The reforms of vocational education announced today by Minister Hipkins contain much for the tertiary sector to be excited about. The proposal to legislate for staff and student representation on councils and committees will provide what the Minister referred to as an ‘enduring guarantee’ and will ensure the return to a basic level of democracy in the sector.

For over a decade, many staff and students have felt under-valued and ignored by their senior leadership. They have often seen decisions made by managers that show little concern for teaching and learning needs. This is reinforced by research that shows a lack of staff voice in the direction of many polytechnics.

Earlier this year the TEU-commissioned State of the Public Tertiary Education Sector Survey was released. It outlined a system under continued stress by the pressures imposed by the market model, and found that continued underfunding and increased competition between providers had resulted in staff at our tertiary education institutions reporting both implicit and explicit pressure to pass students.

Pressure to pass students and bullying was reported on by the media. What received less coverage but was deeply concerning for those working in the sector, was another finding. The Survey research found that between 80 and 93% of staff surveyed felt that they were excluded from having influence at the level of council, in restructuring changes and at the level of institutional process of change.

During a period of great disruption, and increased uncertainty and anxiety in the sector, and at a time in which the future of vocational education in New Zealand is being decided, this statistic was strong evidence of what needed to change; We need a sector that values staff knowledge and expertise and provides opportunity for meaningful contribution of our staff in decision making.

The decision to put staff and student voice back into the heart of decision-making in the tertiary education sector is what the TEU, staff and students have been calling for, and it is exactly what is needed to ensure that we continue to build a high quality education system that works for staff, students and communities.

For many of us who have been campaigning for greater voice, representation, and democracy in the sector, to hear that the government has listened to what we have been saying is exhilarating and gives many of us real hope for what these reforms will mean moving forward.

However, along with a commitment to legislation, there also needs to be a commitment to getting the implementation right.

As with the creation of Te Taumata Aronui, the success of this increase in staff and student representation will rely on ensuring our voice, perspective and knowledge is valued and given the mana to hold institutions accountable. We are therefore pleased by the suggestion that staff and students will be included in working together in developing how our new role in the developing systems and structures might work. Through continued involvement throughout the reforms, staff and students can better ensure that any further revisions are not dislocated from the context of teaching and learning.

The move to legislate staff and student representation enshrines the importance of our voice, knowledge and expertise in law, and helps reshape the culture of our institutions back to that of a democratic organisation. The Minister was right in saying this is a ‘once in a life time opportunity’. Increasing democracy in the form of increased staff and student voice is therefore both an ends, and a means, of realising that opportunity and ensuring that we get it right.