Te Pūkenga dismantling

Unlike some of the new government’s other moves, there may be few tears shed over the dismantling of the mega merger of our 16 polytechnics and nine industry training organisations.

As we have said previously, the merger which formed Te Pūkenga was ill thought out from the start and there was a determination by former education minister Chris Hipkins to bulldoze it through despite widespread reservations about its value.

The views of respected leaders in the sector, such as former Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker and his Southern Institute of Technology counterpart, Penny Simmonds, were ignored.

While nobody would deny there were parts of the sector which were not working well and needed attention, the approach taken seemed to be more throwing the baby out with the bathwater than making the most of the expertise of those establishments which were working well and seeing where it could be applied elsewhere.

The one dubious achievement of the multi-millions of dollars spent on the project is uncertainty in the sector. Many good staff will have left and others will be stressed out after three years of restructuring and the fear of more to come.

Now Ms Simmonds has her feet under the desk as the new Minister for Tertiary Education and Skills she has said the replacement model will involve between eight and 10 individual institutions.

There will be consultation on which ones these should be, but she is expecting the new model to be in place by the beginning of 2025.

How many more millions might be spent on this new model has not been spelled out and the lack of detail around how the disestablishment process will work and the new one set up will be adding to the unease of those within the system.

Ms Simmonds, in a letter of expectation to Te Pūkenga, has said she wants the organisation to support as much regional decision-making as possible and has asked it to report back by December 15 on how this can be best achieved.

It has been reassuring to hear Mr Ker considers the change, insofar as it has been outlined, is heading in the right direction.

It seems likely SIT and Otago Polytechnic would be among the institutions which would become autonomous again.

Mr Ker sees value in centralised learner support, as he says individual institutions could not afford to do it. Also, there could be scope for shared services around curriculum development.

What is not clear is whether any new model will involve a funding arrangement which ensures the polytechnics can remain viable and keep expertise during the inevitable downturns which occur with vocational training.

In times of high employment it is hard to attract students to polytechnics, but when the economic circumstances change and student numbers boom, the organisations must be ready to cope with that.

Mr Ker makes the point that the one-size-fits-all funding model made it difficult for polytechnics to deliver courses needed by local industry in remote areas where numbers are not large enough to make that viable. If the system had applied a funding loading in such situations it could have reduced the financial problems of some providers.

Ms Simmonds’ challenge will be finding how best to strike the right balance between decentralisation, with its benefits of more local say and involvement, and co-operation, co-ordination, collaboration and some centralisation. Whether there will be enough money in the kitty to make any changes workable and sustainable remains to be seen.

Given her experience, there will be high expectations of Ms Simmonds from within the sector.

We hope she will prove to be a better listener than Mr Hipkins was.

It would be unfortunate if concerns about using consultants made her reluctant to seek help from her old colleague Mr Ker, who has indicated he would be happy to provide advice if asked.