Guns not Roses
Echoes of Chicago 90 years ago: just in time for St Valentine’s Day, Industry Training Providers and Industry Training Organisations were lined up side-by-side, with large targets affixed, blinking in the media spotlight.
Triggers were not yet pulled but fingers were twitching as Minister of Education Chris Hipkins announced the vision of an over-arching New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology.
NZIST-not to be confused with Winston’s mob- would replace the 16 autonomous institutes of technology and polytechnics, (ITPs) and 11 industry training organisations (ITOs) with a single entity to establish a “unified, coordinated, national system of vocational education and training” for around 200,000 New Zealand students by the end of 2020.
But does this display 20/20 vision?
Polytechnics employed 8,150, and ITOs 1,300, full-time-equivalent staff in 2017. In a double bureaucratic whammy the current roles of ITOs would apparently be split between the new national organisation and the Tertiary Education Commission.
The role of the TEC in ensuring the integrity of funding via trough protection and snout muzzling has already expanded after it swallowed Careers New Zealand in 2017 to become a hybrid funder/provider.
Try this thought experiment, with last week’s eighth anniversary of the lethal February Christchurch quake in mind.
Can you imagine happening, under a centralised governance model, the same kind of prompt response as actually occurred through collaboration between Christchurch Polytechnic (now Ara) and local ITOs to address the skills needs of devastated Christchurch businesses?
If you can, Christchurch people with experience of especially created central government bodies like Cera and Ōtākaro, with a focus just on Christchurch’s recovery not the whole country, will quickly disabuse you. These entities often sidelined local knowledge and input. Even local civic governance bodies have been left incommunicado. Que Cera Sera.
Roger Smyth’s recent EC article tells how it took a seismic crisis for key parts of the vocational education system to work really effectively together, despite funding constraints, on the skills needs of the Canterbury rebuild.
There are lessons to be learnt. Those immersed in the local knowledge ecology, with an understanding of local business needs, trump absent planners with whiteboards and spreadsheets every time.
The Empire Striking Back?
The Minister acknowledged that the proposed changes are significant. “However, the risks of not making changes are also significant,” he said. “Disruption now will strengthen the vocational education system for the long term.”
Sceptics may point to the infamous quote in Peter Arnett’s 1968 AP Vietnam dispatch: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
The aim is to create a new, more streamlined and sustainable funding system and a more co-ordinated sector that can better respond to technology-driven workplaces. Both are long overdue and are changes the sector itself has long proposed.
The aims are forward looking, but the organisational solution proposed is a bureaucrat’s retrospective damp dream. In 2018 the Minister himself said that a highly centralised system faced issues relating to a lack of flexibility.
In a digitised world the nature of learning, work and everyday life is changing rapidly, with huge implications for education and training.
There is a direct link between a nation’s future prosperity and its ability to develop the knowledge and skills that deliver innovation. The ability to identify and prepare for present and future skills requirements is increasingly critical for education and training organisations, businesses and individuals.
Specific hard skills and soft skills sets are in increasingly high demand. There is a growing emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving, communications and collaboration, digital literacy and career and life skills, with an emphasis on flexibility and adaptability, initiative and cross-cultural interaction.
In the words of the Minister “Instead of our institutes of technology retrenching, cutting programmes, and closing campuses, we need them to expand their course delivery in more locations around the country.”
Some are doing exactly this now and are performing well, having succeeded in spite of, not because of, the present funding model.
Ara Institute of Canterbury has reported surpluses since its 2015 amalgamation and name change. Chief executive Tony Gray has expressed concern about how effective the proposed regional leadership groups would be.
A Balanced Alternative
Another well performing ITP is Otago Polytechnic. Here are some excerpts of what CE Phil Ker said in a post-announcement interview on Radio New Zealand:
Q: Are the proposed changes good for the sector?
A: Yes and no.
“Yes . . . Polytechnics are haemorrhaging because of a grossly inadequate funding system that’s not fit for purpose.”
Yes . . . we applaud it being fixed. Ironically, if the funding model had been fixed 2-3 years ago, we wouldn’t have had this haemorrhaging.”
Yes . . . we applaud the intention to move towards more seamless learning via institutions and work-based solutions….”
No . . . the proposed model of one institution – head office and branches – completely removes the autonomy of the current institutions. We thought there might have been a move to a model that combined the best elements of a centralised system approach with a semi-autonomous institution approach….”
“Under a combined model, certain central functions could have been mandated – buildings, back-of-house systems, staff training are a few examples. But the combined model meant we could also have the autonomy to offer programmes of learning that made sense to local regions. That autonomy would also mean we could respond not only locally but nationally – to areas where there’s a need but perhaps a relatively low volume…”
Q: Do you think such centralisation and rationalisation threatens the local characteristics of polytechnics?
A: “… It’s a model-of-delivery issue. I’m arguing for the retention of autonomy – to enable institutions to respond to industry demand. I think the proposed model will, in fact, drive out responsiveness and innovation…”
His subsequent ODT comments had this postscript “…I am not opposed to rationalising and a degree of centralisation of our polytechnic system. I am opposed to the particular model proposed by the Minister – it will throw out a lot of babies with the bath water. There is an alternative model which will still see a unified system, but which also preserves the autonomy of the individual institutions… We can have the best of both worlds.”
In support of Otago Polytechnic Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said, “The proposed merger risks undoing a lot of good work and would see Otago Polytechnic potentially being subservient to an organisational structure that may not understand or care about our local needs…We need Otago to remain autonomous, and flexible and responsive to local needs.”
The promoters of the current government’s Provincial Growth Fund talk about getting “buy in from local communities”. But vocational education demands more than that from regional stakeholders: it needs active collaboration, participation and partnership.
