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On Wednesday, Education Minister Chris Hipkins revealed New Zealand’s 16 polytechnics and institutes of technology could be brought together as one entity if reform proposals for the sector revealed by the government are implemented.
Provisionally called the “New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology (NZIST)”, the new body would manage capital and operational budgets, staffing, student and learning management systems for all polytechnics.
It would also see courses provided on a national basis. Details of the cost of the proposed changes – and any possible job cuts or changes to course provisions – have not been released.
No institutions were named as facing possible closure, but Mr Hipkins suggested the future of satellite campuses might be considered.
Neither Mr Shadbolt or Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) chief executive Ms Penny Simmonds were impressed with the plans.
“It’s devastating for us as far as we are concerned. We will be making very strong objections,” said Mr Shadbolt.
He pointed to the fact that last August, education officials had indicated that institutions which were performing well, would not be impacted. He also pointed to the reserves accumulated by SIT.
In 2017 SIT had a $4 million surplus and it was the first to introduce the zero fees policy that has been viewed as a success as well as a big driver for Southland’s economic recovery.
“The intent seems to take all of that from us. It seems like we are being punished for being successful.”
Mr Shadbolt did not rule out protests and petitions in a bid to keep control of SIT.
“Watch out we are coming. It’s a very popular government that we are up against, but we’ve got to fight this.”
She said in consultations with education officials last year she had been informed that “well performing institutions would not be impacted”.
Ms Simmonds cautioned the proposals were “thin on detail”.
“What’s come out so far is very very light on detail, so it’s really hard to be able to quantify how it’s going to impact on us. And there are some positive things in it, so I don’t want to be completely negative, but it’s hard to see a centralised, large one institute of technology for the whole of New Zealand being good for the regions. Very hard. Very difficult to see that.
"Even with the best intent in the world, and I believe the minister has got the best intent that he would like the regions to be strengthened, but it’s very, very difficult to set up the structure of one mega-institute and be certain you are going to be looking after the regions.”
She said SIT’s distance learning programme which has about 1100 students would be gone under the current proposals. She estimated “upward of 30 staff immediately” would be affected by the proposals.
She said although she was concerned, there were some positives.
SIT’s council would meet on Monday to address the issue.
Ms Simmonds expressed concern over a central office which would not be as passionate about getting international students to Southland, who pay full fees.
She said staff, students and all other stakeholders in SIT, such as industry, needed to be involved in the six-week consultation process.
She welcomed the minister’s proposal around the commonality of qualifications, which would allow students to move between institutions. She also said that defining the roles of polytechnics and Institutes of Technology had also been clarified.
She said she believed the Minister’s intentions were good.
“But I am concerned that this could come back to haunt him in that it [the minister’s proposals] may not deliver on what his intent is.”
Local opposition politicians also came out kicking against the proposals with Invercargill National MP Sarah Dowie saying there should be no merger.
“SIT had a surplus and is regarded as one of the most successful ITP’s in the country. This surplus would be absorbed into deficits north. It’s not fair, hands off our money.”
She said the decision making about what’s best for Southland would be “stripped from us and given to Wellington bureaucrats”, leading to mass job losses.
Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker said the Government’s proposal was another “blow to regional and rural New Zealand”.
“Today’s [Wednesday’s] announcement of the Government’s proposed reform of vocational education through the centralisation of polytechs is another blow to the regions. It is the people in Clutha-Southland who know Clutha-Southland best, not a long list of public servants in Wellington.”
He said the announcement explained the government’s decision to only allow financing for one year for SIT to take over the running of the troubled Telford agricultural training campus in Balclutha.
Liz Craig, Labour’s List MP for Invercargill backs Hipkins’ proposals
“SIT makes a huge contribution here in the south, with today’s proposed changes meaning it could play an even greater role in vocational education and training as part of the new NZ Institute of Skills and Technology, as the Institute (NZIST) would be responsible for all training — not just on campus delivery, but in workplaces as well.”
She said proposed Regional Leadership Groups would also allow local councils, business, iwi and schools, to have a greater say in the mix of courses offered, by providing advice to the Institute and Tertiary Eduaction Commission’s workforce needs.
“Given the difficulties many Southland employers are having recruiting skilled staff, this [proposal] would ensure the new Institute was responsive to our region’s needs.”