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The upcoming reform of vocational education (ROVE) announced by Education Minister Chris Hipkins last week aims to respond to issues facing the tertiary vocational education sector, but will it actually result in improvement?
Some of the changes seem to risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater by undermining the things that are actually working well.
For example, Hipkins is proposing to replace Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) with the newly acronymed Industry Skill Bodies (ISBs), which will apparently set standards for - but not deliver any - training.
He is also proposing to merge all Institutions of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) into a single, centralised organisation, albeit while divvying up responsibility for administering various centralised functions of the single entity across the regional sites.
Currently 11 ITOs deliver training to more than 46,000 apprentices and 100,000 industry trainees around the country. Much of their training is delivered in the workplace at relatively low capital cost.
Under ROVE's proposed changes, these courses would all be delivered by the newly centralised, single entity national institute (acronym pending), although the standards for those courses would be set by ISBs.
Like many of the coalition Government's initiatives, these and other sector changes are to be rushed through the legislative process and their implementation fast-tracked so as to be in effect January 1, 2020.
Yet again it is clear the Government is intent on implementing an ideologically-based vision of centralisation, while allowing scant opportunity for consultation with those groups most affected - namely students, apprentices, industry and business groups, and current providers.
To be clear, no-one is saying the status quo should remain. Employers all agree that generally speaking, vocational education could be better geared towards industry needs. There is also a clear need for structural reform of the ITP and PTE sector to ensure greater consistency in educational quality and outcomes and reduce duplication.
But do these issues require the drastic restructuring Hipkins is proposing?
The minister should be confident that his solution will actually deliver an improved sector for our country - one that is able to respond to the changing needs of a rapidly evolving, modern economy.
Most notably, the changes do not seem to address the deeper issues of the sector-wide emphasis on volume-based enrolment and the promotion of courses based on profitability, rather than learner ambition or industry needs. These contribute to a tendency among ITPs to try to attract students to existing courses at the cost of lack of responsiveness in other areas.
It is hard to see how a centralised, single entity will be better placed to respond to regional or specialised demands than regionally-based providers. Otago Polytechnic and Southern Institute of Technology have proven their ability to listen to and work with industry sectors to deliver innovative, skills-based programmes that meet our region's needs. These two organisations, along with many Otago and Southland businesses, are rightly dismayed that the relationships and courses they have worked hard to develop will be placed in the hands of a national organisation.
Further, the delivery of all vocational training by one centralised institution will remove choice for both industry and students. It will jeopardise the business-focused programmes already being delivered by both ITOs and ITPs that are successful and make it harder for new courses to be developed to meet emerging needs.
It is of course possible to have the best of a centralised and a devolved world, for example by centralising some functions to create efficiency and minimise duplication, while preserving a high degree of autonomy for the individual institutions that will enable them to be responsive to and innovative for their regions.
This would do more than the current proposal to foster what New Zealand and New Zealanders really need: better funded, better administered, higher quality vocational courses delivered by a range of both ITP and industry-based providers. The minister should consider changes to his current proposal if he is serious about making this happen.
- Virginia Nicholls is the chief executive of the Otago Southland Employers' Association.