Treasured Telford must be saved

Part of the Telford campus near Balclutha. Photo: ODT
Part of the Telford campus near Balclutha. Photo: ODT
It is decision time for the future of a little gem in South Otago that is in crisis. Proudly independent Telford was teaching farm skills since 1964 before being taken over by Lincoln University in 2010.

After years of loses, and because few Telford students went on to Lincoln and degree courses,  it became a division of Masterton-based Taratahi Institute of Agriculture in 2017.

But Taratahi has been placed in liquidation, and Telford academic and administrative staff have been suspended without pay.  Taratahi’s future looks most uncertain, and it has been bringing down Telford with it.

There is some hope, however.  The successful Invercargill-based Southern Institute of Technology has expressed interest and talks have been held.  An important meeting  this week included the Clutha District Council, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority, the Tertiary Education Union and — crucially — the Tertiary Education Commission as the funding body. Hopefully, the SIT proposal can be finalised and approved.

Lincoln and Taratahi have been accused of "pillaging" Telford.  This includes Lincoln  using $10 million from Telford’s reserves for deferred maintenance and for other Telford purposes.  And desperate Taratahi has been selling assets including staff accommodation in Balclutha and even two vans as it endeavoured unsuccessfully to stave off liquidation in the face of $23 million in debt.

Despite criticism of both Lincoln and Taratahi, much of it justified, the underlying cause of the woes is the "broken" funding model, a fact accepted in principle by Education Minister Chris Hipkins.   State support for certificate level courses for a small organisation requiring intensive staffing is grossly  inadequate.

To safely and effectively teach practical farming skills with tractors, chainsaws and the like requires not only expensive equipment but, most significantly, small intensive group work.  This cannot be funded on the same level as large classes in lecture rooms.

Telford students and education funding  also needs to  bear the cost of being a residential training institute, part of Telford’s special character and a basic reason for its success and high pass rates.   Taratahi had a live-in campus in the Wairarapa and a live-in dairy farm  near Taupo.  But most training is non-residential.  Taratahi had several   non-residential campuses, including in Southland.

Telford’s wrap-around intensive 37-week certificate course has been a key to its success.  Its enrolments — more than half come from the North Island — have held up well because of its reputation and its stable, dedicated and capable staff.

Pre-enrolments before Christmas at Telford were about 70. No doubt they suffered because of the uncertainty.  The present situation will aggravate this year’s prospects.The first challenge will be to restart Telford urgently and get through 2019.   An emergency package for and with  SIT must be put in place straight away for that purpose, assuming it is impossible to cement longer-term funding changes immediately. Then, that "broken" model must be repaired.

How ironic, too, that agricultural training centres — such a positive part of what is still this country’s fundamental source of prosperity — are going to the wall at a time the Government is beginning to spend billions of dollars on free fees for tertiary students.

Difficulties are accentuated  because of the buoyant employment market.  Why would those interested in an agriculture career go into training when they can go straight into work?  

There are, though, good reasons for a broad grounding, not just in  practical skills but in the likes of finance, health and safety, science, statistics, IT and everything else that is part of today’s farm businesses.

Those in the know are in particular praise of the efforts of Clutha Mayor Bryan Cadogan and New Zealand First list MP Mark Patterson, from Lawrence.  The mayor, from talk of the first fears about Telford, has been an energetic and determined advocate.

His aim has been to save Telford.  That goal must be realised.

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