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Margaret Wilson Speech: Achieving Education Vision

Margaret Wilson Speech: Achieving the vision: Supporting strategic decision making in the reformed tertiary education system

Comments at the Association for Tertiary Education Management conference. Old Government Buildings, Victoria University of Wellington.


Good afternoon. It is my pleasure to speak to you today on behalf of my colleague Hon Steve Maharey. I know he always takes an active interest in this forum and has spoken at your conference each year since becoming a Minister.

The conference theme of marrying the strategic objectives of an institution to its operations is particularly apt given the nature of the challenges in the tertiary education sector.

What we are talking about is how tertiary institutions make good strategic and operational choices in a dynamic and challenging environment. Without over-simplifying matters too much, these choices are focused on the best use of the institution’s very scarce resources (and I can assure you I understand how scarce they often are!): Its people Its funding The energy of the organisation The academic and institutional knowledge which underlie all that the institution does.

The government also faces hard choices. These include decisions about funding and resources but also monitoring and oversight and, most importantly, leadership and vision.

In this address then I want to discuss three broad themes: Firstly, the vision government is seeking to achieve through the tertiary reform process; Secondly, how Government and tertiary institutions need to make difficult and critical strategic and operational choices that will help to contribute to the achievement of this vision; and Thirdly, to discuss some of the initiatives the government has made to support both the goals of the tertiary reforms and the aspirations of providers.

Government’s vision for tertiary education

Government’s vision with the tertiary reforms is about tertiary education being one of the key means for improving New Zealand’s social and economic well-being, and ensuring the system is equipped to do this.

As you will all know, the role tertiary education has to play in meeting our educational and wider national development goals is addressed in the Tertiary Education Strategy (2002-07).

The Tertiary Education Strategy is intended to be “translated” to a common purpose by different providers and stakeholders in a range of creative and innovative ways according to their different circumstances.

The reforms are concerned with making the capability of the tertiary system far more transparent. The system will then be exposed to better-informed debate and policy, which will encourage a range of positive shifts in strategy and objectives.

These changes will help move New Zealand towards our national social and economic development goals.

This approach assumes an increasing influence and role of key stakeholders over the tertiary system.

In part, the reforms are about shifts in ways in thinking and relating. The key relationships are between stakeholders, such as employers, communities, students, and providers, with the Tertiary Education Commission playing a facilitative role.

It is worth noting here that the government will shortly be consulting on the next Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities. This should be in place by the year end. The next STEP will inform the planning for the Profiles for 2006-08.

Making better use of government’s funding contribution

Let us look at some of the choices we all face.

Many of the difficult choices government has made in the past two years have been aimed at making better use of the government’s funding contribution. For example, funding decisions and developmental work have been focused on: research excellence (through the Performance Based Research Fund and the Centres of Research Excellence); strategic development (the Partnerships for Excellence initiative and the Collaborating for Efficiency reports); and teaching and learning excellence (the Performance Element of the Student Component).

The common element in all of these initiatives is a drive to achieve a better alignment between the operational funding mechanisms and the strategic intent of the Tertiary Education Strategy.

Community Education

To illustrate this further, it may be useful to take a close look at the choices government has made around the growth in the non-formal and non-assessed community-level education (what is called “classification 5.1”-funded education.)

One of the real benefits of this type of education is that it brings into post-compulsory education, and possibly into higher education, people who have become lost or alienated from the education strategy.

The government continues to support this outcome.

If, however, this goal is not married to a more strategic vision as to “where-to-from-here” – be it in certificate, diploma, degree programmes, or apprenticeships and industry training – it is difficult to say what we have gained as a nation from this use of tertiary resource.

Community education initiatives that do not lead to further engagement, or other benefits to our communities or economy, are a use of the nation’s resource that we can ill-afford. That’s why the government has chosen to cap 5.1 support in terms of volume and price.

In this case, and in general, we want to make certain the incentives we offer are ones that focus tertiary institutions on ensuring students succeed and are able to contribute socially and economically to our nation – rather than on simply increasing student numbers.

