Steven Wharehinga, president of the Tertiary Education Union branch at the Universal College of Learning, looks at what regional tertiary education means for Māori, Pasifika and low income families.
National’s plan to require Ministers to give for-profit providers the same funding as public institutions should be opposed for the detrimental impact it would have on access to tertiary education for Māori and Pasifika. The plan would be another nail in the coffin of regional tertiary education in Aotearoa and it will affect Māori most of all. The General Election on 23 September presents an opportunity for us all to vote to keep tertiary education publicly funded for all of our benefit.
I am fortunate to have a job that combines my two passions – building and teaching. A builder by trade, I love supporting students on their journey through tertiary education and into work. My first job as a teacher was at a private training establishment. Increasing student enrolment targets was a major focus at all branches. I later joined my local polytechnic, the Universal College of Learning (UCOL), where I taught carpentry and had the opportunity to develop myself and my teaching.
After several years I noticed a change in the way tertiary education was approached by government. The change in funding models over the past few years and the move to completion and retention, the focus on polytechnics shifted from being a trainer/ educator to becoming a corporate business. The consequence was the assimilation of smaller regional polytechnics and the closure of courses. In Wanganui automotive courses closed, which was quickly followed by the closure of engineering and carpentry. Our internationally glass blowing course and many others also fell to the axe. My job was disestablished, but fortunately I found new opportunities at the Palmerston North campus.
Mergers, funding cuts and course closures have a dramatic impact on the regions, particularly on poorer families. Whether it’s a young person figuring out their path, someone changing careers later in life, learning new skills or finding their passion, public tertiary education supports them on their way. When local courses close these opportunities go with them.
Due to the introduction of National’s competitive funding model, UCOL lost its contestable level one and two funding (pre-degree and certificate level). As a consequence all introductory level one and two tertiary study courses at all campuses are no longer offered. These were our pathway courses. They helped prepare those who may have struggled at school, or those who wanted to create opportunities for themselves by learning new skills. It was these courses that opened the door for them to succeed in tertiary education.
Despite the loss of level one and two funding, UCOL must still meet targets for the number of Equivalent Full Time Students (ETFS) enrolled at the institution. Unfortunately if these targets are not met, UCOL could be penalised by having reduced funding the following year.
Government policy changes introduced in recent years have not only limited opportunities for people in the regions to access tertiary education, but they have also impacted staff. As the President of the UCOL branch of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) I am currently supporting several staff that have been told they may not have a job by the end of the year.
As a teacher I regularly hear stories about how tertiary learning changes lives. One part-time student recently told me he was considering an internship in the sports and wellbeing profession because of opportunities provided by UCOL. He told me that once qualified he would like to take his skills back home to support his local marae and help his hapori whānui.
Reforms introduced by National over the last nine years have fundamentally changed the teaching profession and learning environment. If public institutions fail to meet targets, they lose funding – and with less funding courses close. As a consequence targets become even hard to meet, meaning more funding can be lost.
National’s approach to tertiary education is one where the market has a much greater say in what courses should be provided locally, rather than communities themselves. The impact of opening the tertiary education sector to market forces is felt most in the regions, particularly by Māori, Pasifika, and low income families.
As a builder I lived and breathed the contestable tendering process for many years. I know from experience that going for the lowest price is not always the best option. It leads to inferior materials and workmanship and worse working conditions. If a for-profit tertiary provider is given the same funding as a public institution they can undercut a local polytechnic in all areas. Further, polytechnics can find it difficult to compete with private training establishments; partly because of the legal obligations a public institution has that a profit-making provider does not.
A colleague of mine in Australia is all too familiar with the impact contestable funding has had on local and international students there, some of whom were exploited by unscrupulous and corrupt private vocational educational training providers. I was taught to learn by your mistakes and the mistakes of others – and New Zealand cannot afford to make these same mistakes.
Once public and locally provided tertiary courses close it is extremely difficult to get them back. In Australia, the market-based approach impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders most. My concern is that if New Zealand follows this same path, as National intended with the Education Amendment Bill is tried to pass recently, the worst consequences will be felt by tangata whenua.
Public tertiary education allows people to develop skills, learn trades, and create knowledge which helps our whānau, communities and economy. To ensure Māori, Pasifika continue to have access to these opportunities we must use the chance we have at the upcoming General Election to keep tertiary education publicly funded, publicly controlled and locally delivered.