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Skilling the Nation – the Mission of Polytechnics

Skilling the Nation – the Mission of Polytechnics

Address to the Association of Polytechnics in New Zealand Sector Charter and Brand Launch. Turnbull House, Wellington.



Good evening to you all and thank you for the opportunity to speak at the launch of the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic’s new charter and sector brand. I would particularly like to acknowledge Jim Doyle and John Scott and commend you and your organisation on your progress to date. I’ll return to your sector charter and brand in a few moments.

First, I’d like to say a few words about the place of polytechnics and institutes of technology in the new tertiary landscape.



I think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of a key reason behind the tertiary reforms, that is, collaboration and co-operation for the strategic use of resources across the sector.

We want polytechnics, and other tertiary education organisations, to work individually to identify and meet the needs of your own stakeholders. And to work collectively to identify and meet the needs of the nation as a whole.

We tend to talk about this as increasing the ‘connectedness’ of the system Why do we see the need to put more emphasis on connectedness?

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.

The government’s vision for a New Zealand knowledge society is clear. New Zealand will be: a birthplace of world-changing people and ideas

a land where diversity is valued and reflected in our national identity

a great place to live, learn, work and do business

a place where people invest in the future.

Some people will say that New Zealand is already close to being many of these things. It is true that we live in an amazing country. However, at the very heart of this vision is the understanding that we will not fully realise these aspirations unless we make some changes.

In particular, we must actively encourage more research, innovation and fresh thinking. We must provide opportunities to develop new ideas and we must radically lift the skills and abilities of our people – across the board! Not only do we need more brilliant academics, researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs – we need all New Zealanders to be performing to the best of their abilities, to be acquiring new skills as a matter of course and to be applying these with confidence and knowledge.

The goals and strategies articulated in the government’s Tertiary Education Strategy are designed to help us make these shifts.

As I just mentioned, a key to achieving our vision is to develop strength across the board in tertiary education. We need sector-wide excellence, relevance and access. And we need differentiation between institutional types, differentiation within types, as well as, specialisation by each institution.



Your mission is clearly articulated 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.

You have a clear niche in the tertiary landscape. In a nutshell, the government sees polytechnics and institutes of technology as the engine-room of the knowledge society and the powerhouse of skills development.

This government sees the polytechnics and institutes of technology as a distinct sector, within an integrated tertiary education sector, with a distinct mission.

You have yourselves summed this up very well, at your 2001 conference, as “skilling the nation”.

Polytechnics and institutes of technology make a significant and vitally important contribution to the development of the skills and knowledge our workforce needs to enhance our knowledge society. In particular, you have a vital role to play in regional and local development.

The key factor here is actually the importance of knowledge throughout society. This recognises that enhancing our knowledge society is not just about people getting PhDs. It is just as important to maintain a strong base in applied skills and trades. And you have proved your strength in this area.

Polytechnics and institutes of technology are leading community-based and regionally-connected providers of life-long learning, that are focused on empowering individuals and our communities to thrive, by enriching employment outcomes.

You emphasise diversity, vocational training and community learning, and offer a style of learning with which Kiwis associate. This style of learning emphasises learning by doing and applying new-found skills and knowledge to practical situations.



Another strength of this sector is your commitment to extending the provision of tertiary education throughout New Zealand’s regions. Polytechnics and institutes of technology are particularly important in this respect because they reach people whom other providers often cannot reach and they respond directly to community needs.

You deliver tertiary-level skills and knowledge at New Zealand’s ‘heartland’, with direct links into local and regional industry. And your expertise allows you to meet a range of industry and community needs, from foundation and certificate-level programmes up to undergraduate and sometimes postgraduate degrees.

I understand there has been some discussion within the sector about the Government’s intentions regarding your degree provision. I’d like to take this opportunity to state quite clearly that the Government sees the continuing provision of application-focused degrees, particularly undergraduate degrees based on industry and professional needs, as being an essential part of polytechnics’ core role.

Where we have to be a bit more careful is at the postgraduate level. I think it’s broadly accepted in your sector that, where there is genuine industry demand to extend training beyond bachelors level, the best way forward is through a partnership of some form between the polytechnic and a university. Getting more strategic about skills is a primary focus of the tertiary education reforms. And polytechnics are the place where a lot of the responsibility for this falls: the place where a lot of the action is happens.

Let me emphasise: this is where the action should take place - with you, in your regions.

Polytechnics are being asked to the responsibility for regional development as a priority – but this doesn’t prevent them from playing a national or international role.

