Govt looking in the wrong direction

Education Minister Chris Hipkins addresses Otago Polytechnic staff during meetings in the city earlier this month. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Education Minister Chris Hipkins addresses Otago Polytechnic staff during meetings in the city earlier this month. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Carnegie Scholar Vaneeta D’Andrea, an internationally respected expert in tertiary teaching models, writes an open letter to  Minister of Education Chris Hipkins in regard to his proposals to reshape vocational education in New Zealand.

Dear Minister,

Re: Reform of Vocational Education

On my arrival in Dunedin last week, for a month-long consultation with Otago Polytechnic (OP) to advise on the application of the key points in my co-authored book, Improving Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: a whole institution approach, I was invited to attend the public consultation on March 5.

I listened to your presentation on the proposed reform of vocational education and the questions following it. My first observation was that it was not clear to me what problems were being solved by the proposed reforms.

The system-wide changes being proposed do not address educational issues. They address financial issues. Solving ongoing financial mismanagement within the vocational sector is a different issue from educational reform and can be solved without massive structural upheaval.

It is my view that the unintended consequences of a centralised model would most likely outweigh the ''benefits'' desired.

It seems to me that any proposed changes are best served by a model that includes both educational quality monitoring and fiscal monitoring at the national level within a devolved institutional model.

A successful model of a central system with devolved institutional structures is the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS), which incorporates 16 institutions with 49 campuses.

Wisconsin is a good comparison since it has roughly the same number of institutions in the vocational sector and, with only 1million more residents, has a similar population base as New Zealand. The vocational educational model of supporting branch campuses has been a feature of the Wisconsin tertiary system for decades and it is recognised as a model of excellence both nationally in the United States and internationally.

One key organisational feature is the focus on institutional structures and identities that drive the educational experience on offer. This model encourages and maintains recognised institutional brands.

My research on branding in tertiary education suggests this is an important factor in maintaining the reputation of an educational institution and, in turn, this is important to recruiting students and industry partners. The time and effort to establish a new regional brand while eliminating known institutional brands will have immediate financial implications for all parts of the sector.

The Wisconsin system contains a type of regional governance model, the regions are known as districts: ''WTCS operates under a shared governance model, with responsibility for operations and oversight shared by the WTCS Board (System Board) and 16 District Boards.''

It is my view from my experience in the United Kingdom, where I was seconded to the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Higher Education Quality Council, that government policy is most successful when it is evidence-based.

The current vocational education proposal would benefit from this approach to policy making. Nearly all the questions asked at the consultation are addressed in the Wisconsin model and there are other studies and resources available to inform the New Zealand model. This does not mean there is a one-size-fits-all approach but there are many other viable options that have been tried and tested that can be used to inspire and answer the questions asked in the consultation.

Otago Polytechnic's ''refine the reform'' plan to address the changes proposed by the Government's ''Reform of Vocational Education'' incorporates many of the characteristics of the Wisconsin model and includes others that have been locally tested in the New Zealand regional context and recognised by the international Baldridge award for performance excellence.

The Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) proposed by both the Government and Otago Polytechnic add an important element of cascading best practice within whatever system is agreed and contribute to a non-competitive model between institutions. Many of Otago Polytechnic's innovations, such as Capable New Zealand and EduBits, would provide an obvious lead for the sector in educational and professional development.

The issues concerning international recruitment need to be mapped against the experiences of other successful models as well.

In the UK, for example, there is what is called a ''London effect'' that many universities in London and outside of London emphasise for the recruitment of students. There are the London institutions that have London in their name: University College London, University of the Arts London and then there are institutions from other parts of the country that have London branch campuses.

This is even true for study abroad programmes from international educational institutions. When disbursed throughout the country, the needs of international students cannot be easily met. In metropolitan cities these can be met with local resources providing cultural, social and even dietary needs.

The model best suited for the New Zealand context would be to have a central international campus in Auckland that can benefit from the international resources there.

Of course, it is equally important to not create international student ghettos. One way to avoid this is by having a mix of local domestic students along with those attending from outside the country and even the region. The employment market and links with employers in this context will need to be clarified and more broadly based. In any case, there are studies that address these issues that could inform the decisions regarding international provision in this context.

In summary, it seems there are several outstanding questions prompted by this proposal.

One is the fact that what is being developed is primarily focused on business, industries and employers and is economically driven.

Some questions related to this are: should there be a premium on the businesses that directly benefit from a specially trained workforce? Is the development of the model best served by being economically driven? Where are the educational-drivers in this model? And if the most significant problem being solved is financially failing institutions, are the changes being proposed fit for purpose?

It seems to me that the radical change (which is similar to a failed model of 40 years ago) is far more than is needed for the outcomes desired.

The time and energy needed to enact these changes seems misplaced when it could be applied to disseminating best practice and encouraging collaborative communities of practice.

Not only are the educational-drivers missing from the proposed model but so, too, are many of the underlying educational values that directly support the functioning of all educational institutions in a democratic society.

My current research has been to identify these values and determine how best to implement them both through the broad policy programmes guiding educational opportunities and also through the day-to-day actions taken by staff and students in educational institutions.

After interviewing more than 100 staff at institutions in 20 countries I have identified eight values that are central to the work of tertiary education. These are: academic freedom, shared governance, integrity, knowledge transmission, knowledge creation, critical thinking, transformative processes, and equity of opportunity.

Mapping these values to the proposed new model would go a long way to ensuring its long-term functionality for New Zealand.

I hope you find these comments helpful and thought-provoking.

-Vaneeta D'Andrea is a Carnegie Scholar and professor emerita, sociology of education, at the University of the Arts London.


Come 2021 , all of these reforms will be undone by the next government.






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