Labour’s polytechnic shambles

The plan was poor in the first place. The execution is proving even worse.

The centralising of New Zealand’s 16 polytechnics into one grand organisation, Te Pukenga, is in shambles.

The thousands of staff nationwide were due earlier this month to learn about the proposed detailed structure. They would have the chance to respond.

In due course they would also learn about their role, assuming there was one, in the new organisation due to launch in January.

Instead, the consultation has been put off while Te Pukenga tackles the financial hole it is in.

In the meantime, morale suffers. Many good staff leave. Others battle on. They do not know where they stand.

This is one of Labour’s great centralisations, along with the health boards and Three Waters.

There is no denying health, Three Waters and vocational education each have serious problems. Three Waters, in particular, will need far more money and resources in most parts of the country to meet minimum standards.

But this Government thinks that massive reorganisations are the way to solve the issues. It has a clear ideological bias that control from the centre is the way forward.

Te Pukenga is to manage capital and operations budgets, staffing, students and learning management systems for the polytechnics.

Some of the Industry Training Organisations are being absorbed into the national structure.

This decision was confirmed in 2019, and a headquarters then set up in Hamilton. Somehow, three years later and with the deadline looming, Te Pukenga does not have an agreed operating structure or a business plan for Cabinet consideration.

Its $688,000-a-year chief executive is on indefinite personal leave and consultants PwC are at work trying to sort out the mess.

One of its principals has stepped in as a deputy chief executive.

About $200 million has been spent so far on reorganisation, and the projected deficit is $110 million, far more than the net deficits before the upheaval.

Then Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker, in 2019, pleaded for more local autonomy so polytechnics would be more like "subsidiaries" than "branch" offices. That was rejected.

The arguments for centralisation often appear strong — alleged economies of scale, eliminating course duplication, more expertise, consistency and less waste on marketing.

What often occurs, instead, are more layers of (and higher paid) management, a dead bureaucratic hand and less innovation.

Lost are speed of response, local spirit and pride, proper local involvement and a slice of healthy competition. Regional polytechnics are more likely to be attuned to local needs.

Otago Polytechnic and the Invercargill-based Southern Institute of Technology proved exemplars, including displaying entrepreneurial attitudes.

They, mostly, were able to generate surpluses, showed the way with the likes of free fees, accommodation support and Otago’s pioneering work on prior and work-based learning and micro-credentialing.

Of course, there were some serious failings among the polytechnics — not helped by the raw bums-on-seats funding model.

The Government had been forced into bailouts and specific support.

It made much more sense, however, to work with the weak links, continue to encourage the successes and — where useful — tweak national supervision and shared services.

An overarching national body could stem serious financial issues and have a role in preventing curriculum and quality failures.

It is always easy to identify the shortcomings but, unsurprisingly, far harder to fix them.

Somehow, three years after decisions were made and as the deadline looms, Te Pukenga is far from ready.

This is bad news for vocational training, so important for New Zealand’s economic future.

It is also bad for the staff and students.

Undoubtedly, something will muddle through — but with flaws and weaknesses more acute and widespread than what was replaced. This is also bad news for Labour.

It reinforces the view it can only achieve the easy part of making grand announcements.

But it cannot follow through with cost-effective, timely or successful implementation.