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Polytechnic Research - Steve Maharey Speech

Hon Steve Maharey

Polytechnic Research: A Distinct Role

Address to the Research in Polytechnics: Strategies for Success conference. Northland Polytechnic, Whangarei.


Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you here today. I am pleased to be involved in a forum such as this one, which is part, I think, of a trend to greater self-reflection within the tertiary education sector. Such activities will be valuable to the Government, the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission and the sector itself as we develop a more strategic approach to our tertiary education system.

I want to talk today about polytechnics and their role in the emerging knowledge society. I will then move on to talk about the relationship between that knowledge society and the tertiary educator sector, the place of tertiary education research and then finally the place of research in polytechnics.

This Government sees polytechnics as key contributors to the knowledge society. Practically no job today goes unaffected by the need to respond with ever-greater initiative and flexibility. With increasingly sophisticated technologies and work practices, workers are no longer cogs in the machine but increasingly process supervisors, ensuring the smooth flow of operations and responding quickly to changing demands.

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.


What do we mean by the ‘knowledge society’?

Much of it is driven by the so-called Information Revolution, with its globalisation of the world economy by the use of new technology. This present Revolution has been likened to the Industrial Revolution's early stage when the steam engine was just being put on rails.

There is wide agreement that the early decades of the 21st century will see accelerating change as the lnternet and other new technologies impact upon our culture, society, economy and lifestyle by increasing the available information at our disposal. These technologies driving the information age offer new and exciting ways of learning. Many of you will be involved in developing and shaping these changes. All of you will have to deal with the challenges and consequences they bring.

These changes will form the basis of what we call the knowledge society.

This challenge arises from a profound change in the global environment - increased internationalisation of production and trade, the real time integration (and volatility) of global financial markets and enhanced mobility of capital, intensified environmental and political inter-dependency; and social-cultural transformations arising from new information and communication flows.

The powerhouses of this new global economy are innovation and ideas, skills and knowledge. Education is not just about learning new skills and new knowledge. It also endows people with creative and moral capacities, thinking skills, receptiveness to new experiences and a curiosity and a capability to learn more.

We all have to face up to the challenges of the new environment, such as:

 the internationalisation of education;
 the growing importance of knowledge to the economy; and
 changes in modes of delivery in response to new information technologies.

Polytechnics like other tertiary institutions will have to become more connected and involved in the society and economy. So much more will be expected of them and they will need to deliver on those expectations by working closely with a variety of constituencies.


The Tertiary Education Advisory's Commission's initial report is very clear that:

A broad definition of the knowledge society should be adopted in the development of policy for tertiary education. This includes recognition of the potentially valuable contribution of all forms of knowledge.

Too many people see the knowledge society as being simply about more scientists and engineers. As a sociologist I am fully aware that the social sciences have an important role to play meeting the important challenges that we will face in this new century. The same is true of other fields that are not science or technology focussed. They are all concerned with knowledge.

However, an inclusive definition of the knowledge society is not incompatible with a strategic and selective approach to focussing our national research effort.

We have to make some strategic choices, but in doing so we need to heed the Commission's advice and not pre-judge what a knowledge society should be.

Our new economy is fundamentally about the application of new technologies, new information, and new competencies to what it is that we know and do well, and have being doing well for some time.

That's not to say that there shouldn't be innovation or risk-taking outside of our traditional areas of comparative advantage - but we need to be wary of being carried away by the rhetoric of the new economy when what we require is a sense of the reality of what that means for this place at this time.

It is my belief that New Zealand must add the best of the new to the best of the old: the geographical endowments that have always given us an edge. New Zealand needs to start thinking of itself as a ‘Boutique Economy’ with its key advantages being its low population density and its location.

We need to apply our skills, innovation and technology to leverage off these defining features that set New Zealand apart.

In the past we have made the mistake of neglecting the first part of that equation - skills, innovation and technology. We have been smart commodity producers but only to the extent of being price-competitive. We have failed to transform our export base from undifferentiated commodities to distinctive 'New Zealand brand' products.

However, there is now a real danger of us focussing on the first part of the equation (skills, innovation and technology) to the exclusion of the second (location and low population density). Internationally, everybody is preoccupied with information and communications technology, where the pace of change is staggering. With the mapping of the human genome completed, the potentials of biotechnology will be the next attention-grabber.

We have to seize the opportunities offered by these developments, but we need to apply them to our own areas of advantage. That means our location, the activities that can be carried out upon it, and the things that it can grow.

