18 Jan 2019

'Sense of hopelessness' as uncertainty surrounds Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre

10:30 am on 18 January 2019

Staff and students at one of the country's largest agricultural training facilities remain uncertain if they can teach or attend courses this year.

Taratahi skills tutor James Doyle demonstrates how to tie a termination knot on a fence, watched by students.

Taratahi skills tutor James Doyle demonstrates how to tie a termination knot on a fence, watched by students. Photo: Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre

The Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre was put into interim liquidation after falling into financial trouble in December and now meetings are taking place around the country to try and salvage its future.

A total of 200 staff have their pay cheques on hold at the company's 11 campuses, while more than 500 students have been left in the lurch in the middle of their courses. Another 250 were hoping to start courses this year.

Alan Roxburgh, work executive co-ordinator at the Telford campus, said it felt "like being held for ransom", with many staff struggling to cope.

They do not want to give up and leave their jobs but cannot apply for any benefits to support themselves, as they are still technically employed.

"There's been a handful of people that I've known of in the months since it started that have had to re-mortgage houses already, and put mortgage payments on hold and that sort of thing - so it's pretty tough," he said.

"I had no idea that they were going to resort to such tactics."

He is holding out that negotiations will bring good news by the end of the month, but said he could not last for too much longer "without actually seeing a pay cheque".

Tina Nixon, who was appointed to provide strategic communication advice to Taratahi last year, maintained that its financial collapse could have been avoided.

She blamed the government and its Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) for failing to help and for exaggerating Taratahi's financial strife.

Ms Nixon said the TEC told them they needed $30 million to stay afloat, but that figure was a "smokescreen" and it was actually less than $5 million when the company's potential asset sales were taken into account.

The liquidators would not confirm Taratahi's debt for RNZ.

"These institutions rely largely on government funding, and the government gave no indication that they wouldn't support Taratahi until the last minute," she said.

"That was literally weeks before Christmas and Taratahi tried everything that they possibly could to change the government's mind on that."

Ms Nixon said the situation that had resulted was appalling for all involved.

"I've certainly received e-mails in the last 24 hours from people in very desperate situations, who have mortgages to pay ... and are just feeling absolutely helpless and a sense of hopelessness around the situation."

But the TEC's chief executive, Tim Fowler, said Taratahi's problems were symptomatic of wider declines in the number of people seeking tertiary education.

"The overarching picture is that in 2018, we've seen the smallest number of tertiary enrolments than we have in the last 10 years.

"There's two reasons for that primarily - a declining birth rate over a longer period of time ... and the second reason is that we've got a really strong economy with historically low unemployment."

He said the vocational education area, of which Taratahi was a provider, had borne the burnt of that.

"One of the other issues is that the agricultural space does not have a great reputation and perception from the young folks coming out of school," he said.

"Whether that's right or wrong, we need to change that perception and get more young people interested in studying."

He said he was confident that students at Taratahi won't be severely set back, with the TEC "pretty confident" it had alternative providers that the vast majority of students would be able to study with this year.

Staff were holding on to hope that new education providers would be able to take over at existing campuses, with the Southern Institute of Technology tipped to take over operations at Telford.

Going forwards, Ms Nixon said it was important to look at what went wrong, and ensure that changes were made to protect the role of education in the primary sector.