Retention of learners

For learners, enrolment is just the start. They need good information on which to base their selection of provider and programme. They need advice from the providers on what would best suit their needs and abilities, and they need the right level and kind of support during their studies.

A recent report by the Ministry of Education concerns Retention, Completion and Progression at qualification level. It provides a valuable snapshot of sector performance in New Zealand. This will be supplemented shortly with a report on the Pathways learners choose through the tertiary system. That sort of system-wide analysis has not been possible before and will greatly inform ongoing work for policy makers and providers.

On this note, it is appropriate to note the work of Veronique Johnston who is contributing to this conference in her keynote address on student retention and transformational change. This has much resonance with some of the thinking behind the work on a Performance Element for the Student Component, which I mentioned earlier, as our Technical Working Group of sector experts has recommended using course retention as one of the key indicators. A sector reference group, including Dr Juliet Gerrard from ATEM, are currently developing advice on this important area and where latest developments are likely to lead us.

Challenges facing TEIs

Let’s now move from policy challenges to the challenges facing your own institutions.

There was once a view that many tertiary institutions were resistant to change, bureaucratic and risk averse.

I know you will agree with me that such a view of tertiary institutions is out-dated, inaccurate and – if it does exist anywhere – ultimately unsustainable.

The model being pursued and developed by today’s tertiary institutions is much more along the lines of being: pro-active and future-focused well-managed able to manage risk; and driven by stakeholder needs.

We all recognise (and ATEM members are critical to achieving this) that enormous effort and virtually all of a tertiary institution’s resources are occupied in just keeping daily operations running. The issues that need to be considered in this respect are not simple!

For example, choices have to be made between programmes, new initiatives in teaching and learning, enhancing research programmes, investments in infrastructure to support future development and improving your own administration and student support.

But to ensure these choices are leading your organisation in a sustainable direction, capacity has to be found to closely examine the strategic goals that bring together the Government’s vision with each institution’s own mission and values.

The challenge for institutions is to make the right choices that enable them to achieve financial and academic sustainability; position them to foster relevant connections to regional and national goals and allow them to enhance excellence and durability in their educational product.

The Innovative TEI Conference

To stimulate thinking on how tertiary institutions can best exploit their own capabilities and strengths in a dynamic strategic and operating environment, the Tertiary Education Commission and the Ministry of Education will be sponsoring a conference on managing tertiary institutions as “Innovative institutions’.

This conference is planned for mid-February 2005 and will be held in Wellington.

Essentially it will be about stimulating institutions and key managers to understand how others have surmounted the strain on their resources to make good strategic and operational choices.

We recognise the issues the conference will traverse are not just “one-offs” for tertiary managers. They are, quite simply, a fact of life for you.

The conference represents a significant initiative government is sponsoring to assist tertiary institutions to position themselves in what is becoming a very challenging tertiary environment. And we want the leadership for developing the format and agenda to come as much from people like you at the coal-face, as from government agencies. The Tertiary Education Commission and the Ministry of Education will be working with ATEM and other sector organisations over coming months to design the conference.

However, I would imagine the issues discussed might include: how we can build on quality and high standards, regardless of institutional size or maturity; the need for entrepreneurial flair! the positives and difficulties of engaging in collaboration with partners; and the impact of changing paradigms in teaching and learning.

It should also be stressed the conference is not a “follow-up” to the governance reviews. My colleague Steve Maharey sees the conference as a means for all of us to be reminded of the importance of a vibrant and innovative tertiary sector to New Zealand. This is critical for the prosperity of our people, our economy and our future in a globalised world. It is also an opportunity to look at the strategic and operational initiatives others have successfully used in similar circumstances.


This brings us back to the vision I hope we all share – that of a tertiary education sector that it is dynamic, outward-looking and strongly linked with its communities of interest – a sector that equips New Zealanders with the skills and knowledge they, and the nation, need in order to prosper.

I have also focused on the choices institutions and the government must be prepared to make in order to work towards this vision.

The reforms were launched just over two years ago – we need to demonstrate they are working, they are achieving the sorts of shifts in performance, quality and behaviours that will achieve that vision.

My colleagues and I look forward to hearing the outcome of your proceedings.

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