At the moment, the vast majority of this is 'below the radar' of the knowledge society. The Standard Industrial Classification System used by the OECD and other commentators when defining 'high-technology' products systematically excludes just about any organically based item. That might be an understandable simplification for the purposes of the large economies of the Northern Hemisphere, but it would be a dangerous practice for us to follow.

In many ways our success as a knowledge economy will be determined by our ability to move along the spectrum from 'low-technology' to 'high-technology' in exactly those areas that are excluded from the usual international definition.

As an example, when thinking about primary production, we could look at our wine industry as the model. Our wine industry harnesses the advantages of our soil and climate in alliance with the most modern technology and practitioners with specialised expertise and flair. The result is a range of differentiated products clearly distinguished as New Zealand-made and often competing with the best in the world.

People in other countries have reasons to purchase a New Zealand wine rather than one from somewhere else, and they have a choice of a range of New Zealand wines to suit their particular palate (though with an emphasis on the varieties we are best suited to produce).

As a consequence, our winemakers are price-makers rather than price-takers. Other wines are not considered substitutes for ours so a bumper grape crop on the other side of the world does not push our prices down.

Our other organic products, from fish to livestock to forestry, lie at various points along this spectrum, as they are also now being differentiated and 'branded' to lesser or greater degrees. It is true that the wine industry internationally has always lent itself to this kind of production and marketing.

What that means, though, is that the more that we identify particular niche consumer tastes in other areas and target them with our production, the more we will be a leader rather than a follower. This confers risks but also tremendous advantages.

And this of course is where, you, the polytechnics come in. Many of you have already established your niche research, Nelson Polytechnic with fishing and Waiariki with forestry spring to mind. Many of you are doing health-related research in connection with nursing education. Commentators talk about the smart city of the future. We need smart research now, done by smart people who can think globally and act locally.

Coming back to forestry, it is clear that this is an area where we can considerably improve the returns to both the economy and wider society. We are soon going to be reaching peak production, but we still send most of our product overseas as raw material.

Given the distributed nature of forestry and the focus on regions, this is an area that the Government's Regional Development strategy is working on. Can we add new industries that would considerably add value to that raw material - in furniture, modular housing components, new fibreboard and paper applications, and so on?

The advantages of location and low population extend well beyond simply growing things and adding value to what is grown. An example of this is our appeal as a tourist destination. We need to build upon the head start we have as a result of our natural heritage. That means developing New Zealand as a unique experience. This relies on up-to-date technology and a skilled workforce - which will need to extend beyond the 'tourism industry' as it is usually conceived.

In fact we need to see tourism as an opportunity to expose as many people as possible to the best products New Zealand has to offer. That way they will gain a taste for them!

Finally, our location and low population are also the cornerstones of a very attractive lifestyle that we as New Zealanders enjoy. If we can support that with some exciting challenges and reasonable financial rewards then we stand a good chance of retaining our best and brightest in this country.

We will never match the salaries that the United States, and increasingly Europe, can offer, but they cannot reproduce our lifestyle either. This therefore forms an important precondition for us to employ homegrown 'knowledge workers', and where necessary attract some from overseas, in areas which might otherwise have little to do with location and low population.

In each of these cases, and in a variety of other areas large and small, the challenge is to move our products and services along the spectrum to incorporate the maximum use of skills, innovation and technology. I believe New Zealand's success as a knowledge society will be based upon:
 Leveraging, in a variety of ways, off our natural resource base, unique location and low population density;
 Incorporating the advantages offered by the most up-to-date technology;
 Offering wide opportunities for the application of domestic skill and innovation to add value to niche-oriented products; and
 Having the potential to then sell the expertise and technology developed in these enterprises to the world.


Our ability to do this successfully will be crucially dependent on the strength of our national innovation system.

Worldwide, research networks have proliferated as the knowledge economy has expanded. The new technology ensures that new findings enter public debate more rapidly than previously and new users and developers pick up on the consequences.

If this is to become a successful Kiwi strategy, there will be need to be strong linkages between our economic opportunities and our research community. That will require a strong and responsive public research capability and we need to position our universities, polytechnics and our Crown Research Institutes for this.

Researchers, in whatever discipline, know that any complex phenomenon is the product of a number of components, each with its own complex logic but nevertheless entwined with the others.

This is true of a national innovation system. 'National innovation systems' are the analytical constructs that analysts and practitioners of science policy have in recent years begun using in order to make sense of their area of study.

