An Analysis by John Gerritsen
The government’s plan for a monster merger of all 16 polytechnics and institutes of technology has taken everyone by surprise, but some might say they had it coming.
After nearly $100 million in bailouts last year and the possibility of more to come, the government has eschewed half-measures and complex policy solutions for the relatively simple option of rolling all institutes into one.
NZ Institute of Skills and Technology
For good measure, it has also decided to strip the job of organising on-the-job training and apprenticeships from industry training organisations (ITOs) and give it to the proposed new mega-polytechnic, the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology.
Critics will say that the Plan takes centralisation too far and will result in an organisation that is too big and unwieldy to ensure each region is getting the skills training and courses it needs.
Others might say that it provides a single solution to a range of long-standing and complex problems, and tensions in vocational education and training.
Either way, the government cannot be accused of tinkering around the edges.
So, what are the problems the government is trying to solve with its plan for a mega-poly?
Number one is the viability and stability of the 16 polytechnics and institutes of technology.
Right now, the institutions are going through difficult times. The previous government froze their funding for most of its tenure and they have suffered falling enrolments as high employment encourages people to get jobs instead of qualifications.
Some have been badly burned in the collapse of the market for Indian foreign students.
High and rising deficits
Those stresses are showing in their balance sheets. Collectively, the sector made a deficit of more than $50 million in 2017, at least one institution – the West Coast’s Tai Poutini Polytechnic – appears unviable as a stand-alone institution, and the biggest of the 16 polytechnics, Unitec, is expected to have losses worth $100 million over the four years to the end of this year.
Polytechnic bosses and staff have long argued that the institutions just need a bit more government funding. Penny Simmonds from Southern Institute of Technology told RNZ that $45 million would probably be enough to fix most of the sector’s problems, while the Tertiary Education Union estimates more like $200 million is required.
But the government wants greater efficiencies and when it sees practically every polytechnic operating campuses in Auckland, it doesn’t see nimble competition, it sees wasteful duplication.
In addition, mergers have long been seen as the road to stability in the polytechnic sector.
Government briefing papers say that the Manukau Institute of Technology and Unitec were last year discussing amalgamating, as were the all-but-merged Whitireia in Porirua and Weltec in Wellington.
A national merger follows to its conclusion the logic that big institutions are more stable and ensures there are no Cinderella left out of the picture because their small size or large debts make them unattractive partners.
The Unitec Example
That is not a conclusion everyone will agree with. The debacle at Unitec – the country’s largest polytechnic – proves that size is no protection from disaster and some modest-sized regional polytechnics have long track records of financial stability and success.
Last year, the Ministry of Education told the government the option of a single national polytechnic offered the greatest potential savings, but that was outweighed by the potential risks. The Ministry and the Tertiary Education Commission warned that the government risked putting all of its eggs in one basket; if the leaders of the new mega-polytechnic get it wrong, it goes wrong for every polytechnic in the country.
The government’s proposal would eliminate the long-standing overlap.
The other significant problems that the government’s proposal tackles are long-standing tensions between industry training and polytechnics.
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Analysis by John Gerritsen is the Education Correspondent at Radio New Zealand. Indian Newslink has published the above story and picture under a Special Arrangement with www.rnz.co.nz