Last Tuesday Education Minister Chris Hipkins visited Otago Polytech to address concerned students, faculty, and staff, following the Government proposing a merger of all 16 of New Zealand’s polytechs.
The controversial merger bodes ill for standout polytechs like Otago, which are concerned their strengths will be watered down to prop up failing polytechs. Hipkins provided no reassurances, saying, “We want to share Otago’s success with the rest of the country”.
Props to Hipkins for showing up and pretending to care. “This is a genuine consultation exercise,” he said. “This is a reform programme, but actually, I don’t want to go ahead with a reform programme until we get the chance to engage with all of you on the ground and in our local communities.” Engagement isn’t synonymous with appreciation, however. I engage with my toilet every morning when I take a shit.
Hipkins said the merger aims to bring together the currently disparate systems for vocational education and on-the-job training provided by workplaces. It will create the “New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology” and a better funding system for vocational education in New Zealand, he said.
Lofty goals aside, Otago Polytechnic students and staff are concerned the merger will pull down Otago Polytechnic into mediocrity when it is forced to “share the wealth” with other regions and institutions, in Hipkins’ words.
At Tuesday’s meeting at the Polytech, concerned parties voiced complaints along the lines of the obvious: “Why, under this proposal, will the results of our hard work and accomplishments be redistributed to other institutions that took no part in the work that brought us to the position we’re in today?”
Richard Greatbanks, Associate Dean of the Otago Business School mentioned Otago Polytechnic’s Baldrige Performance Excellence Award in 2018, and the apparent lack of space for “excellent” institutions under the proposed merger. “How will you ensure,” he asked Hipkins, “that we don’t end up with a polytechnic sector in three or four years that is a sea of mediocrity?”
Hipkins had no clear answer to this. He said, “If we could fix the other parts of the system without affecting the parts that are working well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation”. When questioned further, the Minister continued with the platitude, “I want everyone to be great, and I’m happy for some to be excellent. What I’m not willing to accept is that we have some that are excellent and some that are failing. Everyone doesn’t need to be excellent but everyone does need to be great”.
Consultation for the proposal closes March 27th, though it remains to be seen how much local opinion actually matters to the officials heading the merger.
“I hope in the next few weeks,” said Hipkins, “Otago will be thinking about how they can use their contribution to this process to help the system.”
Get your thinking caps on, sheep. The system needs you. Big Brother is watching.