Building on polytechnic strengths

Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Kerr believes the motivation for centralisation is...
Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Kerr. Photo: Peter McIntosh
The struggle continues for Otago Polytechnic in its battle to make the most of the overhaul of polytechnic tertiary education and the trades and industry training area.

It is no surprise Education Minister Chris Hipkins is proceeding with a plan to create a single New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. That is what he has been consulting on, and that is the fundamental ideology. Gone will be the 16 independent polytechnics. Industry Training Organisations will disappear into Workforce Development Councils.

This is the feared centralisation model, and it has caused Southland Institute of Technology chief executive Penny Simmonds and Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt to man the barricades in opposition. The city has so much to lose. Its free fees and accommodation subsidy scheme have been innovative and successful. They have drawn students from around the country and injected life and money into Invercargill.

Since the Government's proposals were launched in February, Otago Polytechnic head Phil Ker has endeavoured to sway with the wind, accepting Labour was determined to make changes and promoting a mixed model with some shared services but also independence where it really mattered.

With the Government now setting the path, albeit sketchy on detail, Mr Ker again sees some hope in the two-year transition. From April 2020, there will be a transitional parent-subsidiary arrangement, enabling Mr Hipkins to decide whether to extend the lives of any or all subsidiaries.

What seems difficult to understand is how a dual system might operate, how, say, most polytechnics would be under the national institute as branch offices while others remained independent subsidiaries. Hopefully, there is a way. Without empowered, flexible and innovative local institutions, training will suffer and the costs and dead hand of centralisation will suppress success.

The plan includes the setting up of centres of vocational excellence at regional campuses. These are fine sounding words that could just mean more committees. Real excellence will come from the right attitudes and independence, the esprit de corps and enthusiasm that has marked the southern polytechnics.

It is easier to identify the alleged failings than fix them. These include the financial woes of several polytechnics - mostly because of inadequate funding models and plentiful jobs without formal training - and the mismatch between demand and skills.

Will a new system fix that second problem? Will a national model with regional committees and limited regional governance really be that responsive and adaptable?

Some central standards, safeguards, auditing and oversight is not bad. New Zealand is, after all, a small nation. But the experience of government departments is discouraging. And, surely, if this approach applies to polytechnics, it should apply to universities. But do we really think they would contain the same impetus and strive so hard as branch offices under one University of New Zealand? Real identity is vital for motivation and success.

It was intriguing Auckland and Wellington were excluded as the base for the new national institute. That suggests Christchurch, the third of the big three and with lots of Labour voters, is sill a possibility. That, though, would defeat the goal of decentralisating parts of Government as Christchurch already dominates South Island services and administration and has sucked jobs from other southern centres. Dunedin, as an education city, obviously should be near the top of considerations.

There are different local needs and different local industries What is required is step-by-step change, seeing what is working and what is not. We need different ideas and different approaches being tried by different polytechnics, along with some co-operation and collaboration. Hopefully, Mr Ker is not being overoptimistic about the possibilities ahead. Hopefully, for the sake of vocational education in New Zealand, a flexible hybrid model develops and builds on present strengths.

Comments

I agree with the editorial sentiment. The danger with the ideology of centralised control is that a future government could easily decide that there is very little point investing in Invercargill/Dunedin when the training needs and hence financial resources are needed elsewhere. I have yet to speak to anyone in Dunedin who thinks this is a good idea.

 

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