Unitec's Te Puna campus. (Image: Matt Crawford).

What the future might look like for New Zealand’s polytechnics

This week, the government proposed a major shakeup of New Zealand’s polytechnics and industry training organisations (ITOs). Associate professor at MAINZ Dr John Bassett weighs up both the pros and cons of this controversial move. 

In 2014 I moved from teaching in the Australian university sector to set up a music degree in the polytechnic sector in New Zealand. Currently, I manage the audio production degree at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (MAINZ), a faculty of the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT).

What I found over the past five years is that the polytechnic model is arguably the better education model. Much of the current research in education points to action-based learning environments as the one likely to produce the best education outcomes. So when the education minister announced a major overhaul of the sector, there’s obviously cause for concern.

That’s not to say the sector isn’t in need of an overhaul. The competitive funding model has resulted in the rise of the ‘manegerialists’ – managers, often accountants – who see students as an income stream to be maximised and teaching staff as a cost to be minimised.

I know this well: this week we farewelled nearly 40% of our teaching staff on the premise of establishing financial viability for the institution. The holy grail for the managerialists is either language or business programmes that maximise the student-teacher ratio or, even better, online delivery where the constraints of owning real estate disappear. Quality education – where students are assisted in their learning, where teaching staff have the time to recognise gaps in individual students knowledge and adapt the learning environment to allow their development – disappears.

The great irony is that we’re left with is the model the universities are trying to move away from – hundreds of students in a room with a lecturer up in front broadcasting at them. The universities are recognising that’s a poor method of educating people. They’re moving towards more action based learning while the polytechs cram more people in to keep themselves financially viable.

Southern Institute of Technology will be one of 16 polytechnics affected by the proposed changes

So what will the proposed changes mean? It’s too early to tell. Over the next week or so many folk in the education sector will pick over Hipkin’s speech but we can certainly see the general direction and start engaging in the discussion around how this plan might work best.

The first point, in the speech, is to give industry greater input to the education sector. On the positive side, we could see greater responsiveness in the education sector to the changing needs of industry. We’ve had some experience in that. Our Programme Advisory Board, representatives from our industry, advised us a couple of years ago that gaming was a growing field in New Zealand. Within six months we’d set up and were delivering a game audio course. The universities would take about 18 months to do the same thing.

The downside may be that various industries adopt a myopic view of what knowledge, skills and experience they need in a graduate of a programme. The risk is they focus only on the skills. That works in the short term but something we recognise is the need for people to develop their capacity as life-long learners. Learning specialist skills don’t set people up well to make the transition from one field to another. In my field, we know that you may concentrate on developing technical proficiency as a musician or producer but it’s often the people skills that make people successful.

The second proposal appears to establish a more centralised, single institution with regional branches. No doubt the regional polytechs will take exception to this. For five years I have worked in an Auckland based, specialist institution that has been managed by two different regional institutes of technology and polytechnics (ITPs). My experience is that it’s quite difficult to attract talented people to the regions, resulting in poor management of the institution. On top of that you tend to get quite a parochial view of what’s important for the institution. Try to get someone in a country town to understand that New Zealand music is an international export industry when their measure of success is someone playing at the local pub.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

That brings us to the Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) proposed by the minister. Unsurprisingly we’ll put our hand up and say yes, that’s who we are. That is not to say there are other institutions producing quality graduates but we hold up our ex-students as examples of our success in teaching. Just look at Kings and Randa, performers in the Air New Zealand “It’s Kiwi Safety” video, Sandy Gunn, head of sound for the Auckland Arts Festival or Paddy Hill, recording engineer at Neil Finn’s Roundhead studio. Oh yeah, and Joel Little – the producer of Lorde’s first album. In the field of contemporary music production, we think we fit the bill and would certainly look forward to a more direct connection with what’s recognised as the music business centre of New Zealand – Auckland, a UNESCO City of Music rather than a regional polytech.

However, the interpretation of ‘vocational excellence’ may be quite narrow, depending on what the government considers to be areas of “particular importance”. Again, it’s a question of how broadly the government applies the proposed changes. Will there be CoVEs within the creative arts or will they be limited to centres filling skills shortages identified by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment? That will probably depend on how well the creative industries and groups like WeCreate convince the government that the creative sector is an important part of the New Zealand community. We live in interesting times. Personally, I look forward to the discussion and debate around the direction this government is taking the ITP sector.


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