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Vocational Education Review: What does it mean for Tech?

Paul Matthews, ITP Chief Executive. 02 August 2019, 1:50 pm

Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced the much-anticipated changes to vocational education this week, with a major overhaul of the Institute of Technology / Polytech sector. This is of significant interest to us - around a third of degree graduates entering our profession come from the Polytech sector.

So what are the changes and what does it mean for tech? 

Yesterday's announcements confirm most of what was originally signalled. The seven key changes announced are:

  • Around four to seven industry-governed Workforce Development Councils will be created by 2022. This is intended to give industry greater control over all aspects of vocational education and make the system more responsive to employers' needs and to the changing world of work. The councils will replace and expand most of the existing roles of industry training organisations. 
  • The country's 16 institutes of technology and polytechnics will be brought together to operate as a single national campus network. A new Institute will start on 1 April 2020 and will be a new kind of organisation that provides on-the-job and off-the-job learning. The head office will not be in Auckland or Wellington, and a charter will be set out in legislation to make sure a number of bottom lines are met.
  • New Regional Skills Leadership Groups will represent regional interests and will work across education, immigration and welfare systems in each region with the intention of identifying local skill needs and making sure the system is delivering the right mix of education and training to meet them.
  • Over the next two to three years, the role of supporting workplace learning will shift from industry training organisations to training providers. Holding organisations will be formed from Industry Training Organisations to smooth the transition  
  • Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs) will be established at regional campuses to drive innovation and expertise, and improve linkages between education, industry and research.
  • Māori will be included as key partners, including through Te Taumata Aronui, a Māori Crown Tertiary Education Group - that will work with education agencies and Ministers and cover all aspects of tertiary education.
  • The current dual funding system will be unified and simplified to encourage greater integration of on-the-job and off-the-job learning, ensure learners can access more work-relevant and tailored support, and enable new models of education delivery which are more responsive to employer and industry demand. 

So no real surprises - it's very much along the lines of what was originally indicated. The time frames have been loosened a little, especially in relation to the transition of workplace-based learning from ITOs to the new mega-Polytech, which was needed and is definitely a positive.

Degree provision

Our largest concern remains with what will happen to degree provision in the new model - as mentioned above, around a third of IT-related degree graduates in NZ come through the Institute of Technology and Polytech pathways. The Minister has said that it won't be affected, but the reality is, it can't not be. While some subject areas are focused more on Certificate and Diploma provision (within scope of this review), and we do have a suite of very good qualifications in that space, our sector is primarily focused at the degree end and if we don't consider the implications of degree delivery when constructing the new model, we risk causing significant damage to our sector.

We'll continue to raise this with the Ministry, TEC and, of course, the Minister himself. 

The mega-merger

Whether you support merging all 16 Polytechs into one body probably comes down to your ideology. While there were certainly issues with the current setup, this is intended to result in uniform delivery across the country. The issue is, in reality you need teaching expertise to teach specialty areas and if the intention really is to teach everything everywhere, the cost of delivery will increase markedly. It will basically need a significant and ongoing increase in funding for the system.

And we should also note that centralising programme delivery won't save costs. Qualification development is already done nationally in most subject areas, and programme development (ie the "what we will teach to award the qualification") is also often already shared, with groups of Polytechs sharing programmes now.

So if you support the idea of no competition and uniform delivery across the country, albeit at considerable cost, then this model might appeal. If you believe in expertise and delivery based on local demand and expertise in each area, then you might argue the current system was more likely to deliver that.

Centres of Vocational Excellence

The new model is intended to be a sort of hub and spoke model for subject areas, where Centres of Vocational Excellence are established on some campuses to focus on programme development, then these programmes delivered at campuses around the country. Nice in theory but again, we don't want people teaching networking who don't understand networking, or software development who aren't from that domain, and it's the same across every other subject area as well.

To actually achieve this in a way that doesn't significantly diminish the quality of delivery will involve significant ongoing investment.

Workforce Development Councils

One area that is disappointing is the relatively small number of "Workforce Development Councils" in the new model, at 4-7 across all subject areas. This may eliminate the possibility of an IT-focused "Council" setting standards and will mean IT is lumped in with other areas. This has been one of the issues with the current ITO model and if it eventuates, it will make meaningful change challenging.

