Daniel Benson-Guiu TEU Organiser discusses NZIST and their current "track" record.

Cuts, uncertainty, higher workloads with less hours… Staff in New Zealand's polytechnics have been in limbo for years. For years, Tertiary Education Union | Te Hautū Kahurangi o Aotearoa (TEU) members have described this state of limbo as like being in a tunnel: we can see a light in the distance, but we have seen too many trains coming through to know whether the next will be something we can actually look forward to. In this metaphor, the train TEU members describe represent restructuring, and they’ve been coming regularly.

Our polytechnics are the backbone of our communities. They are the institutions in which we train our nurses, our builders, our social workers, and our early childhood education teachers. They are where we can learn new skills as we face an uncertain jobs future in the short term. It's also in our polytechnics where the staff we need to guide, train and support our students have been laid off time and time again. In fact, as we speak, many New Zealanders have looked towards the tertiary education system for retraining. Some polytechnics have been unable to take new students because they hadn’t planned for student numbers to increase in departments that had been slashed only at the start of the year.

You may have heard that when there is a recession, the numbers of students in polytechnics increases. This time our polytechs have been mismanaged in such a way that our students have nowhere to go, and our staff are facing higher workloads than ever with more students per class, and with less staff per student.

This is not how our polytechnics should be run.

The cracks in the system appeared years ago. Our polytechnics were red stickered, yet the TEU and our members have been continuously demanding a change for those still working in them. This is not a building that can be demolished, and our members and the community are the sector’s strong foundations.

TEU members have welcomed the proposals in the Reform of Vocational Education. The prospect of one polytechnic instead of active competition and undermining each other, of more collaboration between industry and our specialist staff in our educational system, and of more cohesiveness in programmes across the country has been debated in staff rooms and union committees. We have also taken our members’ voices to select committees and MPs, and these perspectives are reflected in public submissions. However, our members can’t wait indefinitely as a new institution, the New Zealand Institute for Skills and Technology (NZIST), is slowly brought to speed with everything the sector needs. Our members have been patient long enough.

While the NZIST may have been established in April, our Polytechnic system has not changed its colours. What we've found is that many of the old practices, the decision-making that didn't take into account the needs of our staff and students and our communities, continues. 

The NZIST has a bold remit in which polytechnics won't have to compete, one against the other, offering degrees that are similar but different enough to prevent students from transferring between providers. Our polytechnics have been competing in a free market model - at times undermining each other - to grow student numbers, despite all of them being public education providers. Our members in the Universities and Wānanga know this all too well. This model has meant that programmes may be cut because of small class sizes, even if the progression from class to the workforce is direct. Small class sizes mean our learners do better, and there is more time to support students who may be struggling, those, for example, who have children, or who have previously had the education system fail them. 

But the system still fails them. Programmes close weeks before they start, leaving students and staff in limbo. Student services are reduced, sometimes by replacing specialist academic staff. Other times, because the perceived cost is high, the value of these vital services is ignored.

As a TEU Organiser in Wellington, where I support members in our polytechnics, recent decisions by Whitireia New Zealand and the Kuratini Tuwhera Open Polytechnic of New Zealand demonstrate how NZIST has yet to come to the table and set out a vision for our sector. The Whitireia campus in Auckland may be closed as the poor financial state of the institution and a drop in international students as a result of Covid-19 pandemic has meant the campus may no longer be viable.

There are 15 polytechnic campuses in Auckland that do not belong to either Unitec or the Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT). The decision by Whitireia to close its Auckland campus could have implications for other campuses. The closure is, however, a short term decision – a quick fix. Auckland has historically been the preferred destination for international students. If we reduce capacity the remaining polytechnics in Auckland will not be in a place to cater for the increased demand. Indeed, we have seen this with domestic students, whereby cuts in courses and programmes over a number of years have meant that an upsurge in student numbers, as we are seeing at present, have nowhere to go.

The NZIST does not have any strategy for Auckland. The assets of its campuses across the network is unknown, and it has no plans for international students. Yet, decisions that reduce capacity in the network, or that go against the interests of the network, are taking place unchecked. Our members have joined the TEU in speaking directly to both the Chief Executives of Whitireia, Mark Oldershaw, and NZIST, Stephen Town. Closing the Whitireia Auckland campus is not the appropriate decision when a surge in domestic students in Central Auckland are waiting for new training opportunities.

In the second case, at the Open Polytechnic, a decision to cut academic specialists has been proposed. The primary rationale for this decision is that NZIST structures will cross over with current roles within the Open Polytechnic. This is despite the structures of said NZIST body, the Workforce Development Councils, yet to be finalised. In fact they have yet to be released for public consultation. Whether an oversight or a bad excuse, this is another example of a decision that may go ahead unchecked. Our members at the Open Polytechnic are bewildered at the idea that roles may be cut because a body that does not yet exist may cross over with these roles. 

Decisions like the above are not beneficial to the sector. A charter was put in place by NZIST to set out a vision for the new vocational education and training space that would empower students and staff, create avenues for collaboration, and provide opportunities for staff and students to be a part of the network as a whole. Reviews proposing the closure of the Auckland Whitireia campus, and cutting of academic specialists at the Open Polytechnic are not empowering, nor will they result in a stronger network of provision. If NZIST is in the room please stand up. 

At the Tertiary Education Union we have been demanding the NZIST intervene in these two reviews. We have already lost too many staff members to redundancies due to a poor funding model that has failed us and that has allowed our polytechnics to drift away from our communities. We cannot risk a further loss of experience and passion. We know that when you lose a course you run the risk of losing it for good. Just as importantly, we can’t wait for a new direction from NZIST indefinitely. We’ve been waiting on that train for years.