Industry responds to polytech reforms

Response is mixed to the Government’s proposal to reform the vocational education sector by merging industry training organisations and polytechnics. Some say the moves could undermine critical workplace and apprenticeship training that is vital in addressing New Zealand’s skills shortages, while others have acknowledged that some aspects of the education sector are in dire need of a shake-up.

“The world around us is changing rapidly and our education system needs to keep up,” Education Minister Chris Hipkins said when announcing the scheme. “At a time when we’re facing critical skill shortages, too many of our polytechnics and institutes of technology are going broke. The strong labour market is encouraging young people to move directly into the workforce rather than continue in formal education, when it needs to be smarter and accommodate both.”

Under the proposal, New Zealand’s 16 polytechnics and institutes of technology would merge into a single entity, the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. Industry training orgainsations would set standards and qualifications and would advise the Tertiary Education Commission as ‘industry skills bodies’.

There is an undeniable need for a change at polytech level. The Government spent over $100 million last year bailing out various institutes around the country, including the write-off of a $25 million loan to the Tertiary Education Commission. However, as part of the changes, the proposal would take away on-the-job training and apprenticeship schemes from ITOs and give it to the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology.

“It certainly feels like we've been swept up as part of the process to stabilise the polytechnics,” said Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams. “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 the government than provider-based training.”

Research has shown that for every $1 million of government investment into tertiary education, the industry training system produces over 300 qualified people, while polytechnics produce around 50.

Hipkins has countered that, saying that the suggestion came from the ITOs themselves.

“Up until two days ago, [the institutes] 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.”

Competenz, one of the country’s largest industry training organisations, said that the government’s proposals were unprecedented.

“The changes the government has proposed in its Vocational Education and Training review are more complex and far-reaching than we expected,” said Competenz CEO Fi Kingsford. “It’s unprecedented. There is no doubt the VET system needs modification and funding needs to be realigned to deliver what our industries need – but these changes are too radical. In a time of critical skills shortages, the last thing we want is a reform that risks undermining workplace training and apprenticeship programmes.”

“The role of ITOs is crucial and with our direct line to thousands of employers, we understand the demand for trades better than anyone else. When we surveyed employers last year, they told us that ITOs perform a critical function and need more funding. The VET goes against what the industry is saying. We need evolution not revolution.”

Both Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology have opposed the moves. Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt said the plans were “devastating,” while Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker said that it would undo all the hard work the institute had done over the years.

Not everyone is opposed, however. Toi Ohomai is one of New Zealand’s largest polytechnics, formed less than three years ago as the result of a merger between Bay of Plenty Polytechnic and Waiariki Institute of Technology. Three of its hospitality students won the Nestle Toque d’Or in 2017. Leon Fourie, Toi Ohomai chief executive, welcomed the changes.

“We agree that Government and wider society should be increasing the emphasis on vocational training to reflect the needs of industry and the rapidly changing modern workplace.”

Rotorua mayor Steve Chadwick also welcomed the move. Rotorua relies heavily on tourism and, by extension, hospitality, and feels the effects of worker shortages more than others.

“[The new proposal needs to] feature a real focus on career pathways and apprenticeships as being central to enabling our young people to achieve their training and work aspirations and get good employment outcomes.”

“We also know that there is a need to bridge current skills gaps that exist in our own district and across New Zealand as a whole, and we've always said that there needs to be a very strong link between business sector needs and what's provided by our vocational training institutes.”

The proposals “may go ahead in this or another form,” according to Hipkins.

“The Government won’t make any decisions until we have heard and carefully considered feedback from this consultation process.”

Public consultation is open until March 27.