The Government has announced another bold step in education reform. Laura Walters examines the proposed changes to the vocational education sector, and why it may need to work harder to get the opposition onside.

Comment/analysis: The Government plans to create a single, centralised New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology to replace the 16 autonomous institutes of technology and polytechnics.

The major proposed overhaul comes at a time when the vocational education sector is failing, with four of the polytechnics – autonomous Crown entities – being bailed out last year at a cost of $100m.

Similar to the Tomorrow’s Schools review, at its core the proposal removes competition from the education sector.

In both cases, the Government concluded the systems were broken and needed fundamental changes, moving towards a more centralised system and doing away with the autonomy of separate institutions.

The concern is that Education Minister Chris Hipkins may be pushing his ideological education agenda too far with these changes, with a degree of support from the other side of the aisle needed for reform to be enduring.

A political football at risk of another kick

Education is often used as a political football, and if a future National-led government rolls back the system, a sector which has faced significant upheaval in recent years is unlikely to get any reprieve.

National is yet to make a decision on whether it would stick with the Government’s proposed centralisation of the vocational education industry, but things aren’t looking great in terms of cross-party support.

The party says the six-week consultation period is insufficient, while the lack of detail around job losses, campus closures and funding is not good enough.

But Hipkins believes the status quo is no longer delivering, and with no desire to shovel money into a failing model the Government has come up with a solution.

“The National Party needs to say what their alternative is,” Hipkins said in response to questions about the Opposition’s criticism of the far-reaching changes.

“This is a system that’s cost us $100m in the last year alone, just to keep it afloat. What’s the alternative?”

A unified system

On Wednesday, Hipkins said the coalition’s proposed fix to the currently unsustainable and financially unviable sector was to establish a “unified, coordinated, national system of vocational education and training”.

The plans also include redefined roles for education providers and industry bodies – known as industry training organisations (ITOs) – to extend the leadership role of industry and employers, and a unified vocational education funding system across both polytechs and ITOs.

In the lead-up to the announcement, some in the polytech sector expressed concern about wholesale centralisation, saying it would remove competition from the sector and the unique nature of qualifications, while disadvantaging the few polytechs still performing well.

In a 2018 Cabinet committee paper, Hipkins himself said highly centralised systems faced issues relating to a lack of flexibility.

The minister also considered consolidating the polytechnics into a few larger entities, rather than a single one.

Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) chief executive Warwick Quinn warned the Government not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

“This would have avoided a single high-stakes transition, but would have opened up more contentiousness and uncertainty; left more scope for internal rivalries and external competitive positioning; and largely sidelined the potential system role of The Open Polytechnic,” Hipkins said in his final proposal to Cabinet.

Following the announcement, most employers, on-the-job trainers, and the vocational education providers said they appreciated the need to make changes. The business community saw it as an opportunity for educators and employers to work more closely together.

However, Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO) chief executive Warwick Quinn warned the Government not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

The changes needed to protect what was working well, and retaining the positive aspects of on-the-job training and apprenticeships, especially in high-needs areas, such as building and construction, he said.

The Government may be hoping its vocational education reforms can help to fix a skills shortage in the construction sector. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Hipkins said the world of work and learners’ needs were changing and the education system needed to keep up.

“At a time when we’re facing critical skill shortages, too many of our polytechnics and institutes of technology are going broke…and our system isn’t geared up for the future economy, where retraining and upskilling will be a regular feature of everyone’s working life.”

The sector as a whole lost $53 million in 2017. Four ITPs together received $100m in Crown bailouts last year, and are currently in statutory management.

Other polytechnics weren’t far off heading in the same direction, and the Government doesn’t want to continue shovelling money at a system that clearly wasn’t working.

“Instead of our institutes of technology retrenching, cutting programmes, and closing campuses, we need them to expand their course delivery in more locations around the country.”

The proposal includes a focus on the regions – something National and industry players noted as a concern. This regional push is part of an effort to upskill workers to help deliver on the coalition’s flagship policies, including Shane Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund and One Billion Trees programme.

The Government will also hope its vocational education overhaul fills skills gaps in the primary industries, as well as in the construction sector to help deliver on its ambitious housing programme.

Hipkins said the proposed national institute would have regional leadership groups, which would identify the needs of the local economy and become a link between local government, employers, iwi and communities.

These groups would be the Government’s attempt to keep the system responsive and relevant to the needs of employers in specific regions.

Bold but not shocking

As Hipkins pointed out in a press conference following the announcement, the changes should not come as a shock.

He was clear in his intentions as opposition education spokesman, and has stayed largely true to his educational ideology in Government.

Widespread education reforms in the vocational education sector, Tomorrow’s Schools, NCEA, learning support and early childhood education are exactly what Kiwis would expect from a Labour government.

The fact the coalition is sticking closely to this education agenda, with seemingly few compromises, speaks to Hipkins’ ability to gain cross-party consensus with New Zealand First and the Green Party, as well as his standing in government.

“What we are proposing is ambitious, but it needs to be,” Hipkins said.

“We cannot continue to tweak the system knowing that the model is fundamentally broken, and isn’t delivering our workforce the skills that they need to thrive.”

National’s Shane Reti says his party is willing to work with the Government on education reform, but has questioned the limited time to respond to its polytechnic plans. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Public consultation is open until March 27, giving stakeholders just six weeks, while the changes could come in as early as 2020.

Hipkins said there was a degree of urgency given the state of the sector, but Reti argued six weeks was not enough time and would not help to depoliticise education.

“If you want our collaboration and support, give us a reasonable time to scrutinise and consult.”

Reti said National was “more than willing” to work with the Government on education reform if given a reasonable timeframe.

“I encourage Mr Hipkins to put his ideology aside and extend the consultation period so the people who understand their own industries and communities can be involved in the process.”

Treasury also has reservations about the unfinished nature of the plan and the timeframe, saying: “We are concerned that Cabinet is being asked to agree to a significant in-principle decision without a clear indication of the likely overall financial implications of the changes proposed, including short-term transition costs, and enduring funding changes.”

Hipkins said financial issues in the sector would continue if the cycle was allowed to continue, and said the next phase of consultation would not result in a finalised idea of the new funding system, but it would be part of the discussion with stakeholders.

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