Saving southern polytechnics

Make no mistake. The Government's initial proposals to change vocational education are massive. They represent a revolution not an evolution.

A New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology would take over programme design and administration from the country's 16 separate polytechnics. It would also take over enrolling and managing apprentices and industry trainees from 11 industry training organisations (ITOs). This covers 110,000 polytechnic students and 140,000 apprentices and industry trainees.

In essence, the head office would make all crucial decisions and main administration would be centralised. The polytechnics would be mere branch offices, stripped of independence as well as most back room support roles.

While there are proposals for local advisory boards, they would appear tokens before the serious coin of centrally mandated decision making.

Few sensible observers deny serious issues and problems with current training. Polytechnics have been failing, training has often not gone where it is needed and there is much duplication. The ITO and polytechnic mix is confusing and inconsistent.

But is the proposed upheaval the way to go? Is it worth ditching parts of the system - like Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) - that have worked extremely well? Would a centralised system stifle innovation and diversity? Would it react to local needs? Would the relationship with local communities, businesses and employers deteriorate?

Is it a good idea, for example, that all design courses or all business degrees be standardised? Imagine if all rugby coaches had a shared curriculum and taught from the same book. Even in a sporting set-up as centralised as New Zealand Rugby, the unions and the franchises have their identities and character.

The polytechnics argue, with Wairarapa-based Taratahi and South Otago's Telford a stark instance, that they have been starved of resources. For many years, they have had to do more for less as costs rose and government income was frozen. No wonder some failed, especially at a time when jobs were plentiful, reducing the incentive to train. With more money in the system - and no doubt this will have to happen under extensive change - most of the polytechnic casualties could have survived, and some even thrived.

Reviews seek the goal of consistency, even when that clashes with the messiness of the real world. That seems to be an underlying intention. Make everything similar. Bring all vocational education under one umbrella.

An issue is, however, that the apparent consistently begins to disintegrate on closer examination. Polytechnics, as an illustration, also include courses and degrees that are part academic, while many university qualifications, including medicine, are part vocational. Should not the universities, too, therefore come under the same organisation? Should all tertiary education be under centralised control for, largely, the very same reasons?

Other questions abound. What will be the role of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, or for that matter the Tertiary Education Commission itself? Are they now redundant? Drill deeper and the devil lurks in the detail.

Some tertiary competition is wasteful and harmful, and that has and should be ameliorated. But the proposed model will castrate the vigour of institutions and the likes of their eagerness to seek out fee-paying international students.

Both SIT and Otago attract large numbers of students from outside their regions and have formed strong and vital links through their communities. That is an essential part of their success. Can one imagine an Otago vocational training branch office hosting and supporting, for example, the wildlife hospital and co-operating so effectively with the enthusiastic community backing? Would a Southland branch have such close industry support through its 42 advisory committees.

These cornerstones of the southern provinces are in grave danger. Whatever finally emerges from government consultation must not destroy their effectiveness.

It behooves anyone from Dunedin and beyond with any interest to go to the public consultation meeting from 5pm on Tuesday at the Polytechnic's the Hub. We must care about the future of these standout institutions - for their sake, for education in the South and for the health of Otago and Southland.


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