ITOs are upset that their model is essentially being disestablished. We don't have an ITO in tech and the model isn't conducive to our area (as the ITO model is based around less complex learning), however in most other areas, where there are ITOs, the industry engagement function is being rolled into the Workforce Development Councils and the workplace-based learning into the new mega-Polytech.

It's fair to say that in many areas the relationship between ITOs and Polytechs hasn't been great - even though ITOs are not allowed to actually deliver programmes, they're often seen as being in competition with Polytechs. That's not how it's meant to be and isn't the same in all subject areas. But unifying this role is good in some respects, although the success of the new approach will come down to funding again.

Speaking of funding…

The fact is, Polytechs are very poorly funded now. Most have spent the last few years in review after review and restructure after restructure to try to squeeze as much out of every dollar as they can.

Funding has consistently reduced in real terms and there really isn't fat in the system. Many educators are pretty jaded and a lot of good people have left the sector for greener pastures. So it will be challenging for them to take on the additional workplace-based learning function without significant change, and at the base of that is more funding. It always come down to funding. 

And that's one of the cruxes of the proposed changes. The fact is, it's not going to save money - quite the opposite. Whether the new bureaucracy is based in Wellington or elsewhere, it's still going to come with a big price tag. Oddly, the announcement stated it wouldn't be in Auckland or Wellington - presumably to counter political pressure about a "new Wellington bureaucracy".

The cost of the transition process itself has been put at $200 Million, with "more available if we need it", but the real cost will be ongoing. As we know in tech, taking a bunch of smaller systems and combining them into one bohemeth rarely results in savings.

So one has to wonder whether simply increasing the funding for the sector to enable more innovation in delivery, and perhaps some smaller structural changes, would have avoided years of uncertainty and risk and possibly resulted in a better outcome at less cost.

Where to from here?

There's no point dwelling: this is what's been decided and it's up to us, and our whole sector, to now look at how we can help deliver it in a way that strengthens tech education: try to mitigate risk areas (such as around degree delivery) and support some of the good, such as potentially having the opportunity for more solid classroom and workplace-based learning hybrids that could work really well for our sector. 

We'll keen a close eye on things as they develop and continue to contribute on behalf of the tech profession. Stay tuned - there will be opportunities to contribute your view on this in the coming weeks.


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Henk Roodt 02 August 2019, 3:59 pm

Good summary - much appreciated. A few things stand out for me. Merging things into bigger systems introduce overheads and risks that often negate the perceived benefit of sharing.

Hub and spoke models work well for goods, not so much for services and less so for things that are arguably constantly changing. The result is mostly the same: some spokes become very specialised around the 'infrastructure' available for delivery, and others wither away.

There is a complete disregard for the workforce that is to deliver this. Will people move from Dunedin to Christchurch to become part of a spoke around computing? Will people move from Palmerston North to Nelson to be part of a viticulture CoVE? I think we'll just have tired and battered people say this is enough, let me find something else.

Some of the issues that I cannot seem to find here is what happens to the brand value propositions? Massive investments had been made to attract overseas students as well and this will be wiped out in April 2020. Was the potential loss of income even calculated? Already we are seeing a shift of students from Asia to attend Australian tertiary education rather than the hellishly expensive NZ alternative (cost of living, Visa tightening and now recognisable brand).

Unless one has been in the sector, at the coal face developing and maintaining cutting-edge and innovation-focused offerings to specifically deliver degree level options for students (many in later life phases of careers), I believe it is hard to understand what will be lost. Unfortunately, it seems that our many voices were ignored in the rush to get this done and legislated before the next election.

Paul Matthews 02 August 2019, 7:02 pm

Thanks Henk - a very perceptive set of comments.

The workforce question is an extremely valid one. The Polytech sector is absolutely full of people who are passionate about teaching and have absolutely given their all. This change doesn't seem to consider the implications on them, and as you say, the human component.

As technologists, we should all know that you ignore the human element at your peril.

Interesting times.

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