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Maharey Speech - "Future Learning Environments"

Hon Steve Maharey
Minister of Social Services and Employment
Associate Minister of Education (Tertiary Education)
Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector
MP for Palmerston North

The Polytechnic in
The New Environment

Opening Address at the
Whitireia Community Polytechnic
Staff Development Day,
"Future Learning Environments",
12 May 2000

Embargoed until 8.30am, Friday 12 May 2000.

Check against delivery.

Thank you for inviting me here today to speak to your staff training. I take your interest in hearing about this Government’s plans for tertiary education as a sign of hopefulness. I think you recognise that after ten years of cuts, indifference and market forces, you have finally, in Labour and the Alliance, got a Government that has something to offer you.

I know that these are insecure times for staff in the polytechnic sector and I do come to offer you hope. The Government doesn’t have a huge amount of additional money available to it, and there are many needs in our community that have been neglected by the previous Government. Nonetheless, there will be additional money for tertiary education over this term, and -- perhaps more importantly – we are committed to using that money in ways that restore meaning and direction to our tertiary education in general, and polytechnics in particular.


Such restoration is desperately needed. In order to see how much the polytechnic sector has lost a sense of direction over the last decade, one need only look back over the course of the last half-century of its existence.

Like so many of the important facets of our education system, the development of polytechnics can be traced back to Clarence Beeby, Director of Education from 1940-60.

Beeby is famous for the originating the credo that has been at the heart of educational policy, under Labour anyway, ever since:
“every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted and to the fullest extent of his powers.”

It was actually an appreciation of the needs of industry which first motivated Beeby in this instance, but he quickly realised that his solution would also provide equality of opportunity to a range of students whose formal education had been truncated in the past.

What impelled Beeby was a recognition of the emerging need in the postwar era for a new breed of worker, the technician. A technician, he saw, needed something different from the technical high school education and apprenticeship of the tradesperson, but was different also from the professional engineers that the university produced.

It was this very trades-focussed vision that eventually gave rise, at the beginning of the ‘60s, to the first ‘technical institutes’: the Auckland Technical Institute, the Central Institute of Technology (originally located on the Petone campus now used by Hutt Valley Polytechnic) and the Wellington Polytechnic.

It says something about the way the heritage of the technical institute has been cast aside that one member of this founding trinity is now a university, another has become a campus of another university, and the third is currently undergoing a difficult restructuring.

However, at the time the model was very successful and much emulated. By the time the Third Labour Government came into power in 1972 there were 12 technical institute established in centres throughout the country.

The Labour Party however had different ideas. Its 1972 Manifesto embraced the concept of the ‘community college’. It was an American concept and reflected the sentiments of the time – community-centred, encompassing less vocational and more creative skills, and supplying an avenue for ‘second chance education.’ The adoption of the community college model was in large part due to a young MP named Jonathan Hunt who is still with us today as Parliament’s Speaker.

Eight institutions were founded as community colleges, while some pre-existing institutions also took on the ‘community college’ label. The eighth, in 1986, was Parumoana Community College – now known as the Whitireia Community Polytechnic.


The Fourth Labour Government brought further innovations, but in many ways the Learning for Life reforms were intended to reinforce the existing virtues of the polytechnic sector by updating what needed to change while preserving what was working well.

The new EFTS system funded polytechnics and universities in the same way for the first time, but it was carefully designed so that both sectors got the same amount of money has they had before – until the cuts of the National years.

The principals and Councils got the measure of institutional autonomy that they had been requesting for years, but this was to be within the bounds of carefully drawn up charters setting out institutional missions -- until National made it clear it had no intention of demanding or adhering to strong charters.

For the first time Polytechnics were given the ability to offer degree courses in their own right but Learning for Life Two was clear: “degree-level courses are expected to be a small percentage only of the total courses offered by polytechnics.” [p. 40] But the competitive model created pressures for institutions to position themselves in the market by seeking the perceived 'status' of a degree.

Perhaps most fundamentally, the institutional definition of polytechnic set out in the Education Amendment Act 1990 powerfully reiterates and draws together the missions of Beeby’s technical institutes and Hunt’s community colleges:
"A polytechnic is characterised by a wide diversity of continuing education, including vocational training, that contributes to the maintenance, advancement, and dissemination of knowledge and expertise and promotes community learning, and by research, particularly applied and technological research, that aids development"

This clear set of roles too has been undermined over the last decade as the previous Government tended increasingly to lump universities, polytechnics, colleges of education and wananga all together as some amorphous entity called a T.E.I. – Tertiary Education Institution.

The mismanagement, or rather, in important respects, deliberate non-management of tertiary education by government that has occurred over the 1990s has therefore fundamentally subverted the implementation of Learning for Life. In doing so, it has left the polytechnic sector in particular in a parlous state.

Many institutions are in significant financial turmoil. Since becoming Associate Minister with responsibility for Tertiary Education, I have had to step in to give one polytechnic the financial breathing-space to reorient itself for the future. Several polytechnics now have Crown Observers working with their Councils to work out a plan for their ongoing viability.

Even those institutions that have been able to manage their financial challenges have not gone unscathed. A malaise has attacked a sector no longer sure of its role. We stand on the threshold of the 21st century – what are polytechnics for?


This Government sees polytechnics as the engine-room of the knowledge society. Far too often the focus of discussion of the knowledge society has been exclusively on a handful of scientists and managers who are seen as making the key decisions for developing the economy.

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the knowledge society. The key factor is importance of knowledge throughout society. It is like focussing on the steering wheel without thinking to stoke the engine

Practically no job today goes unaffected by the need to respond with ever-greater initiative and flexibility. With increasingly sophisticate technologies, workers are no longer "cogs in the machine" but increasingly process supervisors, ensuring the smooth flow of operations and responding quickly to changing demands.

