Councillors lament learning centre loss

Interprofessional Learning Centre. Atop the new Dunedin Hospital.
Interprofessional Learning Centre. Atop the new Dunedin Hospital.
Dunedin councillors have lamented the loss of a planned learning centre that had been intended to support the new Dunedin hospital development.

The now-shelved interprofessional learning centre was pitched in the past five years as an innovative and collaborative space for teaching and professional development and it was considered key to a health precinct in the city.

Councillors noted two of the three partners in the project were providers of tertiary education — the University of Otago and Te Pūkenga — and they were struggling financially and shedding staff.

The other was Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand (HNZ), which announced last week the parties had agreed to "move the focus away from a specific building for interprofessional learning and ... work together to grow the interdisciplinary training of the region’s healthcare professionals of the future".

HNZ had assigned $17 million to the proposed centre and it was intended the new hospital’s professional development unit would be housed there.

The sum was staying in the hospital budget, HNZ said.

It is also hoped the venture might be able to proceed in the long term.

Deputy mayor Sophie Barker said the shelving of the centre was terrible for Dunedin.

She had seen depictions of what the health precinct was supposed to look like and was worried about it being compromised.

"Dunedin is an education city," Cr Barker said.

"Synergies between the hospital, university and polytech [Te Pūkenga] are incredibly important.

"We need to make sure there’s very good training for the workforce of the hospital.

"Once something gets put on the backburner it can be hard to get it off."

Dunedin Mayor Jules Radich last week labelled the shelving of the learning centre "a blip", or a temporary setback he hoped would soon be rectified.

Cr David Benson-Pope said it was a great pity an obviously sensible concept was not yet able to progress.

"It’s certainly more than just a blip."

The concept behind the centre was cutting-edge, he said.

The need for it was reinforced by the Government’s announcement last week the Auckland and Dunedin medical schools would be funded to accept 50 more students between them next year to help curb a shortage of doctors, Cr Benson-Pope said.

Cr Carmen Houlahan said health and education cuts were unacceptable and harmed the city’s reputation. She observed the university and Te Pūkenga were supposed to contribute to the learning centre, "but they are bogged down in debt and putting off staff".

"The Government has to front up with more money for this."

Labour MPs David Clark, Ingrid Leary, Rino Tirikatene and Rachel Brooking said this year they were "very keen that the interprofessional learning centre is approved and funded by our university, polytech and the health system".

The city should be "a lot more concerned" about the centre than controversial design changes to the hospital’s inpatient building.

Dr Clark had said the centre was important for the future of healthcare and he wanted to ensure it would go ahead.

Ms Brooking said at the weekend she hoped the shelving of the centre was not the final result.

Dr Clark said it was important to be realistic about the financial constraints faced by the tertiary education sector and about construction costs.

The collaborative centre had been shelved, but he believed the project partners remained committed to working together to resolve the issue.

National list MP Michael Woodhouse said Labour’s local MPs did not seem to have much influence in seeking to preserve the best hospital project possible.

"There’s been a steady erosion of the project we were promised."

Tertiary education institutions had not been helped by a constricted supply of international students since the Covid-19 pandemic, he said.

Mr Woodhouse expected the centre could become more viable if New Zealand was able to catch up with other nations in attracting more students.

"I hope the plans can be dusted off."