Polytechnics and institutes of technology have a key role in helping to alleviate skills shortages in particular industries, at both a local and regional level. Your ability to engage and collaborate with industry means that you offer programmes directly linked with local business and industry and the skill needs of those industries.

Such partnerships are a catalyst for our transition into a thriving society and economy, based on knowledge, skills and ingenuity.

The plans of the Nelson Marlborough Seafood Cluster (of which Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology is part) for a seafood centre of excellence in Nelson is a prime example. This proposal is evidence of the ways in which polytechnics can work with industry to address regional skill shortages and support excellence and innovation in industry and research.

You are ideally placed to contribute to New Zealand’s economic and social well being through your ability to strike a balance between the needs of learners and business. And this flexibility of your sector allows you to respond quickly so that industry gains people with work ready skills and knowledge and individuals gain relevant skills that enrich their working lives.



The government’s tertiary reforms require more and better collaboration between and among tertiary education providers. Institutions need to see themselves as each providing an essential element within an overall system, not competitors whose status comes solely from gaining the greatest number of students. We need a win/win situation, not a win/lose one.

In particular, I want to mention that the vital importance of the collaborative relationship between your sector and its natural partners in “skilling the nation”, the industry training sector.

Polytechnics and institutes of technology have demonstrated considerable commitment to excellence and collaboration. A fine example of this is the Professional Cookery Team of Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’s award for Excellence in Collaboration at this years’ Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards.

These awards are an important element of the government’s tertiary education agenda to provide clear strategic direction and constantly to enhance the quality of tertiary education. These awards recognise those who are excellent already, and inspire others to meet national goals.

The chef tutors’ collaborative efforts with each other, students, tangata whenua, Ngai Tahu, secondary schools, industry training organisations and other tertiary providers means that students achieve better learning and employment outcomes by keeping tutors up to date with current industry trends and practices whilst ensuring industry is aware of their student capabilities.

The team’s excellence in collaboration ensured that the practical learning environment was linked directly with the hospitality industry.

A distinctive feature of this sector is its ability to form these mutually-beneficial partnerships with industry. And an important symbol of the distinctiveness of polytechnics and institutes of technology has been the Polytechnic Regional Development Fund. The government has made this fund is available to polytechnics and institutes of technology because we see you having a unique responsibility within the system as agents of regional development.

The fund is designed to strengthen partnerships between polytechnics (and institutes of technology), local industry, regional economic development organisations and iwi.

One initiative assisted by the fund was a joint proposal from the Open Polytechnic, Whitireia Community Polytechnic and Weltec to support and develop the optics and optical engineering industry.

Optics is an important industry in the Wellington region that is at risk of disappearing because of the lack of skilled labour. A National Optics cluster has been established to help keep the industry alive and this activity will significantly assist.

Your sector has made valuable strategic use of this fund so far on initiatives like this, and I am sure that project proposals for the next funding round in November will be as impressive.



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.

In other words, polytechnics have a genuine research niche. The polytechnic research 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.

To my mind, the key differences between the research focus of polytechnics and that of universities are in the methods taken, and the impetus to undertake research.

Polytechnics integrate research and development activities and the application of knowledge in practice, through teaching and support for knowledge uptake. Polytechnic research aims to support innovation in business, industry and communities. It is grounded in the needs of the real world, and aims to solve their problems.

I know your sector is very interested in the Performance-Based Research Fund. I’ll just say briefly here that the Government remains committed to the PBRF as a means of allocating research funding, and that the Fund remains open to all degree-granting providers that wish to participate.

Operating as a smart nation means that we have to make use of our full range of talents and expertise, and apply different perspectives and approaches. Polytechnic research, through its contribution of a practical and ‘real world’ focus, is just as vital as university research to the development of our knowledge society.



As you all know, through the Tertiary Education Strategy and the government’s tertiary reforms, we have committed ourselves to some ambitious yet wholly achievable goals - goals that will necessitate a significant shift in the tertiary landscape. Charters and profiles, are two key mechanisms needed to bring about much needed change in the tertiary education system.

However, be assured that the tertiary reforms, and charter and profiles, are an ‘evolutionary’, not revolutionary process. Simply put, the TEC’s approach to change is evolutionary and consultative.

The charter process is as new for the Tertiary Education Commission as it is for you. With this in mind I expect that we will all learn more as we move forward through the process of charter development, assessment and implementation. I urge you to work with the Tertiary Education Commission throughout this process.

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