'Market' approach to tertiary education has failed repeatedly

Telford, just south of Balclutha, has been a division of Taratahi Agriculture Institute. The...
Telford, just south of Balclutha, has been a division of Taratahi Agriculture Institute. The liquidation of Taratahi has imperilled the future of Telford. PHOTO: RICHARD DAVISON.
New Zealand needs to start looking at an entirely new set of rules for tertiary education, writes Nanette Cormack, the deputy secretary of the Tertiary Education Union.

Quality  teaching and training is essential to the future of New Zealand. This is as true for our future nurses and teachers as it is for the farmers we depend on to provide food, income and employment opportunities to communities across the country.

However, the way we run our public tertiary education system at present is failing students and staff.

One needs look no further than the recent liquidation of Taratahi, one of the country's largest providers of agricultural education, as proof of this. Since the liquidation was announced just before Christmas, close to 2500 students have been in limbo about their futures.

Some of these people will be partway through a qualification, and some would have enrolled to begin their learning journey this year. Yet all may now have to postpone their education, or look for something else entirely.

In other words, because of the extreme financial challenges facing Taratahi and the uncertainty over the future of its tertiary-level provision, one of our most crucial sectors could be deprived of some fantastic new talent.

For staff, the situation is equally worrying. The week before last they were told they would have to go without pay while plans were worked through to decide the institution's future. The impact this will be having on individuals, their families and local communities is hard to imagine.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has called on the Minister to step in immediately to support those affected and their families. This is one of the issues we'll be talking to him about when we meet with him in Wellington this week.

Students and staff are the ones carrying with them the consequences of what's happening at Taratahi. Right now, many of them will be having some really difficult conversations with their families and loved ones about what the future holds.

Yet the problems have not been caused by these people. Far from it. The problems that have brought Taratahi to its knees can be largely traced back to poor management decisions, and a broken tertiary education funding system that does little to support the complex training needs of sectors like agriculture.

Despite this, and through years of policy and management failures, some truly incredible, passionate and talented staff have stayed committed to their jobs and done everything they can to support students on their learning journey.

Urgent work is going on behind the scenes to try to ensure that the education provision Taratahi was responsible for, as well as school provision and distance courses, can continue.

The TEU is part of this and even though it is a complex process involving various groups, it needs to conclude with the minister acting to bring the institution back into public and community ownership, and ensuring such a transfer is at no cost to the new providers.

His priority in doing this must be to ensure students, staff and the spaces needed to teach are retained - not only for the people affected, but for benefit of all of us, now and in the future.

Beyond Taratahi, we clearly need to start looking at an entirely new set of rules for tertiary education in New Zealand. The "market'' approaches of the past have been proven repeatedly to be abysmal failures.

Education is a crucial part of all our lives - not only for us as individuals, but for all of us as a society. Whether it is the builders who build our homes, the doctors or nurses who care for us, the teachers who teach our children, or the people who cut our hair or fix our cars, or those who are dedicated to ensuring we have clean running water and reliable power.

Put simply, we interact with the tertiary education sector every day of our lives. So we need a system that recognises that, and funds it accordingly.

The same goes for ensuring funding supports the enormous generation of knowledge that takes place right across the sector - knowledge that informs everything from government policy to community projects. In a matter of weeks, Education Minister Chris Hipkins will publish his recommendations for reform of the vocational education and training sector. It's impossible to imagine he will not be thinking about Taratahi when he comes to decide what changes to make.

One of the clearest lessons from this recent experience is that reform is urgent if we are to offer a truly stable, fully funded and quality tertiary education sector to students of the future, wherever they live and whatever their background. This is a job for all us.

Soon the TEU will publish its own recommendations for reform, following which we will be working with the minister, MPs, students, institutional leaders and local communities to put in place a system that works for us all.


I am not really sure how some very dubious decisions and subsequent SFO investigation would have played out differently using a non market model.