As part of the Voices from Tertiary Education project, Sandra Grey, National President of the Tertiary Education Union, explains that what she learnt from her father’s trade is applicable to the future of tertiary education.
My Dad was a boat builder by trade and built boats for commercial fishermen. He learnt his trade in the shipyards of Auckland.
He didn’t just learn to swing a hammer, he learnt how to talk to clients and understand what they needed; how to collaborate with workmates; how to ensure his rights as a worker and self-employed businessman were upheld; and how to plan and manage complex projects.
What’s more he never stopped learning and adapting to the world around him. So what wisdom did he share with me that is relevant to today’s tertiary education sector?
The first lesson was that it’s not just about the boats.
My Dad was meticulous in the way he built boats – and when he did so he thought about the men’s lives, livelihoods, and the wellbeing of their families he had in his hands. He had a vision that was beyond the here and now, beyond the material.
We need to be just as visionary when it comes to designing and rebuilding the tertiary education system. Education is not just about the economy, it’s about people’s lives, livelihoods, and the wellbeing of their families and communities.
Second, my Dad taught me to have genuine conversations.
Building a boat for fishing on the Manukau Harbour is very different from building one for duck shooting on the Waikato River. So to deliver a quality boat my Dad had to understand the needs of the people he was building for. Through this he developed relationships that endure to this day.
Perhaps what he knew intuitively, but many of us in the tertiary education sector need to relearn, is that it’s all about people. People must be at the heart of any system redesign.
Chief executives and other senior leaders, students and staff need to be around the table together to talk about what we want from tertiary education and how this can be best delivered.
This means listening to difficult stories about student poverty and deprivation; and how the system may not be working for Māori and Pasifika, single parents, or mature students – people that want to learn to transform their lives.
We also need to sit around the table with iwi, community, and business leaders to work out how the system can deliver for them all. And talk with New Zealanders about how much of their taxpayer dollars should be put into ensuring all kiwis have access to the opportunities that tertiary education provides.
Finally, my Dad taught me to measure twice and cut once.
This was a mantra he would repeat whatever we built together. The lesson I learnt is simple: if you get the measurement right, the planning right, then everything else falls into place.
We have an extraordinary opportunity ahead of us with the Government’s education work programme to redesign our tertiary education system to meet the needs of all New Zealanders.
To do it justice we need to measure twice. That means talking and researching best practice in tertiary education. It means talking and talking again to ensure we have a strong funding, regulatory, and policy regime.
If we make sure we don’t just think about the material, that we genuinely listen to everyone involved in tertiary education, and we make sure we plan well, then together we can ensure New Zealand has a tertiary education system that is vibrant, dynamic, and changes lives.