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Role Of The Polytechnic Sector - Maharey Speech

Hon Steve Maharey Speech Notes

Partnership With Economic Life: The Vital Role Of The Polytechnic Sector

Comments to the Association of Polytechnics Skilling the Nation conference. Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North.


Tena kotou katoa. Greetings to you all.

Let me start by welcoming you here as the Member of Parliament for Palmerston North, as someone who is proud to claim this City as his place of birth, as someone who was educated in this city, as someone who left school and went directly into employment, and who then returned to education by way of night-school classes – what we would refer to today as bridging education -and as someone who went on to teach at one of the two premier public tertiary education institutions in this City, who was a City Councillor for a time, and who has had the privilege of representing the electorate of Palmerston North since 1990.

May I add a special greeting to our overseas guests who have joined us for this Conference – you are particularly welcome.

And let me add as the Minister responsible for tertiary education and training that I am told by the organisers, and have no reason to disbelieve them, that the decision to hold the Conference in Palmerston North had nothing at all to do with the portfolio responsibilities of the local Member of Parliament

I am very pleased to be here today, and to have a chance to say again how important and timely I believe the Skilling the Nation conference is. I'd like to thank the Association of Polytechnics in New Zealand and particularly Paul McElroy and Jim Doyle for the work that they have put into organising this crucial event. Thank you also to Sean McDonagh and Edward Guiliano for joining with us at this very important Conference and giving us the benefit of your respective assessments.

My brief is to comment on Sean’s paper – Meeting National Skill Needs: Aspects of the Irish Approach – and to keep me on my mettle I’ve been given 5 minutes and been placed in the company of a very talented group of fellow discussants.

Let me say at the outset that I sense that the rest of this conference will be in large part a ‘discussion’ about the issues raised in Sean’s paper. That attests both to the relevance of that paper, and the quality of the evidence and analysis presented in it.

And so all of the comments that I want to make today, and all of the issues that I want to traverse in the speech notes that I will distribute, are suggested or illuminated by Sean’s paper.

TEAC – top, bottom and middle?

I sense that for a number of those attending this Conference there is a measure of anticipation, perhaps even anxiety, with regard to the various recommendations that will be advanced by the Commission in the report due to be released by it next week, and/or by the Government’s response, or anticipated response.

Let me, on the record, offer some observations about the TEACs work to date, and the Government’s response thus far.

Firstly, let me state that this sector has made a very important contribution to the work of the TEAC, both through participation on the Commission – and Linda Sissons and Shona Butterfield have both made very significant contributions, and I want to thank them on behalf of the Government – and also through the formal and informal engagement that APNZ and individual Polytechnics have had with the Commission and its Secretariat since the Commission was established.

Secondly, let me attempt to address some of your concerns by a clear and unequivocal statement about he Government sees the sector.

I sense that some perceive that there is a risk of the Government viewing the Polytechnic sector as the second division of the tertiary education league focused on remedial interventions.

That is not the case – I sense that there is a greater measure of responsiveness on the part of this sector to the economic life of this nation, but that does not in any way imply a lesser status – quite the opposite. Polytechnics have the people, the facilities and the reach right across our economy and society that we need. As a country, as an economy, as a society, and as communities of peoples we are in need of institutions that provide bridges and pathways between education, training, and economic life. I can’t think of any institution better placed to make that contribution than the Polytechnic.

I sense that, on the basis of TEACs third report, Shaping the Strategy, some see a risk in, to use the TEACs expression, ‘focusing on the two ends of the system’, and are concerned that, if resourcing was to reflect priorities of this kind, the Polytechnic sector will be the loser in a zero-sum game, with resources going ‘up and down’.

Let me state quite clearly that the Government has not made any decisions about priorities, save for the general policy bias that there should be a greater degree of alignment between our tertiary education and training investment, and our needs in respect of economic and social development.

Given that bias, if indeed we were envisaging a zero-sum game, in your shoes I would not be overly concerned. The operative would here is ‘if’ – the issue is entirely hypothetical. And without negotiating the budget here and now, let me signal that I will be doing everything possible to ensure we increase the overall resources available to the tertiary education and training sector.

I believe that with a system in a process of change, and with a new funding model to be implemented, there will be ‘distributional shifts’ – some might even say, ‘winners and losers’ – but it will not, I repeat not be a case of one part of the sector being the casualty of resource shifts to other parts of the sector. I don’t believe that it adds much at all to represent the polytechnic sector as occupying the ‘middle’ in relation to the ‘top’ and the ‘bottom’. But if some choose to use this kind of hierarchical way of viewing the world, let me say to them that there is no way in which the middle is going to be mined to the advantage of the top and the bottom.

Nor is there any intention of making polytechnics ‘research-free’ zones – some excellent research is already undertaken, and I sense polytechnics will have a vital contribution to make as one element in vertically integrated value chains (some might say networks of research excellence) linking research to innovation in the delivery of products and services.

I can be no clearer than this – the polytechnic sector will have equal status with all the others in the tertiary education and training system.

Partnership with economic life

David Blunkett talks of polytechnics as institutions that provide “specialist knowledge that employers require, underpinned by rigorous and broad-based learning; key skills for employability; recognition of prior learning and experience; active links between learning and the workplace; quality qualifications”.

That is not a bad definition, but I prefer another one:

“A Polytechnic is characterised by a wide diversity of continuing education, including vocational training, tat 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”

That is the definition in the Education Amendment Act 1990, and that is the definition that will inform this Government’s orientation to the sector.

I sense that I have already said many of the things that I wanted to say about Sean’s paper. It would do a gross disservice to that paper down to one phrase, but I suggest that there is one sentence that evokes much of the substance of the presentation. It is this:

“In its partnership with economic life our educational and higher educational system is reacting to a changing growing economy which is at once making strong demands in relation to its skills and knowledge needs and providing additional resources to enable these challenges to be met”

I suggest the challenge of this Conference, captured in the theme, “Skilling the Nation”, is equally well captured in what is almost a lyrical phrase – ‘partnership with economic life’.

