Friday’s Tertiary Education Union | Te Hautū Kahurangi Day of Action to get New Zealand polytechnics back into the black signals yet another collective call for action for better funding for the country’s vocational education and training institutions.

The push comes at a time when staff in polytechnics up and down the country eagerly await the opportunities 1 April will bring with the unification of our polytechnics under one banner.

UCOL Whanganui| Te Pae Mātauranga Ki te Ao came together in black to support the day of action, because we know what polytechnics mean to our regions and smaller communities. We know what can be achieved when learners are provided with opportunities to live and learn and give back in their own communities. We also know what is lost when these opportunities get taken away.

Our vocational education and training providers, staff, students and communities continue to be impacted by a sector plagued by instability and insecurity following years of underfunding. This underfunding and instability has affected all polytechnics and communities around the country, but is particularly felt in our regions, where our polytechs, with all they offer, truly are the lifeblood of smaller communities.

Faced with the financial insecurity of the last decade, many of our polytechnics have had to make the unfortunate decision to close courses and cut staffing over a number of programmes. Time and again, we have seen - and communities have experienced - the impact of these cuts. Whanganui learners, their families, and employers have felt the impact repeatedly.

With a tertiary education sector underfunded by over $3 billion dollars as of 2019 due to a decline in funding year on year since 2009,  the promises of a unified system of polytechnics and all it will bring will not be realised, and our communities will continue to be impacted, unless we look to address the instability of the sector now.

Many of our staff working in UCOL Whanganui know of students that have had to move or travel long distances to attend a course no longer offered in their community. Students leaving Whanganui before 7am to travel to Palmerston North for class and not returning home until after 6pm because a class is no longer offered locally. We know the impact this can have on learners, spending much of the day away from their whānau, and unable to secure part-time work due to the long hours out of town. We have also seen the alternative, learners who have to uproot their family, move from their communities, or discontinue their studies.

Many will know the difficulty some second chance learners will face, after having chosen to return to studies later in life, only to find their course has been cut, and they must complete their studies online, when face-to-face contact and group learning with people from their own communities is so often key to their success.

Many, however, will also know the positive impact of continued, stable, well-funded vocational education and training provision in our regions. We see what a difference it makes having the capacity to offer a full range of programmes within our own communities. We see learners from our communities becoming the builders, teachers, artists and leaders we so desperately need.

Here in Whanganui, we see students from our communities who have studied nursing through UCOL, who go on to be a friendly and familiar face at our local hospital. Such student sare a visible reminder of all that can be achieved when we are able to learn in our own communities. TEU’s Day of Action to get our polytechnics back into the black was a call for better funding for the country’s vocational education and training institutions, but it’s also a call to support our regions and lifelong learning opportunities for learners and their whānau.

But without adequate funding, and without a funding system that is responsive to our regions and that prevents the continued closure of programmes, we will continue to see lost opportunities to improve the lives of learners, and lost opportunities for learners to give back both socially and economically.

The government’s review of the funding system needs to be done more urgently and the government needs to make sure transition funding is available now.

Our staff, students and communities deserve the security of knowing these life-changing programmes, and the polytechnics themselves, will enjoy all the benefits and opportunities a unified system will bring.

We hope the government was listening.