Phil Ker, outgoing Otago Polytechnic chief executive and life member of both ASTE and TEU reflects on 45 years as an educator and leader within the tertiary education sector.
There is not much I have not done in vocational education these last 45 years or so: tutor/lecturer (I much prefer tutor, and certainly not ASM!) in accounting, economics, management and tertiary teaching, followed by a variety of leadership roles including Head of Department (management studies), staff developer, student services manager, corporate services director, polytechnic teachers union president and lastly chief executive of Otago Polytechnic, the position from which I retired on May 29th.
It has been fun, exciting, frustrating, saddening and challenging, with more lessons learned than ever taught!
Let’s start with vocational education reform. In the early nineties I took over as the President of ATTI (Association of Teachers in Technical Institutes, soon to become ASTE after merging with the teachers college union) just as the vocational education reforms of the late 1980s were being implemented. Our sector had been highly centralised, being managed from Wellington by the then Department of Education. The reforms were exciting, having established polytechnics as autonomous institutions in order that they could become more flexible, responsive and innovative, and this indeed did happen.
Fast forward 30 years and these same institutions are now being dismantled in the interests of flexibility, responsiveness and innovation. Hello! No way will this happen. NZIST head office must now be consulted on all manner of matters hitherto dealt with by the now ’branches’, and new bureaucracies - Work Force Development Councils and Regional Skills Leadership Groups - will add to the controls of NZQA and TEC. More is about to be spent controlling vocational education than is actually spent on delivering it! These reforms for me are saddening, not because changes are being made – they needed to be made - but because they are not the right changes and the overdue investment in our institutions and staff is nowhere in sight.
Which brings me to the frustrations of the last 16 years in my role as Chief Executive – the perpetual shortage of funds and the deliberate and cynical squeezing of institutional budgets by successive governments of all political persuasions. Witness the latest budget – a meagre 1.6% funding increase for a sector in crisis.
What about the challenges? Undoubtedly for me the biggest challenge has been to lead Otago Polytechnic on its journey to excellence, which for me has always been about ensuring an outstanding and successful experience for our learners, the highest quality of teaching and services, the most satisfying and empowering working environment for staff and strong finances – the latter needed to assure the others. I am proud of what the staff of Otago Polytechnic have achieved. They have created something that could easily have been replicated - our processes could easily have been embraced as part of the current reforms, rather than cast aside.
What was that recipe for success? Mostly it has been about having strong values and doing the basics really well, but at the core it is about a highly engaged and committed staff who are trusted and empowered to get on with things, to make the decisions that they know are best for their learners and colleagues. We have an amazing staff at Otago Polytechnic – can do and innovative, yet overworked and underpaid. I do not say this gratuitously and if there is an outstanding regret during my career it is has been my inability to persuade the powers that be to invest properly in our sector.
I would like to finish with a reflection or two on leadership – the business I have been in for most of my career. Leadership for me is about the future, and therefore leaders are in the change business – envisioning a better future and getting others on board to create that future. Leadership is not confined to managers – it includes the everyday leadership of staff and their acts of leadership may be for small but nonetheless important changes in the interests of a better future. I have witnessed many acts of “grass roots” leadership in my time, especially at Otago Polytechnic, for which I am immensely grateful.
I learned one of my most valuable leadership lessons early in my leadership career as President of ASTE, where my job was to lead volunteers who were free to leave anytime they liked. I learned that leadership is earned, not a right attached to a position, and I learned that a “leader” uses at their peril their formal authority to force a decision with which those being led disagree.
My best wishes to TEU as you rise to the challenges of RoVE – your leadership will be critical to success.