Education

Unitec’s transformation ‘failure’

A damning report on Unitec’s transformation project describes the process as an “onslaught of shock and awe” which lacked rationale and created a “profound and damaging” effect on the institution.

Since 2015 when the transformation project was undertaken the institution has been beset with financial, academic, enrolment, and staff morale problems.

Despite selling part of the Mount Albert campus to the government for a housing development, the institute projects a loss of $46m over the next two years if no action is taken. This comes after last year’s $31 million deficit.

The Qualifications Authority downgraded Unitec to a level two institution citing concerns over moderation of assessments in 2016 and student enrolments dropped by more than 15 percent.

Staff morale also dropped. At one-point leaked staff survey results showed just one in 10 staff would recommend working at Unitec. Satisfaction surveys were later suspended.

Earlier this month Unitec’s Council was dissolved, and Education Minister Chris Hipkins installed Commissioner Murray Strong.

Language used by management during restructuring was described as “spin,” “platitudinous, sloppy, incoherent,” “patronising,” “condescending”.

The report Blind Faith: Deconstructing Unitec 2015-2017 commissioned by the Tertiary Education Union and written by former Unitec staff member Dr David Cooke, interviewed 21 staff members and analysed publicly available reports to show the effects of the transformation project.

It was undertaken as a way to match industry needs with graduate skills, promote flexible learning and make greater use of online learning.

At the time former Unitec chief executive Rick Ede told staff the reforms would set Unitec on a path to be “a world leader in contemporary applied learning”. He also warned proposals were “not up for debate”.

The transformation saw permanent academic staff replaced by casual industry contractors who lacked teaching experience, student services such as enrolment outsourced to a third party and first-year health students funnelled into an online first semester with which some struggled.

The wave of change impacted Unitec’s reputation says the report: “Participants reported schools declining to recommend Unitec for study, professions losing faith in Unitec’s standards and performance, parents deciding that family members should avoid Unitec, and some potential applicants for staff appointments going elsewhere.”

The staff interviewed anonymously in the report say concerns raised to the executive team were ignored and when rationale for the changes was requested it was not given.

“It was the fakest consultation I’ve ever been involved with,” says one staff member quoted in the report.

Language used by the management during restructuring was described as “spin,” “platitudinous, sloppy, incoherent,” “patronising,” “condescending”.

At the same time the report points out the size of the leadership team and questions what role Unitec’s now dissolved council, supposedly in charge of the institute’s governance, played.

“The senior leadership team in the period studied was as small as seven people. Of that group, it was suggested in interviews, it seemed that an inner circle of three spearheaded the changes.”

"One industry teacher, on the first day of course, was seconded by their work to work elsewhere, so couldn't teach, just didn't show up."

Staffing

In what is referred to in the report as “the great redundancy”, staff were invited to take voluntary redundancy and others were pushed out. The report calls the result “predictably lopsided” with some departments gutted, while others retained staff. Institutional knowledge and, ironically, industry contacts were lost.

“It became common knowledge around the institution, for example, that Nursing could no longer provide valid practicums, partly because it had lost professionals with contacts in the health sector.”

A staff member quoted in the report says industry replacements for teaching positions formerly held by academic staff didn’t always work out.

“Students get poorer teaching. Industry teachers just walk out, don't even mark exams because they're too busy at work. One industry teacher, on the first day of course, was seconded by their work to work elsewhere, so couldn't teach, just didn't show up. There is no control over the industry teachers. They're a law unto themselves. Students have lost assignments, wrong grades are given”

Outsourced student services

In December 2015, student services were handed to Concentrix. This included enrolment. With a new system in place to manage enrolments and staff with no knowledge of Unitec courses manning the system "enrolments dropped like a stone" according to one staff member.  

In 2017 Unitec's expected deficit increased by $10m after it enrolled approximately 660 fewer full-time students than anticipated.

The report describes enrolling with the new system as just too hard.

“Participants recalled trying to do mock enrolments in order to experience the student's task from the inside. Reportedly they encountered numerous obstacles and described giving up after about 45 minutes.”

Customer service on general support queries suffered too. Concentrix staff did well if calls stayed on script, but did not have the knowledge to help with trickier queries.

Eventually the report says telephone operators were removed which led to problems contacting people according to a staff member: “What was really dumb was when they took away the telephone operators. Now you phone, there's no person to speak to. If you don't know the extension, you can't get hold of anyone.”

Online semester

In a push to make use of online learning, introductory courses were replaced with an online course called The Common Semester.

First-year students studying health-related topics were required to complete this online, without face-to-face teacher help.

The report says students experienced difficulty with this as not all students had home access to a computer. One staff member points out smart phones can be used for study, but it’s difficult to write an assignment on one.

“As a result, many students struggled, failed and dropped out, a situation that tutors claimed would be avoidable in their previous programmes.”

The Common Semester has since been dropped by Unitec.

“The staff know the coming year is going to be equally as hard as last three or four, which is not a great thing for staff to be facing but they are very committed to their institution and the students in the institution."

Picking up the pieces

Tertiary Education Union national president Sandra Grey said the union commissioned the report when the senior leadership team in place at the time was not listening to staff feedback.

“They were still refusing to listen to staff and we felt as a group of members that one thing they might listen to was an independent report into what was going on and hopefully change how they were operating.”

A new senior leadership team is now in place. Grey is positive about the change and said the new team is listening to staff. She expects team members will attend the launch of the report a Unitec today and feels even though they are new, it’s important they hear the report’s findings.

Grey said the sector is under pressure at present with high employment lowering enrolments. 

“The staff know the coming year is going to be equally as hard as last three or four, which is not a great thing for staff to be facing but they are very committed to their institution and the students in the institution.

“As long as they are heard, as long as people take their advice seriously, I think they are there for the long haul.”

In a statement Unitec acknowledged the insight the report gives to the “very real impact on staff” but notes it contains some inaccuracies, and was based on interviews with a small sample of staff who are union members.

“The report discusses a transformation which predates the current executive leadership team. However, we do acknowledge this period of major change was difficult for many staff and the impact of this is still felt today,” said interim chief executive Merran Davis.

In recent months Unitec has been strengthening its focus on the student experience and academic quality, simplifying management structures to achieve cost savings and greater efficiency, renewing the Academic Board, enhancing the commitment to Māori, and boosting institution-wide support for Māori Success and Pacific Success strategies, she said. 

Yesterday Unitec reported a 5 percent rise in domestic enrolments for 2018 – an increase of 480 students.

Davis attributed the growth to a number of factors, including investment in people, programmes, new facilities, and improvements to the enrolment system, which were rolled out this year.

The increased student number was hugely positive, but also reflected a shift to more part-time study as people tried to fit study in with work. Part-time students do not generate the same revenue as full-time students, she said. 

“This shows the need for continuous evolution in how we deliver tertiary education. We need to make education accessible to everyone, but also have a sustainable model for our institutions.” 

This story has been updated to include a response from a Unitec official spokesperson. 

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