To use Beeby's labels, every 'tradesperson' is becoming a 'technician' – and I would emphasise that this trend extends far beyond the job areas where those terms literally apply. Our education system has to respond to this reality, both by equipping school-leavers and by updating older workers' skills. Inevitably, it will be the polytechnics that we turn to for this task.

This Government sees polytechnics also as a vital component of any strategy of 'Closing the Gaps' for Maori, and for Pacific Island peoples. As you well no doubt know, 'Closing the Gaps' is a major priority for this Government and the Prime Minister has taken leadership of our efforts personally. An important part of any successful strategy will be about building human capability, and here once again the polytechnics have a proven record of success.

14.3% of polytechnic students are Maori compared to 9.0% of university students, and Pacific island peoples make up 4.3% of polytechnic students compared to 2.9% of university students. Wananga of course are very important but it is a relatively small sector -- there are twelve times as many Maori in polytechnics as at Wananga.

When looking at the role that polytechnics can play in "Closing the Gaps" we need look no further than Whitireia Polytechnic itself. Whitireia, in keeping with its community-centred role, has always operated very much as a multicultural polytechnic and sought to operate in the interest of the Porirua region's Maori and Pacific Island populations. In taking over nursing training from the local hospital, for instance, Whitireia successfully targeted the enrolment of Maori and Pacific Island students so its graduates would more accurately reflect the local patient population.

This is just one of a succession of examples, which you know better than I do, of Whitireia shaping its programme offerings in ways that widen educational opportunities. It is a case of being a polytechnic, par excellence.


If 'Closing the Gaps' and preparing the New Zealand workforce for the knowledge society are the most pressing tasks that we see for the polytechnics, entering the 21st century, then how do we propose to prepare them for that?

The answers in detail are being worked out by the new Tertiary Education Advisory Commission, which is holding its second meeting at this very moment. The 'TEAC' was established this year as one of the first tertiary initiatives of this Government with a mandate to recommend wide-ranging changes to the shape of the tertiary sector and the way that it is resourced.

TEAC is chaired by Norman Kingsbury, an educationalist well-respected throughout the sector and current Chief Executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority. There are seven other members:
 Jonathon Boston, Ivan Snook and Linda Tuhiwai Smith from the university sector;
 Tony Hall from the private training establishments;
 Patricia Harris from the Crown Research Institutes;
 John Ruru with interests in industry training; and
 Linda Sissons, the Chief Executive of Hutt Valley Polytechnic from the polytechnic sector.

The Commission's work will lead to the establishment of:
 A funding system that encourages institutions to work actively together;
 A way of funding research that advances national and international levels of excellence in a complementary way across the sector – we do not want to see unnecessary duplication occurring; and
 A system where institutions identify what they do best in order to serve New Zealand’s social, economic and regional needs.

What that will do is alter the drivers that underpin how polytechnics and other institutions operate. This Government, following TEAC's recommendations, is going to set the drivers to steer our tertiary system in a more cooperative and collaborative direction.

Those drivers are not yet in place but the Government's objectives are clear. Institutions should start now in moving away from the competitive model and towards more cooperative and collaborative strategies.

An important aspect of the new model, particularly for the polytechnic sector, is that it will be based on clear differentiation between institutional types and differentiation within types. We would also like to see specialisation by each institution.

The role of polytechnics will once again correspond to the Education Act definition, which emphasises diversity, vocational training and promoting community learning.

For every polytechnic these statutory missions should take precedence over the provision of the sort of degree programmes that aim to emulate or compete the universities.

I want to be clear – there is nothing wrong in principle with polytechnics offering degrees. Nursing is a good example. There are strong reasons in terms of the professionalisation of this career why its entry qualification should be a degree as with doctors, lawyers and increasingly teachers. There are also good reasons, and quite a long history, in support of nursing training being offered through the polytechnics. Polytechnic nursing degrees therefore make good sense.

However degrees in the emerging tertiary system will require depth in their programmes of study and an adequate research underpinning. This means they will need to be based upon a strong teaching capacity within the institution, and be responding to a real need for that course of study.

Another important element of the Government's vision for tertiary education is that we are committed to maintaining and even extending the provision of tertiary education throughout New Zealand's regions. We see information and communications technology having a crucial role to play here. It will allow institutions to tap into one another's expertise to deliver a range of programmes that would not be viable otherwise, and may allow delivery into localities where provision is currently impossible.


I hope that what I have told you today gives you confidence that this Government has a clear vision for the future of polytechnics and this vision will provide greater certainty for you and your students.

The past few years have been very uncertain ones for polytechnic staff. Their institutions have been 'experimenting' to find their market niche in the competitive model. Some experiments have been successful, while others have not; all have been unsettling.

Tertiary education is a dynamic environment and there will always be change. However, if each institution has a clear and unambiguous individual mission agreed with Government, and is funded to succeed in this mission, then staff and students will have a significant degree of security, which they don't at the moment.

These changes cannot happen overnight. However institutions need to understand clearly that they will be expected to:
 Be cooperative and collaborative;
 Contribute to the nationwide tertiary system based on their individual strengths and specialties; and
 Have a strong regional and community focus.

Councils and management need to take the future shape of the sector into account when making their decision. It is up to them to ensure the ongoing financial viability of their institutions, but they need also to ensure they retain the relevant capabilities to operate effectively in the emerging environment.

I hope you will also reflect on these considerations yourselves over the course of today. Think about Whitireia Polytechnic's strengths and your own tasks in the context of a national system of tertiary education. Whitireia has an important role in serving the needs of its community and beyond. I am confident that your efforts here and this Government's efforts in reforming the tertiary system will both serve to strengthen that role.


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