Empowerment and polytechnics

Otago Polytechnic. Photo: ODT files
Otago Polytechnic. Photo: ODT files
There is a sense of dread about the future strength of the Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology. They are both impressively successful in their own ways and likely to suffer through the Government proposed vocational education "reforms".

The Government, including Dunedin North MP David Clark, can talk all it likes about local committees or advisory boards and the need for flexibility to meet local needs. But the reality is a centralised model will over time degrade and destroy the vitality, flexibility, innovation and local commitment vital to the southern polytechnics. These attributes, combined with able leadership, has made them outstanding.

The key to nimbleness, engagement and success is empowerment. And empowerment comes with the ability to made decisions. However it is dressed up, that will not come with a plan that is in essence a central and branch office structure.

Co-operation between polytechnics, both in courses and curriculum, is welcomed. But local pride and a little competition does wonders in spurring motivation.

Government departments, like the ongoing dysfunction in health and the bureaucracy in education, illustrate dangers. More uniformity looks attractive on paper when it is dressed up in words like consistency or equity. In practice, it can be a smothering blanket.

The Government argues the sector is broken. It points to the large polytechnic deficits. But apart from potential mismanagement in two - which should have been picked up earlier by the current system - the issues come down to inflexible and inadequate funding models, a funding starve and a temporary fall in school-leaver numbers. Notably, abundant jobs mean study loses much of its allure and rolls decline.

The proposed new structure would cause transition and severely damaging disruption. Then, no doubt, when the dust settled it would cost more than fixing current funding issues. This occurs regularly when brave new worlds are imposed, rather than when sensible step changes are introduced.

Reform in stages, testing the waters and pushing on or pulling back, is more likely to lead to lasting and substantial improvements. That would be a much better way to proceed.

The fear, based on a National Party leak, is that Labour's preliminary proposal for polytechnics has not changed significantly. Labour and Education Minister Chris Hipkins, no matter the submissions, seem determined to see through their model, even if it is based on false premises and appears to be underpinned by ideology instead of what is best for the nation.

Politics could be driving Labour in that direction. In its so-called year of delivery, it could believe it needs to proceed for reasons of perception rather than sound policy. It could believe it needs to get runs on the board, especially after KiwiBuild failures and the capital gain tax retreat, even if misgivings emerge.

It must be hoped coalition partner New Zealand First, with its emphasis on the regions, can steer Labour away from its plan. An in-between position, like that proposed by Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker, institutes changes without unleashing the destructive nuclear option.

The Greens, too, might see sense in community autonomy and flexibility. Could they also be willing to reject sweeping reorganisation in favour of a mixed model?

Mr Ker points out that centralised control and decision making brings with it inevitable bureaucracy and standardisation - enemies of agility, responsiveness and innovation.

But he also accepts the need for a new central agency that helps the sector behave as a networked and collaborative system, plan strategically for the system as a whole and provide shared service where these make sense.

Otago Polytechnic's success has been a big boost to Dunedin. SIT's innovation and community support have done wonders for Invercargill. Both institutions and both cities are set to suffer if the Government pushes on without substantially modifying its proposals.

As Mr Ker said: "Reform needs to preserve the best of what we have and to put in place mechanisms that guide and support all polytechnics to become stellar performers."



One of the problems Polytechnics have is that they have all turned into what the English call 'Red Brick Universities' Now days polytech degrees are the norm. 5 year Periods of study are common (and encouraged as it provides lots of fees and Government money). In doing this Polytechs now compete with Universitys. They have turned their back on their core constuiences in that they no longer provide working class kids with training for jobs. Short term, high employment courses are not profitable to Polytechs. And the canny youth unemployed dont want to get into debt for jobs that wont pay. Change needs to happen for this group of people instead of leaving them on the scrapheap. Employers and New Zealand deed qualified highly trained workers. All these voices can harp on about their 'precious polytechs' but change needs to happen. The sooner the better






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