TEU member Prabhat Chand is Lecturer / Programme Co-ordinator in the School of Trades and Services at Unitec. Here, Chand discusses the importance of academic freedom in relation to the powers vested in Workforce Development Councils.

Section 318 of the Education and Training Act 2020 relates to the academic freedom of staff and students of Te Pūkenga—New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. The Act not only commits to preserve the current levels of academic freedom staff enjoy, but to enhance them as well.

So, what are these academic freedoms? Section 318 defines them as follows:

a. the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions;

b. the freedom of academic staff and students to engage in research;

c. the freedom of Te Pūkenga—New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology and its staff to regulate the subject matter of its courses;

d. the freedom of Te Pūkenga—New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology and its staff to teach and assess students in the manner that they consider best promotes learning;

e. the freedom of Te Pūkenga—New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology through its chief executive to appoint its own staff.

We, as educators, have always trodden the academic freedom path with caution. We understand and endorse the fact this right is not absolute. Staff in academic institutions exercise a high degree of responsibility and take pride in maintaining a high level of educational and ethical standards that contribute to the public good. Beyond that, there is a level of student, relevant industry, and public scrutiny that tends to regulate and moderate us.

In every forum that I have attended in relation to Te Pūkenga, educators have expressed concern over the powers that are vested in the Workforce Development Councils (WDCs). While the functions of the WDCs, as stated, appear to be reasonable and in the public interest, it is important to recall the well-known phrase “the devil is in the details.”

When we consider good transformative and quality vocational education provisions, the impact of the detail can be enormous. Therefore, it is imperative the WDCs adopt a model in which employers "inform, but do not dictate, on vocational education.” An educational model where the knowledge, skills, and expertise of educators are adopted and integrated at all levels, through genuine consultation, co-design, and participation in the development processes. It is therefore proposed that:

1. all WDCs include a strong and equal representation of educators from within the Te Pūkenga network;

2. while the WDCs are an esteemed industry advisory body, they should not have the power to instruct or dictate to Te Pūkenga staff on curricula, content, assessment, and delivery; and

3. all WDCs are open to questioning, critique, and challenge by staff of Te Pūkenga, and that these actions are protected under Aotearoa’s legislation pertaining to academic freedom.

Ultimately, the success of the Reform of Vocational Education (ROVE) hinges on how well the educators, industry, and all other stakeholders work together in partnership within an environment of consultation, mutual respect, and collaboration – as opposed to the currently proposed model where there appears to be a stronger focus on the employer as the ‘end-user.’ This is particularly concerning in an age of increasing specialisation of skills and tasks, where an employer may only require a limited range of knowledge and skills to benefit his or her business. Whereas if we are to keep the focus on what is best for the student, Te Pūkenga should deliver the wide range of skills and knowledge that will enable students to be life-long learners. This will ultimately serve both the interests of industry and benefit the public good.

Prabhat Chand is an automotive engineer who has lectured at Unitec Institute of Technology since 2002. He has held various academic and leadership roles at Unitec, including Academic Leader and Programme Co-ordinator in the area of Trades and Applied Technology. He has a particular interest in vocational education and training, and previous to his current position at Unitec oversaw vocational programmes delivered by Fiji’s Ministry of Education.