13 Feb 2019

Industry training organisations say students will suffer under polytech merger

9:11 pm on 13 February 2019

While the union for polytechnic staff is backing the government's plan to merge polytechnics and institutes of technology, industry training organisations say students and apprentices will suffer.

plumber generic, file pic

Photo: 123RF

Education Minister Chris Hipkins today announced proposals that included creating a "New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology" as early as the start of next year, and removing responsibility for work-based training from the 11 industry training organisations.

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Michael Gilchrist, said it supported the government's plan because its members wanted more cooperation between institutions and less competition.

"We have been asking for a nationally-coordinated system. The current model of competing autonomous institutions who are competing for funding, and that of course translates into competing for students and competing for high-value courses where they can make profits, that system isn't working," he said.

Mr Gilchrist said the union was worried about job cuts but hoped they would be off-set by increasing enrolments.

"Certainly we are concerned about our members' jobs but looking at the big picture, the context of this proposal is positive," Mr Gilchrist said.

Chris Hipkins 9 august 2018

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has announced plans to merge polytechnics and institutes of technology. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams said the plan would dismantle the industry-led training and apprenticeship system and the federation was not convinced the government's proposals would improve on that system.

"It feels certainly like we've been swept up as part of the process to stabilise the polytechnics," he said.

"Our part of the system was not broken, it is actually performing well, it is getting good results, it is vastly more cost-efficient to government than provider-based training."

Mr Williams said industry was best placed to decide the training arrangements that met its needs, including commissioning training providers to deliver courses and programmes.

"We currently have 145,000 people per year in workplace training and apprenticeships training in 25,000 firms supported by the eleven ITOs. This is the largest form of post-school education. We do this with just six percent of government funding for tertiary education. For every $1 million invested in the tertiary sector, ITO-arranged training qualifies 300 skilled workers. By comparison the polytechnics currently qualify 50," he said.

The chief executive of the largest ITO, the Skills Organisation, Garry Fissenden said the plan would disadvantage thousands of apprentices and students.

Mr Fissenden said the proposal would undermine industry training organisations, reduce employers' involvement in their staff's learning, and increase risk to business.

Job losses but "stability"

Mr Hipkins said polytechnics had been struggling and the merger would create stability.

"There have been something like 50 or 60 restructures of staff in our polytechnics around the country in recent years, that's clearly unsustainable, we can't keep simply restructuring the status quo so this is the circuit breaker that I think people are looking for," he said.

"It will provide stability and certainty into the future and it will give us an opportunity to do a much better job of delivering the skills that our regions need and that employers are crying out for."

Mr Hipkins said the proposal would save money by ending the duplication of back-room tasks including designing courses.

He acknowledged that would result in job losses, but he said jobs would be cut from the sector even if the government made no changes.

"We'll lose jobs if we don't do anything so there is no risk-free option here. All of the options have risks, including doing nothing. Doing nothing probably has the biggest risk."

Mr Hipkins said the new national polytechnic could be set up as early as 2020, but the changes it would bring to vocational training would be introduced much more slowly.

"The transition timetable we're talking about here is not a sudden big-bang jolt. This will be a just transition, it will be carefully managed, people aren't going to suddenly turn up to work to find their job's disappeared from under them," he said.

Mr Hipkins told Morning Report the proposals are about giving industry more say in the education and training that's being offered, not less.

"The ITOs themselves, up until two days ago, were saying that on-job training and off-job training needs to be brought together, that's actually what the government's proposing to do."

He said there currently aren't enough apprenticeship schemes.

Last year the government loaned $50 million to Unitec and gave $15 million to Whitireia in Porirua after the two institutions ran into serious financial problems. The money was on top of a bailout for the West Coast's Tai Poutini Polytechnic in February that included an $8.5 million capital injection and a write-off of $25 million owed to the Tertiary Education Commission. 

"This isn't' just about solving the financial difficulties of the polytechnics that have been in trouble, clearly that creates a bit of a burning platform and pressure to move quickly, but actually there are broad problems with the way they operate," Mr Hipkins said.

Polytechs that are doing well will continue to do well, he said.

"There are job losses everyday in the polytech sector when we don't do anything."

The Skills Organisation Chief executive Garry Fissenden told Morning Report the system is already as simple as possible.

Nearly 12 months was spent consulting with the polytech sector but seven weeks will be spent consulting with a sector has 145,000 students and 25,000 firms involved, he said.

"It's actually almost totally disrespectful to the firms that I represent to actually do that in seven weeks."

Mr Fissenden said the proposals are very light and officials have almost no detail.

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