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Survival At The Wa

Survival At The Wa

By Yasmine Ryan

Editor's Note: Yasmine Ryan investigates how Te Wananga o Aotearoa rose from 2000 students in 1999, to 34,000 in 2003 - only to face near collapse and a political fire-storm. But it has survived and is now New Zealand's third largest tertiary institution.


Rongo Wetere, the man who turned Te Wananga o Aotearoa into the biggest and most controversial tertiary institution in the country, has left New Zealand. The "wa", however, is back from the brink.

Wetere - idolised by followers who say he found a new way for Maori to flourish in an education system that had failed them, and demonised by critics - left for Canada two years ago. "I could not stand to see our institution being traumatised by a government on a power trip," he says.

The former CEO of the wananga made it mushroom from a mere 2000-odd students in 1999 to a whopping 34,000 in 2003. But in 2005 the wananga crashed in a fireball of political scandal and near-insolvency.

The critics accused the wananga of mismanagement, nepotism and poor education standards.

In 2005 the government sent in the accountants and by the end of the year Wetere had been forced to resign. The government, he says now, was "undoubtedly being influenced by tertiary institutions who felt threatened by the growth and success of Te Wananga o Aotearoa!"

He says his goal for the wananga - "to create an institution of change which would become a permanent and key part of the tertiary landscape options in New Zealand" - has been achieved, despite the government intervention.

And in a sense he is right. The Wananga is back: New Zealand's third-largest tertiary institution, last year had 18,500 effective full-time students and received $120 million in government funding. Enrolments this year remain steady, with 16,000 effective full-time students so far.

After two years of losses it is back in the black with more than $5m profit for 2007. In December 2007, the wananga regained control of its finances. Last month, Jeremy Morley, who had been part of the team from PricewaterhouseCoopers, joined the newly-autonomous wananga in a different role, as its operational chief executive.

Relations with the government have been drastically improved, which is good news for students and staff, like Gaylene Wawatai.
When she enrolled in a computing course at the wananga in 2000, Wawatai was typical of students unable to find their place in mainstream education. The mother of three says she was sick of low-wage employment.

Course hours at the Waikato Polytechnic and the University of Waikato were too disruptive. But Wawatai discovered that she could study at the Huntly campus of the wananga while her children were at school.

Having completed the six month course, Wawatai got a job at the wananga. The former courier is now head of Huntly campus teaching staff. She says the community-focus made her feel at home, as did the fact that it's a Maori institution.

"I left school at 15", she says. "I thought I was dumb". At the wananga, she says, people like her come to understand that "we fell through the school system, but we're not thick".

The wananga's present CEO, Bentham Ohia, says the wa has always been geared to make a difference for those written off by the secondary school system. Maori males, he points out, continue to perform especially badly at school.

After enduring the government intervention that ended just a few months ago, the CEO remains convinced of the importance of the "wa" for those ill equipped for traditional tertiary study.

Speaking of high-school dropouts, he says: "The question still remains, 'what's there for those people when they leave?'." Thirty-eight percent of the wananga's 2007 students had left secondary school with no qualifications.

Many Maori are stuck in unskilled, poorly paid jobs, adds Ohia. Fifty-four percent of students come to the wananga straight from the workforce, most of them aged over 25. Many continue to work during their studies. Last year, 42 percent of the students were Maori and 70 percent were women.

When Ohia was appointed CEO, Pakeha accountants had taken hold of the purse strings.

It was May 2006 and a government-ordered reform was still shaking the foundations of the Waikato-based, Maori-run organisation.
Brian Roche, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers, had been in total financial control since March 2005. His "occupation" was to last nearly three years.

The appointment of Ohia - who had been second-in-charge to Wetere - was a concession to Wetere to get him out the door. Wetere had been forced to resign in December 2005, following months of heavy-handed manoeuvring and threats by the government.

Government and media pressure finally pushed Wetere to resign a week after a report by the Auditor-General found him and some of his associates responsible for conflicts of interest and serious financial mismanagement.

When Ohia took over, survival was by no means guaranteed for the "wa". He inherited an institution that had already undergone drastic reforms, was in dire financial straits, and had a damaged reputation. Under the guidance of Crown appointees, courses deemed uneconomic were being dumped, as were trade and business courses. It was well on the way to becoming a "lite" version of its former self.

