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Cullen Speech: Institutes of Tech. & Polytechs

3 November 2005 Speech Notes

Address to Institutes of Technology and Polytechs of NZ Conference
Lambton Rooms, Intercontinental Hotel, Grey St, Wellington

Thank you for inviting me to address your conference. This is my first public engagement as Minister for Tertiary Education, and I should start by saying that I am relishing coming to grips with the portfolio, and I am looking forward to working with the sector to create a tertiary system that serves as a key engine for economic growth and social development in New Zealand.

My brief today is to talk about the government’s ‘vision’ for the ITP sector; however, I have to confess to a deep suspicion of the notion of leadership by ‘vision’. In some contexts, vision has come to mean driving ruthlessly towards an absolute truth perceived by only a chosen few, while ignoring any unruly realities, and ignoring the views and needs of others.

I would prefer, therefore, to use the language of goals, principles, values and priorities. These are set out in documents such as the Tertiary Education Strategy 2002-2007 and the 2005 Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities.

Our intention has been to provide a better sense of direction for the sector, but also to be pragmatic about what can be achieved and in what timeframe, and to leave ample room for innovation and leadership to flourish.

Two further things are abundantly clear to us. The first is that tertiary education is absolutely crucial to the task of building the productivity of our workforce. Growth in productivity is the major factor in setting New Zealand securely on a path of sustained economic growth. Yes, it requires investment by firms in plant and equipment, and investment by government (and private sector partners) in infrastructure. But the major investment it requires is in the skills of the workforce.

The second thing that is abundantly clear is that a well functioning tertiary education system has to be a four-way partnership between education providers, the learners who make choices (hopefully, informed choices) about how they will invest their learning time, employers who set the market conditions for skills of various kinds, and the government which is the major funder.

This makes for a considerable degree of complexity, with many interests to be balanced and many voices to be heard. It is something of a Rubic’s Cube portfolio. Nevertheless, it is the challenge we all must face.

We can see a slow recognition of this in the reforms to tertiary education over the past decades. Prior to the 1990s, the direction of tertiary education was a matter of negotiation between central government and tertiary education institutions. Individual students and industries in need of skills barely got a look in, except to be told that everything was being done for their good. The result was a relatively low level of participation, limited choices, uncertain quality and a frequent disconnect between the skills taught and the competencies valued in the labour market.

The reforms of the 1990s brought student choice firmly into the frame. Funding now followed students, and participation rates increased with the removal of most of the caps on student numbers, and the increased availability of student allowances and loans.

It is fair to say that employers still played little or no part in planning tertiary education. And central government attempted to be scrupulously hands off, trusting institutions and learners to deliver good outcomes, even when some manifestly odd outcomes began to emerge.

What those reforms ignored was the fact that when there is limited information or guidance about choices, a significant group of people will tend towards safe bets, and another significant group will get charmed into bad decisions. Alongside a lot of very good tertiary education outcomes, the 1990s spawned some decidedly average ones and some that involved quite frankly the pursuit of ‘cash cow’ opportunities and an atmosphere that encouraged high-growth strategies for their own sake. These caused justifiable outrage amongst taxpayers and politicians.

Our conviction as a government is that we can and must create a tertiary sector that, without exception, provides education that is high quality in terms of international benchmarks and the expectations of learners and employers, and highly relevant to the skills needed to face the economic and social challenges that New Zealand faces.

Not surprisingly, relevance, quality and innovation have been the watchwords of tertiary policy in the last few years. There has been some resistance; but my observation is that the ITP sector has been very receptive and provides some shining examples of what an engaged tertiary sector can achieve.

This involves not just innovative approaches to pedagogy and to community engagement, but also fruitful collaboration with local industries and local government to assess the skills needs of regional economies and how best to meet them.

It is very important that we recognise relevance, quality and innovation as aspirational goals. The last thing we want to encourage is a kind of ‘minimal standards’ approach, where providers try to work out how they can do just enough to get over the line and qualify for extra funding or a mark of approval.

I would like to see a greater sense of collective ownership of the overall network of tertiary provision. It is important that providers collectively offer learners with a clear set of choices and pathways that deliver them relevant skills and open up new opportunities to them.

This implies a number of disciplines:

- It implies the discipline of seeing tertiary education from the perspective of learners who are pursuing particular career ambitions. That means clear learning pathways, an assurance of quality and the maximum degree of choice consistent with acquiring a set of competencies that are likely to be valued in the labour market.

- It implies the discipline of collaboration, in areas such as responding to regional needs, sharing information, and enabling cross-crediting of courses wherever feasible.

- And it implies the discipline of differentiation, which is not about patch protection or preservation of silos, but about giving learners and employers a clear understanding of the unique focus and strengths of a particular institution.

I would hope that tertiary providers will take from this a message that the kind of high growth strategies of the last decade will not cut much ice. Specifically, no certificate or diploma level qualification can grow by more than 200 EFTS in any twelve-month period unless this has been approved in advance.

Nor will the kind of branding exercises we have sometimes seen, where instead of providing good information about an institution’s strengths the focus seemed to be promising all things to all learners, and a crackingly good social life on campus as well.

The Statement of Tertiary Education Priorities needs to be seen in this light, as do various recent initiatives, such as:

- The reviews and assessments of strategic relevance;

- The review of the rapid growth in expenditure in certificate and diploma provision, and also in adult and community education;

- The Quality Reinvestment Programme, which will develop and sustain high quality and relevant provision in ITPs and wänanga; and

- The review of the central education sector agencies.

On the Quality Reinvestment Programme, I want to say that I have been encouraged by the sector’s uptake of the initial grants. As you will be aware, funding for the programme will be worth over $177 million (excluding GST) over the next five years, and applications for Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the programme opened in August.

Make no mistake; this is about major change. Many institutions will look very different in five years’ time. This is what the Quality Reinvestment Programme is all about.

The Education Sector Review found the three central agencies needed stronger working relationships amongst themselves and with the sector, and overall they needed strong leadership from the Secretary for Education. These recommendations are already being acted on, with a new coordinating and leadership role for Howard Fancy’s office.

In addition, as you will be aware from following the election campaign the government has firmly put a stake in the ground about reducing the cost of studying to students by abolishing interest on student loans. This sends two important messages:

- First, that we are very serious about investing in tertiary education, and that the sector has a very secure future overall; and

- Second, that we believe we have out grown the laxness of the past, in which a reduction in the cost of study might have spawned a lot of unfocused extra activity without any real gain. We believe the sector has matured a great deal in the last five years, and is ready now to achieve real traction on the issue of building a knowledge society.

In other words, the next three years should be exciting and challenging ones for the ITP sector. You will need, literally, to ‘mind your STEP’; but so long as you do you will find this government, and me as minister, very eager to work together to create an engaged, focused and efficient tertiary system that truly delivers for New Zealanders.

Thank you.

ENDS

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