Jill Milburn, principal academic staff member and TEU Branch President Ara Institute of Canterbury (Aoraki), discusses the importance of supporting learning in the regions to Objective four: Future of Learning and Work - Learning that is relevant to the lives of New Zealanders today and throughout their lives.

I have spent the last 25 years working within the tertiary education sector. I have been through many mergers, both in the UK and in New Zealand, and I still find that Governments are failing to put learners first. We talk about students being at the center of everything we do, but funding models do not allow for this and class sizes for smaller regional polytechnics are unachievable.

Following the merger of Aoraki and CPIT we lost over half of our staff and even more students. Everything became centralised and virtually all management was based in Christchurch which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. We lost much of our community engagement within our three campuses, Timaru, Oamaru and Ashburton, with the community losing faith with us as well. We have slowly started to rebuild some of those bridges, but a lot of damage has been done.

I spend most Saturdays volunteering at the local farmers’ market, working closely with industry and stakeholders, and I am often asked why we no longer support community courses. We need to bring back these crucial learning spaces.

Meeting with schoolteachers and young people was something we once did very well, helping teachers upskill and working on partnership agreements that helped students staircase into polytechnic courses. The local schoolteachers I see at the weekend markets often ask why we no longer visit with or present to them. The careers and engagement team in Christchurch handle all this now, and we have lost much of the local flavour and rapport we once had. It is time for our institutions to understand that it’s relationships between tutors and their communities which ensure local relevance.

We have spent years working closely with all our stakeholders, prioritising life-long learning and development, customising courses, and supporting learners to succeed. We once had very close industry connections, having annual stakeholder breakfast meetings, where we had the opportunity to consult and reflect, but this again was lost. I have now been given a new role in stakeholder engagement, which is allowing me to get back out into industry and look at what they need and how we can support each other, but this has taken three years to happen.

We need to learn from what has been lost as the merging of sixteen institutions into the single New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology will have similar issues. It is paramount that we learn from what has previously happened and ensure our new institute engages with all local industry, iwi, Pasifika, Māori, international stakeholders and communities. We have so many lessons to learn but we need to know that someone is listening and that they are open to learning

Our philosophy has always been to provide a learner-centered approach with the flexibility for each learner to be included, to meet the needs of learners and the community, to understand the challenges they face and to work with them to build the future of learning and work by giving them the tools to learn and providing them with skills for life.

A revised Tertiary Education Strategy needs to acknowledge the skill, commitment, knowledge and future focus of those working in our regional campuses, and their importance in enabling life-long learning in our communities.