Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker doesn’t dispute that the sector needs restructuring, but he takes issue with some of the recommendations currently on the table as part of the Review of Vocational Education.

The model put forward in Education Minister Chris Hipkins’ proposed reforms would see New Zealand’s 16 polytechnics placed under the control of one central institution, the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST).

The polytechs would become regional hubs, which the Minister envisions will help strengthen regional responsiveness and performance.

But Ker says there is an inherent contradiction with this approach.

He isn’t opposed to injecting some centralisation into the system, but says placing all the institutions under the management of a head office type arrangement will remove the regional institutes’ ability to be responsive to their own needs and contexts.

“I’ve yet to see a head office-branch arrangement where the branches have sufficient decision-making power to be flexible, responsive and innovative. It just doesn’t happen.”

“The decisions at a regional level may well be differently prioritised and may even go in a different direction that makes sense for the country as a whole. So you start to build in an automatic contradiction because in the end the people making the decisions at the regional level have to follow the head office line,” says Ker.

He gives an example of decision making is affected by regional context.

“If you’re trying to deliver funding for 10 people in Kaitaia you will need more funding per capita than if you were going to deliver it in Auckland – it’s just a simple fact of life with the underpinning cost drivers. Different types of delivery might need to have more funding attached to it.”

Minister Chris Hipkins agrees that the regions must have decision-making rights. However Ker says these rights have to be “practically enforceable”.

“On an everyday basis, the right decisions have to be able to be made regionally. It’s about building in the process the head office being able to challenge a decision.

“That’s a devilishly difficult thing to propose bureaucratically but it’s there automatically when your branches are legally separate,” says Ker.

If the Minister introduces enforceability into the model Ker says he would be “surprised but thrilled”.

Meanwhile Hipkins doesn’t think his vision is that dissimilar from Ker’s.

“I’ve had some rich conversations with Phil where I’ve said, if you think it needs to change, draw me a picture of what you think the new system should look like. And so he’s done that. And actually when I put his picture together with mine I don’t think they’re that far apart.”

“The constructive engagement that we’ve had from Otago [Polytechnic] has been really, really positive because actually we’re on the same page.”

Ker’s “picture” looks something like this: provider institutions operating as legally separate entities with a head office responsible for setting performance expectations of the individual institutions and monitoring these expectations. The head office would be granted statutory powers of intervention if an institution is not performing in any of the spheres of their decision making, whether this is financial, educational or other.

“Meanwhile those institutions that are performing well are left to perform well,” he says.

Ker says it’s all about “earned autonomy”.

High-performing institutions would be funded on a longer-term basis and left to get on with things. This is happening now to a certain extent, says Ker. Otago Polytechnic is one of the few polytechs that is funded on a two-year basis.

“Otago Polytechnic has been able to perform extremely well under the same budgetary constraints as everyone else. We’ve done it because of a certain way and we’ve been very innovative and we’ve been very ethical,” says Ker, adding that some institutions that have bent the rules in their desperation for funding.

“Our staff are genuinely empowered to take risks. We have a culture of ‘it’s ok to fail’. We’re set up to be truly responsive and I truly fear that will go. I think that license to take risks will disappear.

“How do we get this across an entire system? It’s more likely negative cultures or neutral cultures will prevail. If you want to develop really strong innovative cultures they need to be developed within your context.

“What we’ve done is 100% able to be replicated. But I don’t think that will come from a ‘command and control’ head office system.

“The person who is heading up Otago Polytechnic – if it’s even allowed to call itself that in the future – would just have to do what they’re told by head office,” says Ker.

He says a head office that’s trying to respond to multiple players will introduce inevitable delays and paperwork.

New Zealand Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (NZITP) reinforces Ker’s concerns. Spokesperson Charles Finny says that while the sector supports the Government’s consultation process for reform, many institutions have strong reservations about aspects of the proposed single institution model.

“We are working with officials to ensure that there are well-defined and enforceable decision-making rights for regional providers.

Finny said that while there has been debate on the centralisation of some functions, ITP chief executives have been working for some time on collaborative models with a particular focus on reducing duplication and enhancing delivery.

“NZITP considers that this process has the potential to deliver an outcome that achieves much closer collaboration at a national level, however the balance between central and regional decision-making is crucial to success, as is the quality of the governance of any new institute.”

Hipkins says he is committed to genuine consultation on the reforms and greatly values the conversations with the sector on what the end result might look like. He says the process hinges more on how we talk about it, than what we talk about.

“How we talk about it and how we conceptualise it is a big part of allaying any concerns about how it might work.”

Consultation on the Reform of Vocational Education ends 27 March 2019. You can have your say here.

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