After a ‘tough’ couple of years, consultation on the polytech mega-merger is finally wrapping up. And many staff aren’t happy 

A delayed public consultation on the organisational structure for Te Pūkenga wraps up today after three weeks, but most staff remain none the wiser about their place in the new entity. 

The delay was born out of revelations the mega-merged entity was looking at a full-year deficit of $110 million, something it says it has now managed to almost halve. 

A briefing from the Tertiary Education Commission to Education Minister Chris Hipkins in June, but only recently released, notes the new structure will result in savings – but exactly how this will be achieved has been redacted from the document.  

National’s tertiary education spokesperson Penny Simmonds said it was likely to involve redundancies.  

“I think Te Pūkenga’s told TEC, then TEC’s told the minister [they’re] going to make savings by staffing reductions, but nobody’s being honest with the staff and saying this is what’s going to occur.” 

Tertiary Education Union president Tina Smith said there were a lot of unhappy staff. “It’s been a really tough couple of years and this has been really unsettling.” 

She said the issue for many staff was the uncertainty, which had only been exacerbated by the lack of specific information within current consultation. “They thought they were getting a full operating structure but this isn’t an operating structure.

“Most staff won’t know if there’s any real change to their jobs until about late next year and that’s really unsettling.” 

She said all staff would be employed by Te Pūkenga by November under a “lift and shift plan” but that was about all they knew. 

“This document talks about the integration, talks about four regions so this is showing them that there’s going to be four major regions and it talks about the top 1 to 2.5 tier of management and what that management is.” 

Last month appearing before the select committee, acting chief executive Peter Winder confirmed the original plan had been to include every individual job within the proposed structure that would be consulted on but things had changed.  

“The transition pathway that was previously considered was too risky, so the document [that has] gone out is not the same one,” he told the committee.  

Te Pūkenga was born out of the Government’s Reform of Vocational Education programme which aimed to improve education outcomes for students by working more closely with the sectors they were training in. 

It was tasked with bringing together 16 Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics and up to nine Industry Training Organisations, the equivalent of about 200,000 students and 8000 staff, by January 2023. 

Smith said the reforms risked getting away from the Government’s original pitch.

“There’s a lot of business language used… they’re talking about business units and the plan they’ve come up with is if you’re running any business, but this is education. 

“We think there needs to be much more focus on education, there needs to be more alignment with the original vision… I have to be honest, I’m nervous at the moment.” 

Staff turnover is at higher-than-usual levels across the subsidiaries, something Te Pūkenga has accounted for in writing down its expected year-end deficit to $63m. 

The new forecast also accounted for one-off, not-yet-finalised land sales.

Penny Simmonds said it was bizarre. 

“It’s like selling the family silver, you only do that once. So it’s not a genuine long-term sustainable way of reducing your deficit. And secondly, it’s on the premise that high staff turnover is going to continue, and they can continue with their hiring freeze.  

“That’s hardly a sustainable financial model.” 

She also said the uncertainty around how Te Pūkenga would deliver courses for 2023 was not good for students. 

“That kind of rationalisation, I think needs to be out there very early, because students are making their decisions about where they’re going to study at least six to eight months in advance.” 

She maintained National would wind the reforms back if it won next year’s election. “It’s definitely not too late.” 

The TEC briefing criticised Te Pūkenga’s quality of financial reports thus far, noting after the $110m deficit projection, that figure was amended and then increased again before falling to the current projection.

The acting chief executive Peter Winder said all forecasts come with uncertainty, but believed the projections were now accurate.

“We will continue to work across our network to ensure we are financially prudent.”

He is expected to give an update on the plan and outline next steps nearer the end of the month.  

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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