Are we ready for the creation of the largest provider of education in New Zealand?
The Education Amendment Bill, aimed at creating a cohesive vocational education and training system, has progressed past its select committee stage and is about to be introduced to the House. It is expected to be enacted, largely unchanged from the original Bill, with the support of the minor governing political parties. The proposed legislation was developed quickly from the Government’s Review of Vocational Education – hopefully for a generation of applied education learners, not too quickly. Despite the well reported struggles of some polytechnic training institutes and other applied education providers, is the suggested strategy to unify vocational education, and create the largest provider of education in New Zealand really in the best interest of our students?
The lay of the land in vocational training
The last 20 years have seen vocational education reinvent itself. Traditionally, this path was predominantly associated with practical trades, such as building, engineering, and hairdressing. However, in recent years Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) have expanded their offerings far outside of these trades. Students are now able to take courses from accounting to zoology within the vocational training system, with these courses being offered from the entry level certificates, to the higher levels of masters and post graduate diploma programmes. And despite potential academic snobbery from some in the higher education sector, graduates of these programmes generally bring practical industry knowledge and contribute vital expertise to the workforce.
However, with this sector diversification and inter provider competition has come a wave of new institutions, typically outside of the established ITP community. This has led to something of a saturation of providers. While this isn’t the sole reason for some providers struggling, it’s undoubted that many ITPs are seeing enrolments - and revenue – drop, and by significant amounts in some cases.
Supporting a unified education system
There are currently 16 ITPs across New Zealand. Under the Education Amendment Bill, these colleges will become subsidiaries of a single national Institute of Skills & Technology, and then, as at 31 December 2022, will become branches of this same entity. The Education Minister’s proposal did gain a lot of support as it is seen by some as a simple way to streamline an oversaturated vocational education sector. It has also been seen by some of the poorer performing providers as a solution to the challenges they face.
However, is tarring all ITPs nationwide with the same brush the best approach? In my capacity as Deputy Chair of the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) Council, I see the benefits in developing a unified vocational education system. However, I think there are more effective means of tackling underperforming ITPs while still supporting institutions with regional or community significance.
Maintaining ‘business as usual’ - but is this the right way forward?
SIT offers over 200 programmes across six South Island campuses and one in Auckland and has operated in surplus annually since 1990. Clearly, SIT is not representative of the type of ineffective ITP management the Education Amendment Bill aims to stamp out. So why is the Bill targeting all regions and communities nationwide equally? Whilst this is a valid observation and question, the consultation period of the Bill has passed, and those governing and managing in the ITP sector will need to embrace the legislated changes and deliver for their communities, and New Zealand.
ITPs do owe it to their communities to provide the best courses possible, with an understanding of what the region needs and demands for its workforce. Without this local insight, colleges simply cannot function as effectively. A single national Institute of Skills & Technology will need to ensure that this level of regional requirements is taken into account when deciding what is being offered by the ITPs, and also what additional support may be required by a particular ITP.
We are aware of the understandable concern that during the 33-month transition period, and in the future amalgamated state, the centralised training system model could be slow to adapt to local community needs, and be overly bureaucratic and risk averse. Further, many think a national ITP will become disconnected from localised small and medium sized enterprises which support vital course and training functions. SIT’s successes, as well as the significance of other colleges to their home regions, have led to these concerns being expressed during the Bill consultation phase.
The SIT Council definitely heeded the Education Minister’s request for all ITPs to remain ‘business as usual’ while the Bill was under consultation. Now that the consultation period has finished and the officials have reported back on the consultation, the ‘business as usual’ can be expected to be modified to ensure the future sustainability and quality maintenance of New Zealand’s vocational education and training system.
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