We are all in this Bird Cage Together

 

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

1 March 2018

It seems appropriate given its location on the West Coast of New Zealand with its many coal mines, that the Tai Poutini Polytechnic should be something of a canary caged in the labyrinth of funding and operational constraints that is the ITP and Polytechnic world.

Yes, the institution has pretty serious issues that cannot be ignored or denied and these have been well publicised – the lowest rating possible from NZQA in terms of quality a declining student enrolment, the tyranny of distance (the West Coast is the equivalent of Auckland to Wellington in length) and a horrific financial position. The Government will “inject” a further $8.5m to sit alongside the almost $25m previously written off because the institution could not afford to pay back the debt owed to the Crown resulting from the under-delivery of its programmes.

But while the canary might be close to croaking rather than singing, none of this a justification for lumping all polytechnics into the same basket. The sector does face issues but they are not the issues of management, or of governance, or of the difficulties of location. The major element the sector shares with Tai Poutini is that of declining numbers which in large measure this must be managed through manipulating its portfolio and staffing – it is not easy.

The TEC got it wrong when it characterised the issues as being “outside the metropolitan centres” with the assertion that the impact of “increase in costs, and little or no money to invest in capital works or operational improvements” left those institutions with little or no money to act as a “buffer against a downturn in revenue”, (this in the TEC briefing to the incoming Minister). For different reasons this could equally be said of the metropolitan ITPs.

The warning signs are right across the sector but the way in which issues impact on different institutions is in itself different. Tai Poutini is not typical. To attempt to address the issues of the sector in a single way is about as useful as a doctor going into the crowded waiting room and announcing that “Today I am going to treat everyone for urinary infection!”

For instance, the issues faced in Auckland are different and are caused somewhat by the sector itself. There is decline in enrolments but this is exacerbated by competition from ITPs whose home regions are outside of the Auckland region. By my reckoning, nine of the 14 ITPs who are not domiciled in Auckland are operating campuses in Auckland targeting international students and offering a small number of other popular programmes. The TEC is complicit in this situation in as much as it has at some time and one way or another, approved this. The two ITPs that are of Auckland, rather than simply being in Auckland, are in essence competing with the sector. The net result is that the performance of both groups is distorted.

I welcome the Minister’s promised review especially if it addresses the measures required to return ITPs to their regional mission and to enact the intention of the TEAC reforms (early 1990s?) in spelling out the “distinctive contributions “of the tertiary sector.

An early view of the polytechnic sector resulted in the establishment of the “Hawkes Bay Community College” in 1974 which would provide technical and vocational programmes alongside a mixture of ACE-style programming aimed at the social and intellectual needs of the community. It became a one-off and morphed into EIT- the Eastern Institute of Technology. Returning ITPs to the commitment to community would allow Investment Plans and special funding to reflect the particular and demonstrated needs of communities.

TEAC was quite an influential set of reforms (indeed it established TEC). One of its themes was “distinctive contributions” – the idea that Universities, ITPs, Wānanga, ITOs and PTEs would each contribute to the needs of the community is ways that were different, a sound and worthy goal. But just as once the road to hell was paved with good intentions, in the future at some point the road to hell will be packed with sign-written SUVs of education providers, windows down, all playing ABBA’s “Money, Money Money!”. The Minister would be well advised to read those TEAC Reports (I think there were four of them).

In a recent release (22/02/2018) the Minister started that what was needed for a “better and fairer tertiary sector” was one in which differences between public, private and community providers are clearer and more consistent.” So what is the response to this wish? “To set up CTEP (Community Tertiary Education Providers that are not-for-profit community groups providing tertiary education for the public good. This change will allow the public to distinguish them from for-profit providers.”

Responses such as this do not bode well for a review that addresses the real issues and arrives at serious and appropriate responses to them!

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