The recent Knowledge Wave conference set a high-level direction for New Zealand's efforts in the information age. Time and time again at that conference the discussion—both formal and informal—turned to the importance of education as a driver of economic and social development. In this respect, this conference is probably more meaningful to the average New Zealander than the Knowledge wave conference could ever have been – this conference is about ‘partnership with economic life’; this conference is about the real economy.

It is now time for action, and it is now time for polytechnics to position themselves as being, not just part of the action, but at the centre of that action. It is now time for us to focus on the links between education and the real economy. And that means focusing on points of engagement, and areas of delivery where polytechnics will have a comparative advantage vis à vis other players in the tertiary education and training domain.

At their best, polytechnics are the lynchpin of our tertiary system. At their best, they are signposting a direction already aligned with the Government's social and economic goals. We will support and encourage those who are blazing these new trails. The government, the tertiary sector, APNZ and the country need a polytechnic sector that is all it can be.

Collaboration and cooperation

We are here to find concrete strategies for going forward, and there are some great examples already in our system.

All around are responses to the message that the tertiary sector needs to operate in a more co-operative and collaborative way. Many polytechnics have started thinking about ways to work more closely with other providers and industry. Polytechnics have always proudly displayed their adaptability to changes around them.

There are a number of examples I could cite, but I will not play favourites by selecting out particular institutions or clusters of institutions

Most local polytechnics have good networks with their communities, and there are plenty of opportunities for more of these to develop.

For the good of the country—and of the sector—this Government wants to keep the focus squarely on collaboration. This mission is neatly summed up in the words of APNZ’s own CEO "all the rowers in the new boat will be facing the same way."

I don’t want to signal out anyone relationship as being any more important than any other, but I would like to comment on the relationship between polytechnics and Industry Training Organisations.

Shortly I will be writing to every polytechnic. At the same time the Chair of the Board of Skill New Zealand and I will be writing to each ITO.

The general tenor of the letters will be very similar.

This is what I will saying in my letter to a number of you:

“I am writing to you to express the Government’s strong interest in promoting strategic partnership arrangements between Polytechnics and ITOs. I am also writing to all ITO Chief Executives on the same issue.

As you would be aware from various decisions the Government has made regarding Tertiary Education over the last 2 years, the Government wants to develop an integrated approach to vocational education and training. This includes foundation skills, industry training and higher-level vocational education and training. This integrated approach is a key part of the Government’s vision for the emerging knowledge economy.

The development and maintenance of an integrated approach to vocational education and training involves long-term commitments. Both Industry Training Organisations and Polytechnics are key components of this approach. Both therefore need to have the confidence to invest in vocational education and training in depth and breadth from a long-term perspective.

Industry Training Organisations are responsible for setting skill standards and qualifications and for managing training arrangements that best meet the needs of their industry’s employers and employees. This includes their right to purchase off-job training in the interests of their industry. In making these purchase decisions, I am asking ITOs to consider the wider context for vocational education and training. I am therefore encouraging them to consider entering into long-term strategic partnerships with Polytechnics.

In turn, ITOs are entitled to expect Polytechnics to be responsive generally to the needs of their industry. This would include a willingness to enter into strategic discussions and joint planning with ITOs, and where appropriate, to tailor the provision of training to the particular requirements of each industry.

Some Polytechnics and ITOs are already well down this track. These Polytechnics and ITOs have developed long term strategic relationships with each other. The Polytechnics and ITOs act as partners and the two parties work together to plan for and respond to the vocational education and training needs of the industry. In turn, the Polytechnics have strong incentives to invest in the broad range of vocational education and training needs of these industries, and to respond flexibly to changing requirements over time.

I acknowledge that some Polytechnics may perceive difficulties in developing these kinds of relationships with ITOs. Some ITOs may feel similarly about entering into such relationships with Polytechnics. I am keen to facilitate dialogue between ITOs and Polytechnics, particularly at a sector level, so these difficulties and barriers can be overcome.

I have asked Skill New Zealand (and will ask the Tertiary Education Commission once established) to report on progress over the medium term on the development of strategic long term partnerships between Polytechnics and ITOs.”

I very much hope that the tone of these letters will be reflected in, and affirmed by what transpires here over the next few days.


The period between now and the end of the year will be a busy one for us all.

The Government has much that it wants to achieve:

Before the end of the year we will be introducing a Tertiary Education Reform Bill before Parliament. This Bill will in fact amend two existing pieces of legislation. Amendments to the Education Act will set up the Tertiary Education Commission and bring all post compulsory education and training under a single umbrella. Charters will be strengthened, and supplemented with institutional profiles.

The second set of amendments will be to the Industry Training Act reflecting Government decisions arising out of the Industry Training Review. That review identified a number of initiatives building on the actions that the Government has already taken to lift investment and performance in vocational education and training - ensuring that we really do have the kind of Skills Wave that this economy and society requires.

Also before the end of the year, we will release a draft Tertiary Education Strategy, which will set out clearly the Government's priorities for skills and knowledge development for the nation as a whole.

I am looking to this conference and this panel for the polytechnic sector to achieve a common direction and sense of purpose on the contribution they plan to make to the development of our knowledge economy and society.

This is no small challenge, but I have faith in the polytechnic sector. That faith is one that is underpinned by the contribution that this part of the tertiary education and training sector has traditionally always been able to make - quality contributions in education and training for the real economy.

It has been fascinating listening to Sean McDonagh - thank you.

I urge you to make the most of every opportunity to keep on renewing your mission as polytechnics.


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