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Recently I had the privilege of hosting an open session of the Academic Board at Otago Polytechnic where our professoriate led a discussion on the Government's proposed reforms of vocational education.
There was some robust debate about what opportunities for learners there might be as a result of these reforms. There was also some real anxiety about what might be placed at risk if these reforms aren't done with a real insight into what makes for and supports excellent vocational education.
It's difficult to argue against the need for radical changes in the publicly owned vocational education sector.
It is presently fragmented, many ITPs are not financially sustainable, and the frantic quest for financial viability has, in my view, resulted in governance and management in many institutions taking their eye off their core business of providing excellent educational opportunities to the learners and communities they serve.
From my perspective, the most exciting aspect of Education Minister Chris Hipkins' proposals is the integration of the provision of off-job and on-job vocational education.
Potentially, if implemented well, this could bring together the best of vocational education in the ITP and ITO sector and build on it further.
The arguments for some level of centralisation are strong too, even though it may take several years for the benefits to flow through. The proposal to rethink the funding mechanism for vocational education is essential and a no-brainer.
So why am I anxious about all this?
The reform discussion document (p13) states:
"New Zealand needs a robust regional network of vocational education provision, which serves both national and regional interests in balance with each other.''
I couldn't agree more, but to achieve this requires local providers to have the discretion to be able to respond quickly and flexibly. This requires a level of local decision-making and budgetary control. This is essential to get the balance the reform document seeks.
Fundamentally, the model currently proposed in the reform documents is, in my view, oversimplistic.
The reform proposals, as they are written, do not demonstrate a clear understanding of what good vocational education is and what it might become in the future.
An overcentralised model will stifle our responsiveness to our regional stakeholders rather than improve it. We will lose the flexibility to develop the innovative partnerships that make good vocational education an enabler for New Zealand's future economic development.
Vocational education is not (policy-makers please note!) just the transmission of today's skills and knowledge.
It comes back to the kind of discussion that we were having at our Academic Board the other day.
What makes for excellent vocational education provision?
There is certainly no-one "best practice'' model. Of course, overarching standards are important but, in the end, it's about effective partnerships - not just with learners, but with local employers and local communities.
Excellent vocational education, on- or off-job, is built on mutual trust, responsiveness to the needs of local stakeholders and a shared passion for student success not just in gaining a qualification but how they and their chosen discipline might prosper in the future.
Otago Polytechnic must be doing some things right: 20 National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards; we clearly are a destination of choice for Maori, given 16% of our domestic enrolments are Maori, twice the regional demographic (currently 8%).
Done well, these reforms could give us the opportunity to do more. Done poorly, they could undermine decades of purposively built expertise and practice.
At present, our staff need and get the full support and encouragement of the polytechnic to work with local schools on innovative outdoor education programmes, engage with the community in developing the rural healthcare workforce of the future, develop ways to engage and attract young people into the trades that the region so badly needs. I could go on. There are so many examples of exciting initiatives within this organisation.
Most importantly, from a Te Tiriti perspective, it's about meeting our obligations and being accountable to our rununga.
The highly centralised model outlined in the current reform proposal where, for instance, Regional Leadership Groups only have an "advisory'' role runs a real risk of curtailing the innovation and regional responsiveness that is so necessary to make these reforms work.
Effective centralised vocational education systems internationally (and the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland is just one example of many) are ones which do provide for regional discretion and leadership where there is a proven track record of success. The system is effective in holding subsidiary providers to account for performance, but at the same time allows them to experiment and innovate with local partners.
One of our professors, Jane Venis, an Ako Aotearoa National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award winner in 2012 made the point:
"Academic freedom is essential in maintaining the joy and professionalism of educating at tertiary level. Academic freedom allows educators to be creative, innovative and agile to the immediate needs of their communities and learners.''
If these reforms allow some level of earned autonomy for high-performing institutions within a national system, we can continue to actively support the academic freedom of our staff and promulgate good practice locally.
An enabling national framework then allows us to share and promote our good practice nationally and encourages - even requires - us to learn from good practice elsewhere. We will have the opportunity to foster the technical entrepreneurship we need for the future, not just meet today's needs for a skilled labour force.
If Government goes for an over-centralised model it will, inevitably, result in a level of bureaucratic "permission seeking''. This will curtail the ability of local providers to support the joy, innovation and commitment that Jane talks about and will inevitably constrain existing good practice instead of supporting its growth.
It seems to me the choice is a simple one.
Let's recognise that vocational education is not just pre-degree. Yes, alongside this, we do need to rethink the assigned levels of trades qualifications on any new framework.
And, not least, when we do talk about national standards, let's think about the future of the changing economy in New Zealand and talk about capabilities rather than just currently defined competencies.
- Peter Coolbear is an independent consultant in tertiary education and a council member of Otago Polytechnic. Previously, he was foundation national director for Ako Aotearoa, the National Centre for Tertiary Teaching Excellence.