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SocietyJune 21, 2023

For students at Te Pūkenga, there’s no papering over the cracks of a sector in crisis

a book sitting atop a crumbling column
Image: Tina Tiller

Life as a student at the embattled mega polytech means ever-changing tutors, cancelled classes and broken knowledge – plus the occasional free Mr Whippy, writes Elizabeth Engledow.

Some time last year, the now infamously inauspicious conglomerate Te Pūkenga was formed. Which, coincidentally and on a whim, I left my comfortable job to enrol in. I arrived naive at one of the umbrellaed institutions, where I quickly heard from other students that there had recently been extensive staff cuts and ongoing financial difficulties. It turned out the new initiative had sought to weave together some of the frayed ends of our long-tired tertiary sector.

Pushing aside the dated building and slightly decrepit lab equipment, the deep cracks existing prior to my arrival were immediately felt.

The first tutor resigned within a month of the course start date. Then there was silence, no classes, no substitute. Although at its tail-end, Covid-19 was still bearing down, even at the cloudy peaks of management, who cited this as their out-of-office answer for some time. It took weeks for the position to be filled again, and by a medley of current tutors, who were already loaded with other classes. They helped us cram all we needed to know before the final examinations, so that some of us – but probably not as many as there should’ve been – passed.

Then they gave us two hours with Mr Whippy. This was a great day, attracting more students and stragglers than I had ever seen on campus before. The staff did rounds to peel us from textbooks and lab rooms, shimmying us quickly to collect our free frozen desserts. Holding a Mr Whippy in each hand, we looked back on our experience so far and it didn’t seem so bad. Suddenly it was easy to see that the campus was comfortingly laid-back, the staff always friendly and that there were other small but important perks too. Including a ping-pong table, a basket of first-in-first-serve kai at lunch times and a library equipped with Milo and milk to boot. The free stuff and good vibes felt flowing.

All those who had managed to get through to the next term sighed in collective relief. But then, the following term, another tutor resigned mid-course. And the same thing happened again the term after that. There was a perceivable decline in student retention from one year to the next and it became an amicable joke when the tutors asked us to confirm if the others had left, followed by dabbled questioning into what we still needed to learn – we all laughed, telling them what we didn’t know.

Unease returned as it became clear that none of this was behind us.

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There’s a compounding interest on the currency of our fleeting tutors. It’s harder to succeed when there’s a gap in teaching, pushing through the chaos of a quick putty job. Which only becomes painfully evident again, as we all later fall over our own broken knowledge. So, when the staff and students air their joint dissatisfaction, a combative and toxic environment begins to bubble all around us. This delayed failure and frustration sparks some to bail out, reducing enrolment-sourced funds. Finally, exasperating further budget cuts and sluggish tutor pay parity – symptomised by the ongoing strikes.

The tutors hold now the qualifications we in the future seek, and we’re planted with the disparaging struggle of work life in New Zealand.

But, for those who make it to the end, there is an exit strategy – and it appears to be looming. It leads us all skipping out towards the bigger, richer, and apparently all-around greater Australia. Better money, better lifestyle, everyone says. There is a common sentiment for both tutor and student alike that the opportunity to relocate is taunting, with mention that a few have already gone and done this and with great success; escapism is loosely tossed about the room. Even now, while listening to Spotify on the bus, I get targeted advertising for incentivised relocations to Australia – lending my thoughts to the added possibility of a better bus network too.

In the mix we find ourselves still facing the never-ending aftereffects of Covid-19, under-paid tutors and disjointed course content feeding unto itself a cycle of disengagement and flailing funds. It seems likely then that we’ll be carrying the rifts of New Zealand’s struggling and unsatisfied tertiary sector for some time yet, pervading and shaping our future livelihoods, self-worth and prospects. Meaning fewer skilled people in our future, and in a globalised world, growing competition to retain them, as well as the rate at which we want our cities and society to grow. Our only hope is currently penned on the persistence of the tutors and students who reluctantly remain – and the fleeting relief of Mr Whippy’s return.

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