With all the negative publicity, effective full-time students had dropped from 34,000 in 2003 to 27,000 in 2005. By 2006, they were at 21,000. (A government-imposed cap today continues to limit the wananga to 19,000 EFTS.)

"2005 was the year we'll never forget," says Ohia. Its supporters feared the wananga would never be the same. A struggle was on to preserve the learning approach they knew worked for many, both Maori and non-Maori, who had failed in other educational settings.
When then-ACT MP Ken Shirley exposed a series of scandals at Te Wananga o Aotearoa in February 2005 - at the dawn of an election year - the Crown told the wananga that it intended to appoint a Crown observer.

Then-Minister of Education Trevor Mallard also chose to extend the scope of an audit the Auditor-General had begun the previous August. With the newest allegations, ranging from nepotism involving a lucrative car-grooming contract, to a luxury apartment in the Gulf Harbour, the brief was expanded.

Maori Party education spokesperson Te Ururoa Flavell says the financial audit was enough to satisfy taxpayers, but the country would have been better informed by a comprehensive investigation. He claims the government didn't want light shone on the fact that it had "almost been giving an open book" to the wananga.

Former Alliance Party president and now Unite union general secretary, Matt McCarten, has followed the wananga closely and was briefly a wananga councillor. He's disgusted that while the institution had been frequently audited, the government failed to offer management advice or controls. And this during a period of astounding growth.

"If there was an independent inquiry looking at it, I think there'd be a lot of bureaucrats in the former education ministry that might be rather embarrassed," says McCarten.

Indeed, over five years of extensive auditing, neither accountants, Deloitte, nor the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) which approves all courses, nor the Office of the Auditor-General appear to have realised the full extent of the trouble.

Not only were there ill-judged investments and conflicted dealings with related parties, but the wananga had gone from a $33 million surplus in 2003 to near-insolvency in 2005. In 2004, it had received $239 million in government funding.

Financial auditors at the wananga failed to pick up serious problems. From 2002, Deloitte partner Graeme McNally had acted as a Government watchdog and financial adviser at the wananga, while Deloitte personnel were auditing its annual accounts. This conflict of interest went undetected until late 2004. McNally subsequently resigned, and Deloitte "agreed to withdraw" from the annual audit.

The Auditor-General Kevin Brady received a grilling before a parliamentary committee in March 2006. National's Bill English highlighted what he called a "fundamental conflict": the Auditor-General was acting as Parliament's watchdog, at the same time as his office was the statutory auditor - signing off the accounts from Deloitte.

Brady's 2006 report concluded there had been no misappropriation of money, no fraud and no nepotism, but it did identify conflicts of interest and inappropriate use of taxpayers' money.

Some of the main conflicts of interest involved 17 members of the Wetere family who had helped build the wananga, some re-mortgaging their homes and taking out personal loans When large amounts of government funds started flowing in, however, these informal arrangements quickly became problematic.

Companies owned by Susan Cullen (Wetere's daughter) reportedly earned $74.2 million from contracts with the wananga from 2000 to 2005.

Cullen, who developed key educational programmes for the wananga, paid a record $29.3 million for a Southland dairy farm in late 2007, and has other major business interests in the Waikato.

When moves were finally made to rein in the wananga, Tamihere says, financial mismanagement was so rife through the entire sub-degree sector that "somebody further up the food chain decided any allegations of criminal activity would reflect badly on the government".

Facing a huge cash crisis, the institution was in desperate need of a $30 million suspensory loan it had been promised by the Crown. The money was withheld.

Many within the wananga felt the Crown was playing hard-ball to create a cash-flow crisis in the asset-rich wananga.

Mallard soon upped the ante. Using his powers of statutory intervention, he appointed Roche as Crown observer in February 2005.

Faced with financial threats and the possibility of being replaced by a commissioner, the wananga council quickly approved Roche as Crown manager. This gave him control over the institution's finances. Roche was unavailable for comment for this article.

By mid-2005 the wananga was under immense pressure as it struggled to accommodate the many government-ordered audits, reviews and negotiations it was undergoing.

