By Simon Collins

New Zealand’s biggest polytechnic, Unitec, is reviewing radical recent changes at the institute which led to a financial crisis and the appointment of a Crown commissioner.

A new report by the Tertiary Education Union has traced the crisis to a series of management decisions since 2014 including axing the former academic departments, contracting out student enrolment and requiring new students to study a generic online programme for their first six months.

Unitec’s interim chief executive Merran Davis, who took over in June as the institute’s second interim head since long-time chief executive Dr Rick Ede left in December, said the institute was now reviewing its operating model.

“The report discusses a transformation which predates the current executive leadership team,” she said.

“However, we do acknowledge this period of major change was difficult for many staff and the impact of this is still felt today.”

She said the academic management structure of “networks” and “pathways”, which replaced the former academic departments in 2016, was “under review as part of developing a high quality and financially sustainable institution”.

A December 2015 decision to contract out student enrolment to American company Concentrix was partially reversed last October, when key enrolment functions were taken back in-house after enrolments dropped by 9.2 per cent in 2016 and by a further 8.8 per cent last year.

“Most enrolment activity has been brought back in-house and any further changes will be in a phased approach,” Davis said.

And a 2014 decision to adopt a common online programme for the first six months for students across nursing, medical imaging and applied sciences was quickly reversed. The union report says it deterred low-income students without secure computer access.

“Based on the approach used by universities to first year health sciences students, the common semester was trialled but was not as effective for our learners as the previous approach so was changed accordingly,” Davis said.

The union report, written by Quality Public Education Coalition chairman Dr David Cooke, says the Unitec changes since 2014 were “a strong warning against adopting neoliberal practices” in other tertiary institutes.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said when he appointed commissioner Murray Strong last week that Unitec faced losses of $19 million this year and $27m in 2019 if no changes were made.

Its fulltime-equivalent domestic students shrank by 30 per cent from 8640 in 2012 to 6085 last year, in a period when students at all other polytechnics fell by only 16 per cent.

Dr Rick Ede was Unitec’s chief executive from 2008 until last December.

However, Unitec’s plunge was in line with an equal 30 per cent drop at the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), suggesting that the declines in both cases were mainly driven by Auckland’s booming economy, which has lured young people straight into work instead of study.

Ede, who is now chief executive of the Chisholm Institute in Melbourne, declined to comment.

Source: NZ Herald

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