At the heart of this construct are three assumptions:
 that the conduct of science and research can be understood to connected by way of a 'system' with many inter-connected parts;
 that underpinning the workings of this system is a particular culture -- an 'innovation' culture, with its own inherent values; and
 that this system for a variety of reasons can be thought to exist in distinct forms - of varying levels of developments - from nation to nation.

The nationally specific aspect of 'innovation system' creates both opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, the emerging global economy provides New Zealand the opportunity to tap into the global knowledge base.

We currently only carry out around 0.13% of the total global investment in science and technology. That means that there's 99.87% that we don't do!

On the other hand, to gain access to this global knowledge base we need to build our networks and develop collaboration opportunities. Studies show that those countries with the strongest performance in research and development themselves are also those who can most quickly and effectively assimilate overseas innovations. We need to improve the ability of our scientists and technologists to tap into the global knowledge base.

A strong and coherent national innovation system is valuable, not only in its own right, but it also functions as the entry-point to an overarching global innovation super-system.


New Zealand's total R&D expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product is only half the average for countries in the OECD. Part of this is as a result of fewer incentives to report research and development activity because there are no tax breaks. Nevertheless, this Government is doing its part to improve this by restoring the target of raising public funding of R&D to 0.8% of GDP by 2010.

We need also, however, to improve New Zealand's private sector investment in research and development, which is very low by international terms -- about one quarter or at best one third of the western world average. The Government is determined to support business investment in R&D, rather than just complaining about the lack of it.

Part of that will be accomplished by strengthening the private capacity to engage in R &D. That has been the goal of our introduction, in the last Budget, of a research grants scheme to help innovation-based businesses at the stage they most need help - at start-up. Our aim is to increase the levels of research and development investment in small to medium size New Zealand firms. The focus will therefore be on firms that would otherwise have difficultly undertaking research and development.

However another crucial part of the equation is creating a climate within our universities and polytechnics of positive engagement with one another, with business and with CRIs. This will involve a greater responsiveness to the needs of industry on the part of our tertiary education institutions. This is an area in which the polytechnics may have something to teach the universities.

But the Government also has a role, in creating the right framework for effective knowledge transfer.

The Enterprise Scholarships Scheme is one means for getting collaboration between tertiary education institutions and enterprises to encourage greater investment in research by the private sector and to foster a culture of excellence in research. I would hope that more polytechnics would collaborate with their research students and with enterprises to take up the opportunities provided by these scholarships.


Alongside that, however, the Government is also committed to strengthening research endeavours within the public sector. This not only means more money but also a better-focussed approach.

With knowledge now a very important item throughout our society, research becomes even more crucial. Research is now in many cases extraordinarily expensive. And the expansion and multiplication of knowledge areas means that no institution, or country, can be expert in all of them.

What we need therefore is a greater emphasis on reinforcing excellence and a more strategic approach to our research agendas. It is my intention that the funding system for tertiary research will promote both of these considerations.

However there is a tension here between the need to concentrate on our strengths to ensure research excellence, and the need for a sufficiently strong research base to underpin all offerings to ensure teaching excellence. This was something that the Ministry of Education's Research Reference Group stressed last year in its report on the funding of research in tertiary education. Two members of that group have since be appointed to the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission.

We need to strike the right balance, and here the evolutionary approach is the right one. Initially I would envisage that greater concentration of research funding in research areas of high performance would focus whatever additional money we are able to deliver for Vote: Education research. We want to avoid unnecessary disruption to existing programmes, by having departments that have on-going research programmes lose funding because departments at other institutions are seen as the premiere research centre for a given discipline.

However, the very practice of seeing departments as the primary site of consideration may also need to change, and this too offers to solutions to the perceived trade-off between research concentration and a comprehensive research underpinning.

Increasingly the focus of evaluations of research performance is going not on academic departments but on the research team - a group of specialists working together in a sub-field of their discipline. These research teams are more likely than entire departments to perform as 'centres of excellence.' This is particularly the case in the sciences and engineering, but it also hold true in other disciplines.

Moreover, there is no need for the composition of a research team to be confined to a single department or even a single institution. If we can recognise this, and indeed use technological and other resources to facilitate its occurrence, then we will be well on the way to a situation where a focus on excellence does not contradict a strong research presence across all degree-level departments.

This ties in with another important element of the Government's vision for tertiary education: our commitment 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.

The new information technology also means that research is more quickly available and accessible. It offers new methods of conducting and analysing research that are not so tied to place as previously.