Attempting to avoid Mallard's threat of a commissioner, most longstanding council members agreed to "temporarily" resign in June 2005. The council, which previously had 14 members, was now dominated by Crown appointees (three out of five). Contrary to what the former members had been led to believe, this new council sent Wetere on paid leave.

With relations between the Crown and the wananga's founders at an all-time low, McCarten was called to help negotiate the return of the former council members.

Mallard, he says, insulted Wetere by "sending in bureaucrats, chipping away, doing dirty tricks � there was no mana involved". Little effort was made to build a collaborative relationship or to offer support to senior management.

In February 2005, Mallard said the wananga had exceeded its core functions and that he intended to shrink the institution to make it more like the nation's two other wananga.

The Unite union began a collaboration in 2006 to offer wananga business and computing courses to its members, while the government continued to argue the wananga should stick to traditional Maori subjects like Te Reo and carving, and leave areas like computing and business skills to polytechnics and universities.

At the heart of the debate is what McCarten summarises as the predominant Maori view, that "the solution to Maori non-achievement has to be [provided] by Maori".

He believes there was a political agenda to make the wananga "a non-threatening, brown polytechnic".
"If Mallard had had his way, he would have brought it to its knees".

McCarten says only two things prevented Mallard slashing the wananga: the Waitangi Tribunal finding in late 2005 that the Crown intervention was in breach of the Treaty, and the arrival of Michael Cullen as Minister of Tertiary Education around the same time.
Cullen, McCarten adds, was supportive of the wananga and has "acted appropriately all the way through".

Ohia is positive about the relationship he formed with Michael Cullen, describing it as "honest and upfront". Pete Hodgson took over from Cullen this year.

A total of 380 jobs were cut during restructuring. Ohia admits there had been too many non-teaching staff. No campuses were closed, but some unprofitable small-scale teaching sites were shut down. And instead of having administration support at each site, the wananga has grouped its branches into six regions. Students can still study at 141 locations and the wananga today employs 1,400 staff.

Flavell claims Mallard's clamp-down on the wananga was partly a result of pressure from traditional tertiary education quarters, especially from the university vice-chancellors. "The mainstream education sector has seen wananga as a threat for some time," says Flavell.

Under a funding regime that put numbers of students enrolled ahead of course quality, institutions like the wananga, with lower overheads than universities, were able to make profits previously unknown in the tertiary sector.

A National government cleared the way for the wananga's phenomenal growth when it removed a cap on enrolment growth in 1998. Only in its present term did the government change the rules. The emphasis is now on research and quality rather than unfettered competition for students.

Negotiations on the controversial Greenlight adult literacy programme were less successful. Developed by the wananga and the Cuban education ministry, Wetere was granted exclusive rights to market the pilot programme as part of his exit deal. Co-ordinated by Marcia Krawll, Rongo Wetere's fianc�e, the creation costs of this programme had run several million over budget.

With Wetere gone, no deal to deliver the programme to wananga students could be reached between the wananga and the Cubans. Ohia says the wananga is now planning to develop an alternative adult literacy programme, to get it back in the community, "where it belongs".

In fact, the Greenlight programme forms the basis for the work Wetere is doing on adult literacy with indigenous people in Canada.
Wetere is keeping silent over the controversy for now, but says he has begun a book that will one day reveal some of the unanswered questions surrounding the Crown's intervention.

For Flavell, anger amongst Maori over the government intervention in the wananga has "died a natural death", overtaken by other issues.

Optimistic about the future, Ohia reckons the wananga stayed true to its fundamental focus, "to support our people, our communities and all New Zealanders". Students are increasingly being encouraged to continue their studies past the sub-degree courses, on to bachelor degrees and postgraduate studies. The wananga also plans to develop educational alternatives for secondary school students. What Ohia terms "the survival years" are over.

In spite of significant drops in funding, student numbers and staff, the foundational business and computing courses have survived - leaving the door open to students like Wawatai. Alongside courses Te Reo Maori and Maori visual arts, the wananga offers programmes in areas like social services or primary teaching, from a bicultural perspective.

The lesson drawn by many influential Maori leaders, says McCarten, is not to trust Labour. "You're allowed to be of service to them, and to make them feel good, but as soon as we [Maori] try and do it ourselves, that's it".


Yasmine Ryan is a New Zealand journalist based in Paris. She reports on New Zealand politics, and international affairs.


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