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Speech Notes: to Assn Polytecnics in New Zealand


Getting Back to the Knitting: Research that Matters

Speech at the 2002 Association of Polytechnics in New Zealand (APNZ) Research Conference ‘Research that Works – Interacting to Innovate’, Universal College of Leaning, Palmerston North, 27 September 2002

Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to you here today. This is the third polytechnic research conference that I have addressed as Minister with responsibility for tertiary education. The first one was in Whangarei, and the second was in Wellington.

So it’s good to be here with you in my home town of Palmerston North, at the threshold of a new era for tertiary education in general and tertiary education research in particular.

I’d like to take to take this opportunity to say a few words about why we’re making the changes we are in tertiary education. Then I want to talk about what that means for the mission of the polytechnic sector.

And, in that context, I will offer some thoughts about why research in the polytechnics – connected to the core roles of the polytechnics – matters in the new environment.

Tertiary Education for a Smart Nation

Firstly, why are we doing all this? Because we need to be a smart nation. We’re a small country at the bottom of the world. That means we need to try harder, and work smarter, than everybody else in order to get ahead of the game. We need to see New Zealand recognised internationally as a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity; a great place to live, learn, work, and do business; a birthplace of world changing people and ideas and a place where people invest in the future. How do we get there? It comes down to two words. In fact, if you’re looking for a vision of what this government is about, it’s growth and innovation. Earlier this year the government came out with something called the Growth and Innovation Framework. You may have heard of it: you may have even read it. Its aim is to return New Zealand to the top half of the OECD rankings in GDP per capita — and just as importantly, to maintain that position. When we talk to people about what needs to be done in order to achieve that aim, we hear time and time again: it’s about skills. If anything, there’s almost too strong an assumption that if we get our nationwide, and regional, skill-set right, then everything else will take care of itself. It may be a surprise to hear that coming from someone who, between my tertiary and employment responsibilities, is in many ways the Minister responsible for post-school skill development. And, don’t get me wrong, getting skill issues right is extraordinarily important. It is a necessary – but not sufficient – pre-condition for our success as a knowledge nation. Getting more strategic about skills has therefore been a primary focus of the tertiary education reforms that we have been working on together for the last two-and-a-half years, and which will reach an important milestone shortly with the passage of the tertiary education reform legislation. But, once again, this has not been the only focus. One of the national goals targeted by our Tertiary Education Strategy for the next five years is ‘innovation’, and Strategy Six is to “Strengthen Research, Knowledge Creation and Uptake for our Knowledge Society”. The phrasing, it is worth noting, was not simply “research”. Under this government there is an increasing emphasis on taking the best possible advantage of research with commercial applications. This is the D part of R&D. It’s where we take our excellent research and turn it into dollars. It’s what we need to do if we are to grow our economy. And it’s a part of the innovation ‘value chain’ where polytechnics are especially important. The Role of the Polytechnics

I’ll come back to that in a moment. First, it’s worth saying something about the reforms and the mission of the polytechnics. It’s fortunate, given the drive in the 1990s to undermine the distinct identity of the polytechnic sector, that we have your mission set out very clearly in the Education Act: 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. That characterisation, to me, provides both an strong anchor for your sector, setting out your historic strengths, and a marker for the way forward. I believe that it is by enriching and deepening polytechnics’ success in that mission that the sector can best expand and develop. I am encouraged by the Association of Polytechnics’ clear commitment to march forward into the new environment, united as a sector. We welcome the opportunity to use the charters and profiles process to further articulate the role that polytechnics play collectively within the tertiary education system. I would also commend those who are already making great strides in collaborating with one another. An important symbol of the distinctiveness of polytechnics has been the Regional Development Fund. This is a contestable pool of money within the new integrated funding framework, which is only available to polytechnics. That’s because we see polytechnics as having a unique responsibility within the system as agents of regional development. The fund is designed to strengthen partnerships between polytechnics, local companies, regional development organisations, industry training organisations and iwi. To qualify for an award of up to $300,000, proposals from the polytechnics and their local partners will have to demonstrate consistency with the economic development strategy being developed by their region and the government’s tertiary education priorities. What’s more, the awards themselves are just the start. They are intended to fund the development of initiatives that meet local needs. These initiatives, once up and running, are likely to themselves attract funding. New programmes, for instance, will attract Student Component subsidies and tuition fees. Some other endeavours may be eligible for funding through the new Performance-Based Research Fund (which I’ll come back to in a moment). We also hope that these polytechnic-led regional development initiatives will attract investment from business, local government and community trusts. The system should be linking together its research capacity, and working with industry to maximise financial resources. Once we all begin looking at polytechnics as the hub of regional skills and knowledge development, the possibilities are endless. A Strategic Approach to Research

