Sandra Grey, national president of the Tertiary Education Union, reflects on what the future holds for the provision of tertiary education in Northland.
It’s been a rocky road in recent years for staff, students, and communities reliant on tertiary education provided in polytechnics around New Zealand and we all know this is true for Northland
But when teams charged with advising the government on the future of our tertiary education system rolled into town recently to meet Northtec students, staff, and community leaders there was a glimmer of hope for us all. The question is: will we capitalise on it?
In a lively meeting co-hosted by Tertiary Education Union (TEU) members and the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), Northtec staff had a chance to say what was needed to keep education opportunities open for all Northland communities.
The staff spoke passionately of how market approaches to education have stolen opportunities from students.
Much of the problem has been the decade of underfunding and one-size fits all policy approaches designed by the last National Minister of Tertiary Education which sees Auckland and Whangarei based institutions being treated exactly the same. For successive management teams at Northtec, this means having had to adapt their communities to meet rigid government rules. The result has been decisions that have led to experienced tutors, valued in the community, losing their jobs. These jobs are unlikely ever to come back.
Rules set by the last National Government have also led to management deciding to cut courses in Motor Mechanics and Nursing in Kaitaia. The reason? Because each of the courses were short of only two students. Two students shy of meeting a requirement, and the whole course disappears, leaving local people without access to these important learning opportunities.
The funding available for students is also problematic. Northtec staff told the TEC of tales about student hardship and of debt collectors recovering unpaid fees from students. These stories could be compiled into a book about tertiary education in Northland titled ‘lack of opportunity.’ Regional polytechnics such as NorthTec have been badly hurt because education has been treated as a marketable product for the last decade, in a market that cares little about regional development. People with years of experience working in the sector are clear: a new approach is needed. Staff
at NorthTec have done a great job in difficult circumstances. But as one staff member put it: “We could do so much more, and provide so much more if we were funded and managed well.”
The government has come to the party with a major review of New Zealand’s polytechnic system, which the TEC/TEU meeting at NorthTec contributed to. There has also been some short-term funding stabilisation, with the Minister for Education, Chris Hipkins, putting $31.7 million into the sector to cover the increased costs of running our universities, wānanga, and polytechnics.
It is clear that the current government is taking a serious look at how we can ensure regional provision which meets the needs of local communities and businesses. Sadly though just as we make long-term plans, cuts may be made to courses and staffing because of immediate financial pressure. What we need is for the senior leaders of NorthTec to keep things stable, so we all have a chance to tell the Minister of Education and all those working for the public on the future of tertiary education, just how crucial locally informed tertiary education provision is for us.
The government is offering students, staff, communities, and local businesses the space to help create a system that works for us all. NorthTec management should to halt plans to close down courses where student numbers do not reach targets, while we have this important kōrero.
This will allow management, staff, students, and communities to work together to ensure that we get a funding model that fosters the trades, skills and knowledge needed by the Northland region. And a system that continues to be open to the voice of students, staff and the communities – after all they know what educational opportunities they need.