Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 21/02/2019

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Vocational surgery required

Our vocational educational system is on life support— haemorrhaging badly in desperate need of surgery. Four of New Zealand’s sixteen Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) are effectively under government receivership, being propped up by around $100 million last year alone. Many others are reportedly also on the brink.

“It’s time to reset the whole system and fundamentally rethink the way we view vocational education and training, and how it’s delivered,” said Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins. “What we are proposing is ambitious, but it needs to be. We cannot continue to tweak the system knowing that the model is fundamentally broken.”

Something must be done, but the Government is going too far. Their solution: centralise everything. Combine all ITPs and Industry Training Organisations (ITOs) into one gigantic vocational system. The sector has a mere six weeks to provide feedback on the proposal, hardly fair on those involved.

“We cannot continue to tweak the system knowing that the model is fundamentally broken.”

Now very few people would argue against the need for change, but rather than this extreme solution, perhaps we could look at those who are thriving in the current system and create a framework to promote more of that. There are some shining lights like Otago Polytechnic and Southern Institute of Technology: “well-governed, well-managed, and living sustainably within their means while still delivering high-quality and relevant education,” as one report put it. When consulted they were promised that well-performing institutions wouldn’t be impacted, but this seems rather optimistic given the severity of the changes.

The Tertiary Educational Commission’s comprehensive review acknowledged the benefits of a simplified and coherent system, but also the risks, namely the “creation of a giant unwieldy monopoly with no real competition and poor responsiveness to the demand-side; and the risk of catastrophic high-stakes system failure if the entity did not deliver quality.” They list South Australia’s experience as a “cautionary tale,” whereby their centralised system lost quality assurance accreditation leaving the state temporarily without courses in “plumbing, construction, commercial cooking, hairdressing and aged care.”

Very few people would argue against the need for change, but rather than this extreme solution, perhaps we could look at those who are thriving in the current system and create a framework to promote more of that.

Instead, the Commission recommended a solution called: Tu Kahikatea, the Strength of a Network. This puts in place a centralised entity that helps coordinate and support the ITPs as a network, but also preserves the unique contributions each ITP can make. It is more than a tweak, but less than the risky, all-the-eggs-in-one-basket approach the Government is recommending.

The Minister considered this idea, however, “convoluted with a number of moving parts, and many previously untried arrangements.” Where the Minister sees convolution, I see local variations and responses to local needs. And while there are some untried aspects of Tu Kahikatea, at least if they fail, the whole system won’t go down with them.

It is likely that the Government’s solution “will provide stability and certainty into the future,” but it is unlikely to be dynamic and responsive to the changes in the economy and nuances of local industries and regions. Sometimes serious surgery is required, but it helps if the surgeon isn’t slashing at areas that are healthy. Some clinical precision with our vocational institutes will go a long way.

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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