Craig West, a senior lecturer at Otago Polytechnic, shares his thoughts on the future of the polytechnic sector as part of the Tertiary Education Commission’s ITP Roadmap project.
It is great that the Tertiary Education Commission is taking the time to listen to the perspectives of staff working at institutes of technology and polytechnics around the country.
Here at Otago Polytechnic we welcomed the opportunity to have an open and frank discussion about what is and what is not working under the current system – and from what I hear, colleagues at other institutions have felt the same. However, in looking at the structural issues facing the sector, one cannot help but notice the elephant in the room is the issue of funding.
The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has articulated the impact sustained underfunding has had on the sector – first, under nine years of National, and now under the current Labour-led Government. Indeed, this year’s Budget inexplicably froze funding to a sector that underpins pretty much everything this government wants to achieve. After all, who else is going to train the teachers we need, or the doctors, or the builders? The role of tertiary education in ensuring our success as a nation needs much greater recognition right across government. But it is also why it is so important we get this ITP Roadmap project right.
Now, the Minister did rectify the underfunding of the sector somewhat with his recent announcement of a long overdue funding increase. He also said over the weekend that he expects the government to have to put more money into the sector over the next 18 months.
However, one of the issues associated with underfunding that has not received as much attention as it should is the gradual erosion of competitive salaries in key areas such as construction. Salaries are such
that we cannot attract the staff we need for all the essential work to be done.
Resolving this, and the other issues associated with underfunding, requires a complete overhaul of how we fund the tertiary education sector. The Prime Minister’s on-going Education Conversation will provide a useful indication of what we want as a nation from our education system, but to have a lasting impact, in tertiary at least, this vision will need to be backed by firm commitments to rethink the funding system.
First, and as the TEU has made clear, competition needs to be stripped out of the system. It is a barrier to collaboration and is having a serious impact on ITPs, particularly when it has led to some universities starting to encroach on areas traditionally provided for by ITPs.
Baseline funding also needs to become an essential component of any future funding model. No longer can we expect every institution to conform to an ill-suited, nationally determined one size fits all approach.
Recognising the need to have a different model for funding provision outside of main centres is essential. We simply cannot expect every institution, no matter what community it serves, to conform to the same standards.
A variable funding model also needs to allow for institutional autonomy, so that institutions like Otago Polytechnic can continue to thrive as a provider of quality teaching that meets the needs of the local community.
When it comes to meeting learners’ needs, we know that a focus on on-line provision in the regions will not work. Whilst some on-line provision is essential, different learners in different communities inevitably have different needs. It would be misguided to expect these various needs to be met through online provision. So too would resorting to the purchase of off-the-shelf courses that have little consideration for the community in which they are being taught.
The digital divide between some communities means that on-line provision may not work for some learners who may, for example, be entering tertiary education for the first time thanks to the government’s fees-free policy. The last thing we want is to deter these people from accessing potentially
life-changing learning opportunities.
Here at Otago Polytechnic, we have committed to the central Otago Campus, but there are definitely additional costs involved that need to be accounted for. This includes smaller class sizes, and the ability to be nimble and responsive to employers/regional need. What we need in the funding system is some form of regional base grant.
Any new funding system must also remove the cap for those who are doing well with regard to delivery. It must also take account of the costs associated with serving different communities.
Proposed changes to post-study work rights recently put forward by the Immigration Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, also point to the need to end the absurd situation where some ITPs have to rely on provision outside of New Zealand, or outside of the region to prop up regional provision.
International students should not be seen as the ‘cash cow’ to prop up domestic provision. It is fantastic that we have a high quality tertiary education system that thousands of people from overseas want to participate in.
However, their decision to come to New Zealand should be seen as proof that we are doing things right – not as a way of subsidising the cost of regional provision. Also, when it comes to supporting both international domestic students, the current funding system simply does not leave us with sufficient capacity to meet the diverse needs of learners.
Fundamentally, the funding system needs to change so that ITP provision is viewed not as a business but as a public good. It belongs to all of us and it benefits all of us.