The future of polytechnics

Otago Polytechnic, under chief executive Phil Ker, has just given a masterclass in how to respond to proposals that would dismantle the flexibility, independence and entrepreneurial spirit of the organisation.

The plans, from Education Minister Chris Hipkins, would see a new institution managing capital and operational budgets, staffing, students and learning management systems for all 16 polytechnics. The Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) would be absorbed into the national structure.

Mr Ker was alarmed, fearing the centralised system would inevitably tend towards bureaucratic rigidity and the loss of diversity, innovation and responsiveness.

This newspaper, having been impressed by the achievements of both the Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology, has backed proposals that modified Mr Hipkins' plan and empowered polytechnics. We are sceptical that issues in other centres and with ITOs would somehow be solved by neutering successful operations like those based in Dunedin and Invercargill.

Over the years, this newspaper has published many articles about Otago's initiatives like its pioneering work on prior and work-based learning and its micro-credentialing system. Courses have been developed in Central Otago, and adapted to changing needs. With the likes of the Wildlife Hospital partnership, all sorts of relationships with southern businesses and organisations have blossomed. Courses have opened, closed or changed as opportunities arose.

No doubt, a centrally driven model would have stated the importance of the likes of local relationships and pushed the polytechnic "branches" to pursue them. But that would be far less effective without on-the-ground connections and local sense of purpose.

Otago and Mr Ker have recognised problems with the present system. An effect of that is to back the Government in its need to be seen to be making substantial changes. The polytechnic has accepted the status quo is not an option, and a degree of centralisation is likely. Instead of protesting full blast, the polytechnic has proposed what University of Otago vice-chancellor Harlene Hayne called "a positive refinement of the minister's reform proposal".

Mr Ker has been suggesting aspects of administration - for instance a curriculum service and back-of-house services such as IT, finance, HR and payroll - could be shared between polytechnics. The central body, the head office, which he has provisionally called Polytechnics New Zealand, would focus on managing the effectiveness and efficiency of the system as a whole. Crucially, it would also have the power to intervene when needed to stem not just serious financial issues but also curriculum and quality failures.

But polytechnics, as "subsidiaries" rather than "branches", would keep power over what to teach and how to assess, international student recruitment policies and detailed budgets.

The minister can achieve his goal of overhaul and of integrating safeguards into the system while, pragmatically, allowing for the strengths of a diversity of approaches and the impetus and purpose of local empowerment.

There remains the future of ITOs. Several have vigorously opposed the Government's plans. The minister will have some difficult calls to make. They have not landed in the same financial strife as some polytechnics but some have been accused of failing to supply the skills the country needs. Putting them under the central model and polytechnics will, however, also be challenging.

Submissions, which even with a week's extension because of the Christchurch shootings, were required over an extraordinarily short period of time, closed yesterday. Surely, Mr Hipkins must see the folly in a back-to-the-past controlling bureaucracy and adopt something along the lines proposed by Otago Polytechnic. It is a balanced plan which retains local knowledge and power while enhancing centralised efficiencies and central oversight.

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