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Education Minister Chris Hipkins received a raucous welcome in Invercargill and his initial discussions with local leaders and staff appeared to have done little to erase concerns over the future of the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT).
Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt, speaking after Mr Hipkins held a meeting with staff and various stakeholders, said the education minister had offered "nothing specific" in terms of SIT's future.
"It was a lot of vague promises taking us into the promised land."
He believed that Mr Hipkins had a good understanding of how people in Southland felt about SIT and the proposed plans to merge all the country's 16 institutes of technology and polytechnics into one mega New Zealand Institute of Technology.
Mr Shadbolt pointed out that SIT had been integral in turning around the fortunes of Invercargill, which had for years been suffering from a major population decline at the turn of the century.
Earlier, on arriving in Invercargill, Mr Hipkins was welcomed with a haka and a protest against his merger plans, which envisage 16 institutions merged into the New Zealand Institute of Technology, have raised concerns across the region and in many cases been severely criticised.
But speaking before a visit to Waihopai Primary School, Mr Hipkins said that the welcome was expected.
"It was a passionate welcome. I was fully expecting that there would be. [There is] A lot of passion in the local community here that is understandable. SIT is a really important part of this local community in Southland. I want to acknowledge that and I also want to provide some reassurance that a government
He said that he wanted to convey that the Government sees SIT as an important part of the local community.
"We don't want to throw out the things that are working and there is a lot at SIT that is working well."
He also said there was "a big opportunity for SIT and the Invercargill community" and that he believed that SIT could make a national contribution.
He said that that while the country was moving to a national system it had to still be decided what would be run nationally and what would be run locally.
Mr Hipkins said there were "a lot of assumptions being made about where decision-making fits within the new model. And there's a lot of assumption that every decision is going to be made in some glass ivory tower head office somewhere.
"We still want to keep decision-making local but as part of a nationally integrated system."
Since the merger plans were announced there has been widespread opposition to the proposal
A "Stand Up for SIT" campaign, headed by former Southland Chamber of Commerce president Carla Forbes, has kicked off and orange banners have been placed around the city.
Adverts have appeared in the local newspapers - the Southland Times and the Southland Express - and many of the opinion columns in the newspapers have railed against the proposal.
SIT, which was the first to initiate the free fees programme, is seen by business leaders as well as the Invercargill City Council as one of the key elements in turning the economic fortunes of the region as well as boosting economic growth.
Speaking last week after a presentation to local business people in Invercargill, Dunedin entrepreneur Ian Taylor said the Government’s idea was flawed.
"This isn’t just about us. It isn’t about us not wanting to help, but any idea that shifting control to a bureaucracy in Wellington will improve things has just been proven wrong time and time again.
"The Otago Polytechnic, here in Southland (the Southern Institute of Technology), they’re models that should be replicated, not models that should be taken over and handed over to somebody in Wellington to run. I just think its ludicrous."
Mr Hipkins was expected later today to face the public at an open meeting at SIT.