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Cullen: Weltec’s Centre for Smart Product

30 May 2006

Tuesday 30 May 2006 at 5.00pm

Launch of Weltec’s Centre for Smart Product

Weltec Petone Campus, 24 Kensington Ave, Petone

During my brief period so far as Minister for Tertiary Education, one of the strongest impressions I have gained is of the outstanding commitment in many institutions to innovation in teaching and engagement with the business community.

There is an undoubted willingness, particularly in the ITP sector, to provide students with a learning experience that not only builds up their theoretical knowledge but also ignites their passion about what can be achieved with particular sets of skills.

The Centre for Smart Product, which is being officially launched today, is a very fine example of that dynamic within the tertiary sector. Very importantly, this is not a recent venture, but instead is a concept that Weltec has been developing and trialling for several years with the assistance of a variety of local business partners.

The Centre demonstrates two important principles: First, that engagement with industry is not something that a tertiary institution can do as an added extra. It must reflect a basic orientation amongst staff and management towards playing an active, facilitating role in the local and regional economy.

And second, that engagement takes a considerable investment of time and energy, and requires the building of relationships of trust. While it is true that a tertiary institution has much to offer local industry, it is also true that priorities and timeframes can differ markedly. Many practical issues, as well as some theoretical ones related to intellectual property and so on, need to be worked through before a robust partnership can emerge. In both these regards, Weltec has walked the walk as well as talked the talk.

As an institution it has had a very consistent focus on quality and relevance, and it has resisted the tempting diversions that some other ITPs have got involved in to boost their cashflows.

Weltec is the education partner of the Creative Manufacturing Cluster, which is a key player in the strategy for building a knowledge economy in the region. Weltec has developed internships within industry and successfully placed students on a variety of advanced programmes in professional settings, including IT, Engineering, Hospitality Management, and Health Care.

Weltec has also responded very positively to the emerging shortages in trades skills. An increasing proportion of Weltec’s funding has been coming from ITOs, with a 55 per cent increase in the number of ITO-mediated EFTS between 2002 and 2005.

The Centre for Smart Product demonstrates Weltec’s commitment to investing in new disciplines to support emerging industries. The Centre was established as a prototype in 2004, focusing on a number of initial projects. These have included R&D Jumpstart, a joint venture between the Centre for Smart Product and Industrial Research Ltd, a Crown Research Institute and Manukau Institute of Technology. R&D Jumpstart supports small and medium enterprises to undertake research and development projects that they would otherwise not have the resources or expertise to attempt.

The model is a simple one. WelTec students, with staff assistance, work with a client’s staff on an approved project, mentored by IRL or another CRI. Projects have already involved students and staff from engineering, information technology, business and digital media programmes.

With the success of its initial projects, it is time to launch the Centre as a permanent part of the landscape, with a core focus on addressing the needs of small to medium sized specialised manufacturing companies within the Greater Wellington Region.

As Minister I warmly welcome this initiative. As you will know, I have been stressing the need for the tertiary sector to place greater emphasis on quality and relevance. The government is currently engaged in a consultation and policy development exercise to reform the funding arrangements for tertiary education to place greater emphasis on these outcomes, and to place less emphasis on student volumes.

The question that is often asked in this context is: what is quality, and what is relevance? In a sense, these are hard questions to answer in the abstract. For this reason, NZQA has tended to focus on the components of an educational programme, the inputs; rather than involving the end-users such as employers in assessing the worth of what is provided.

Initiatives such as the Centre for Smart Product provide a more immediate way of assessing quality and relevance by merging the teaching of the relevant discipline with its real life application in businesses which need, at the end of the day, to apply a strict commercial ruler to what goes on. The learning that goes on in this context is arguably a much more complete preparation for students seeking to pursue a career in their chosen field.

The response of Wellington businesses to the Centre’s activities so far is a hearty endorsement of the concept and of the partnerships with Weltec staff that have built up.

I look forward to seeing great things emerge from the Centre, both for Weltec’s students and for the region’s smart businesses.

Thank you.


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