Dunedin’s digital ecosystem provides great examples of the cross-fertilisation between the education and business sectors. Innovator of the Year Ian Taylor, Animation Research has worked in this space for a quarter of a century.
He first came to public attention in the 1990s by making America’s Cup racing watchable via digital graphics and animation. He is currently working in Dunedin on a Virtual Reality prison literacy programme, in collaboration with the Methodist Mission South.
Alignment of Education and Training
The Review of Vocational Education inevitably spawned the acronym ROVE. Perhaps the more appropriate acronym is RIVET for Review of and Intentions for Vocational Education and Training.
But just how riveting is the announced vision?
While the words “education” and “training are often used as synonyms it’s useful to distinguish between them. The difference is evident when comparing “sex(uality) education” with “sex training”. (Now there’s an industry which missed the opportunity to set up its own ITO.)
Oversimplified, but the distinction does help clarify aspects of the respective roles of ITPs and ITOs, the first institution-based and the second located in the workplace.
The two vocational sub-sectors have often been like two trains travelling on parallel tracks to the same destination but with often poor communication between the respective drivers, to the detriment of passengers.
Integration of learning with work
The ROVE document says that the system needs to increase the amount of vocational learning that takes place in the workplace. Phil Ker agrees with better aligning trades training with polytechnic study, “… integration of learning with work is critical. But that has to be designed for; staff have to be trained to do it.”
The most effective learning comes from a parallel process of knowing and doing, not through an analogue approach of accumulating lumps of knowledge first and then focusing on thinking skills and problem-solving.
But progress in integration does not require a single governance body. Joining the dots is not the same as erasing them.
Qualifications and Employability
According to the OECD, “Skills are the new world currency”. There is a growing demand for just-in-time learning to meet changing skill needs.
How do you improve knowledge and skill acquisition and make it easier for learners to demonstrate what they know and can do?
National rationalisation of the tangled mess of qualifications is long overdue and now underway A big benefit in having a more integrated vocational education system is that it will make overhauled vocational qualifications more relevant and attractive-and more manageable time-wise.
Micro-credentials are an increasingly valuable part of the new skills currency. They enable people to show what they know and can do through digital certification, validating new learning as well as skills and knowledge already acquired.
Learning institutions handle quality control. For example, Otago Polytechnic’s micro-credential service EduBits works closely with the business sector and helps employers focus on their particular requirements.
Micro-credentials make visible employees, present and potential, who have got key skills or knowledge not indicated by conventional qualifications.
One aim of the vocational shake-up is to correct the tertiary/ trades imbalance. According to the Minister of Education “Our thinking needs to shift from the idea that the ultimate goal of senior secondary schooling is to prepare young people for university,”
Shorter workplace-integrated programmes will distinguish more clearly the offerings of polytechnics from those of universities.
Important v Urgent
Just as Wintec’s dirty washing was being re-aired publicly may have seemed to be a good time to play a reverse trump card and make a wall demolition announcement.
Minister Hipkins said that the vocational education sector is currently unsustainable and financially unviable “and the Government is moving to find a solution quickly”.
But the 6 weeks allowed for feedback is derisory, especially when contrasted with the timeline and process for the Tomorrow’s Schools Review.
Reform of the fragmented and competitive vocational sector may be well overdue but the important shouldn’t be dressed up as the urgent. It is not a National Emergency; rather it is a national opportunity to come up with an appropriate confederate balance of regional and national arrangements.
A large degree of governance autonomy, separate identities and distributed leadership models are the keys to credible local engagement in a networked digital age.
At the same time, curriculum and qualifications reform, professional development, digital learning resource sharing and physical infrastructure, HR, health and safety all lend themselves to more national “back office” co-ordination and cost saving, so long as the “front office” identity and professional and business relationships are maintained where they are demonstrated to be working.
If not, some further amalgamations may be required such as those which over the last 4 years have led to the formation of Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology and Ara Institute of Technology.
Leading not Imposing Change
“People will support what they help to create.” Marvin Weisbord
Finding appropriate solutions to real issues is not just about why change should happen. It is about what change happens, how it happens and when. A Roger Douglas big bang approach may force things through, but with unacceptable collateral damage.
The fallout after a policy announcement bombshell needs time to clear for the way forward to crystallise. More time needs to be spent on the vision and strategy, working with all the key players, before the focus turns to implementation.
The effective way to bring about change that lasts is to really engage with key players in order to do more of what is working well now. This is the Appreciative Inquiry approach to organisational change. It focuses on strengths rather than on weaknesses, deficits and problems.
As Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams points out, the reforms should aim to strengthen industry-led training organisations rather than dismantling them.
Warwick Quinn, Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation chief executive says that while he understood the need for change, “We must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater…”. The changes needed to protect what was working well, and retain the positive aspects of on-the-job training and apprenticeships, especially in high-needs areas, such as building and construction.
Removing system blockages is a valid activity for political plumbers. But while it is important to repair, rejig and replace some parts of the present vocational reticulation system, it is just as important to reinforce those parts which are working well and so avoid disrupting the flow of skills acquisition.
What is not required is a KiwiBuild-type approach, giant in concept but pygmy on delivery, for instilling the skills of the very people required to build houses and the nation.
Mobilising knowledge and expertise
At Education Leaders Forum 2018, UK speaker Prof.Toby Greany explored the intersections between policy, practice and evidence and the ways in which knowledge, expertise and capacity moves around within and between organisations.
His models for knowledge mobilisation, the development and impact of networks and collaboration, along with his approach to education leadership and professional development are highly relevant for building momentum for positive step changes in regards to vocational education and training.
The cold logic of ideology and the selective use of financial data from a chronically underfunded sector should not drive out the knowledge and experience of key players.