Craig West, a senior lecturer at Otago Polytechnic, discusses the importance of public tertiary education for second chance learners, as well as its role in the local community.
Education sits at the heart of every community and this could not be truer than for the city of Dunedin. The University of Otago and Otago Polytechnic are central to life in the city. The fact that they are public institutions ensures that everybody has the chance to be a part of tertiary education.
I was concerned that before the election the National-led government was trying to amend the Education Act to funnel public education money into private for-profit institutions. One of my biggest concerns was the effect this would have on second chance learners.
Many for-profit institutions do not have the strong support services and pastoral care that is a core feature of the polytechnic sector. Polytechnics also have the ability to ‘staircase’ many of their lower level programmes so that students can progress from, for example, a certificate to diploma to degree.
Often this is not something that can be easily achieved within for-profit institutions. This is because of the risk that private institutions see students only as ‘money makers’ and, therefore, only take on those who they believe will be successful. In no way does this sort of approach benefit second chance learners.
The National government has become so focussed on outcomes, including completions and retentions, that they have forgotten that for many students, especially second chance learners, just being able to have another ‘go’ is a major achievement in itself.
For some, just attending a course is a huge achievement. Many start with a lower level certificate course to ‘get a feel’ for what tertiary education is all about. This can build confidence and allow people to realise that they have potential. It is an ongoing source of disappointment that the National government has not properly recognised the value of these courses.
One step National has taken that proves this, is to make funding for lower level courses contestable. Unfortunately some public providers have been unable to compete with for-profit organisations and as such have had to cut vital courses and make staff redundant.
It is quite absurd then that some of those for-profit providers that win funding then turn to public institutions for help running their courses. Competitive funding is so often allocated purely on monetary measures of success and return on investment, rather than considering who would actually provide a ‘best practice’ service.
National seems determined to pressure the education sector into a neo-liberal business model that does not take into account the needs of the community that the organisation services – each and every course has to be viable in its own right. This fundamentally changes the original premise of tertiary education – that it is there as a public good and to improve society.
If National is returned to government and is allowed to divert more public money to for-profit providers, it could have a huge effect on already struggling polytechnics – particularly those in regional areas.
This can have significant consequences for people working in the sector, too. A lack of funding, or reductions in the number of courses available, can mean people losing their jobs.
Staff at Otago Polytechnic are fortunate to have good terms and conditions. However, this is not always the case for our colleagues working in for-profit providers. These institutions are answerable first and foremost to their investors – the bottom line becomes all important. Otago Polytechnic also has strong links with local community organisations, businesses and iwi. For example, we have a Memorandum of Understanding with Ngai Tahu. For-profit providers may try to have these associations, but ultimately the bottom line is all that matters.
With only two days to go before the polls close, we can only hope (and encourage) that voters will look carefully at what each party is offering for tertiary education. Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First and the Māori Party are all offering an opportunity for positive change for public tertiary education. We need to make the most of the opportunity they have given us.