There are obvious areas where the universities will lead the research and the polytechnic role can be complementary.


However we should not understate the strength of the polytechnic research effort. Polytechnic research is often based on strong links with industry, and the offering of work experience to students.

Industries such as carpentry, hospitality, interior design and fashion obviously offer opportunities for polytechnic research. But the field is wider than that.

A quick glance at some of the research being done at one polytechnic (UCOL) illustrates this width. Research projects include: morphology and the fitness of veteran athletes, environmental science, human/computer interfaces, business simulations, aesthetic research in photography and sculpture, and health science.

The same breadth is illustrated by research emanating from Otago Polytechnic's Bachelor of Information Technology programme.

For instance, using existing electric fencing, data is collected and transmitted from a farm to the polytechnic about rainfall, temperature and trough levels. The aim is to enable the farm to be monitored and controlled without the need for anyone to be on the property.

Another example is a software package that has been designed to assist farmers in gaining ISO accreditation.

An automatic roster system was designed for the Emergency Department in Dunedin Public Hospital. The department has been involved with research into the Infant Sudden Death Syndrome.

A third year student last year student helped develop hardware and software to create a bionic baby, which has the potential to be used in teaching young people to care for infants and provides feedback on their parenting skills.

A visually impaired student has helped inspire a staff team to try to develop a hand-held device that can vocalise texts from signs and labels.

I am aware of the great variety of research occurring in the sector. Polytechnics are undertaking social science research in areas such as unemployment in Hawkes Bay, fatherless sons, and daily stress for people with long-term psychiatric disabilities.

Hutt Valley Polytechnic has a practical pilot literacy research to advance trade skills.

The Eastern Institute of Technology has research investigating recent efforts to maintain the Maori language by Ngati Kahungunu.

Whitireia Polytechnic operates a Pacific Health Research Centre. Last year this Centre completed four research projects.

These projects and many more in polytechnics throughout the country cumulatively will be part of the underpinning of the knowledge society. Another heartening factor is the increasing amount of collaborative research.

It had occurred to me that one issue for the polytechnic sector was that many staff would not have a research background. Again it was heartening to learn that some are not only appointing research coordinators but also conducting introductory research process courses for colleagues who have little or no research experience.

I note with interest that several polytechnics have recruited from the university sector people to be in charge of their research programmes. Again, I see this as heartening sign, a harbinger of more collaboration, not just between institutions but between theory and application.

It is also pleasing to note that APNZ has established a research forum. This means the various polytechnics will be aware of what is happening in each other's institutions, which should as well as avoiding unnecessary duplication assist them in developing their own research programmes.


With this record in mind, what can polytechnic researchers expect from the new strategic and cohesive national tertiary education system? The short answer is that the exact details have not yet been determined.

We want to reconfigure the system in an inclusive and consultative way and that's why we have directed the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission to work closely with the sector, and stakeholders outside the sector, in developing its recommendations.

Five things are clear, however.

Firstly, it is clear that polytechnics will have a distinct role from universities and will be expected to refocus towards their legislative role. This 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.

Secondly, however, polytechnics will continue to be able to offer degrees. It is ten years since the legislative definition was enacted and we are not going to pretend that nothing has changed in that time. Nursing is a good example. This is an area that has moved significantly towards a degree-level entry qualification. There are strong arguments, and a long history, in support of nursing training being offered through the polytechnics. Polytechnic nursing degrees therefore make good sense.

Third, degrees will be required to have a research underpinning – and that requirement will be enforced. All degree programmes will also need to be based upon a strong teaching capacity within the institution, and be responding to a real need for that course of study.

Fourth, as I have already indicated, there is an overall need to focus research spending strategically and build centres of research excellence.

Fifth, we want to use collaboration and information and communications technology (ICT) to reconcile that strategic focus with a broad underpinning of degrees by research.

These are the considerations that the Commission will be bearing in mind as they make recommendations on the role of polytechnics vis-â-vis research, and later on the ways research funding should be allocated.

I urge the polytechnic research community to take an active role in engaging with Commission about how to resolve these questions in the ways that will best serve our country's development as a knowledge society.


In speaking to you today I have wanted to emphasise the different strands of research effort in this country and how they come together. We need to start thinking very consciously in terms of operating in a national innovation system. As the engine-room of the knowledge society the polytechnics will occupy an important place in that system.

I want to thank you for inviting me here today, and I urge you to work with us in Government as we seek to develop a knowledge society that will greatly benefit all New Zealanders.

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