there a chance of it actually flying?

Mr Ker said he had become more optimistic.

''When I started off, I would have been down at 20% [odds], but I'm thinking we've got a 50/50 chance of getting the decision rights split as proposed.

''I'm an eternal optimist that rational thought prevails.''

The polytechnic had put forward its views ''firmly but politely,'' and the minister had stressed he had an open mind, Mr Ker said.


Phil Ker.
Otago Polytechnic's Phil Ker wants a new entity established to take advantage of the benefits of centralisation, while allowing providers to maintain their autonomy and retain their character, culture and branding. Photo: ODT files

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