Returning to the role of polytechnics set out in the Act, it’s worth noting both the fact that the polytechnic sector as a whole is given a clear research function by the Act, and that the function relates to a distinct form of research: “research that aids development” with the emphasis on applied and technological research.

This is worth remembering as we move to a more strategic way of funding and supporting research within the tertiary education system.

You heard Peter Coolbear from the Performance-Based Research Fund working group speak yesterday morning about the details of this new fund, so I won’t go over the same ground.

I’ll just briefly say that, broadly, the aim of the PBRF is to lift the average quality of research conducted in our tertiary education sector, whilst underpinning the existing strengths within the system. It will complement Centres of Research Excellence (CoRE) funding, which rewards high levels of research excellence and relevance to New Zealand’s future.

The working group reflects our commitment, as we move to the implementation phase of tertiary education reforms, to work in partnership with the sector and stakeholders, to ensure that we have policies that work on the ground.

Consultation with the polytechnic sector on the PBRF has proven very useful in raising awareness of issues such as the need to recognise and reward new and emerging researchers, and the need to recognise and reward research in areas that border professional practice. When I spoke to the stakeholder workshop on the PBRF earlier this week, I outlined a number of elements that I felt were key to the success of any such fund. Let me just emphasise a few aspects of that that are particularly salient to the polytechnic sector. The fund needs to recognise research excellence, wherever it exists in the system. We want to ensure that the quality evaluation process can identify excellent research when it occurs in the form of creative and performing arts, or in such fields as design, industry application, and professional practice. New and emerging researchers need to be appropriately supported, and providers need solid and practical incentives to develop and maintain their own capability. And we have to manage the transition from the current EFTS funding system to the PBRF in a way that allows providers to adjust to the new environment. Throughout all the changes, we must maintain the interrelationship between research and teaching so that all degree-level learning has a solid research base. This is about being more strategic about our research effort as a sector. It’s not about designing some funding formulae and then letting the chips fall where they may. One of the reasons for a relatively long transition period is so the Tertiary Education Commission can anticipate and forestall unintended consequences. If there’s a real need from industry for degree-level courses and for them to be delivered in a polytechnic, the Commission is not going to want to compromise that just because a research programme isn’t fully mature yet. We’ll work these things through. This brings me to a key message about the future of research in the polytechnics. Essentially, I think you’re already on the right track. The theme of these conferences has always been about, as the Act says, applied research and research (and knowledge dissemination) that aids development. “Research that Works.” Polytechnics have a genuine research niche. Their role is quite different from that of the universities, for whom it is their defining role, though in many cases their research efforts might be complementary to yours. Polytechnic research is just as vital as university research if we are to operate as a smart nation. Polytechnic research matters because it is ‘research that works’, and it’s also about working with industry to help them put other research to work. It is important through all of this for polytechnics not to see themselves as simply a servant of industry. You need a strong sense of your own independence and academic freedom, because that what makes your contribution so valuable. Public institutions must always be independent, and be able to play a ‘critic and conscience’ role when circumstances require it. By ‘sticking to your knitting’, by being polytechnics as polytechnics, you will find a valuable niche connecting the innovation system with the world of work. And through a variety of methods, including the Regional Development Fund and including the PBRF, those efforts will be supported and rewarded.

Conclusion

I acknowledge that the move to a performance-based research fund will present challenges to all parts of the sector, to varying extents. But it is fair to say that the PBRF will create opportunities that will make these challenges worth the effort.

The working group, officials and ministers have worked to ensure that we know as much about these challenges as we can before a model is realised, and that we will achieve a performance-based research fund that will provide incentives for excellence in research, whilst minimising costs.

Research makes a difference. I thank you all for your work and your dedication in this area, and thank you for the time you have given me here today.

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