Fight over vocational education rages on

Industry training organisations have hit back at Education Minister Chris Hipkins, who has accused some of being misleading and obstructive as the fight to be heard on vocational education reform rages on.

The Government’s proposed overhaul is significant and has been described by the Auditor-General as one of the “largest changes to public organisations in recent times”.

While every branch of the sector supports parts of the proposal to varying degrees, and widely buys into the intent, there has been pushback over some of the proposals, especially by the industry training organisations (ITOs).

This opposition has been exacerbated by a tight consultation timeframe, which many feel is insufficient to allow them to have a genuine say in the matter.

There is an added level of consultation frustration for ITOs and private training establishments (PTEs) because they were not included in the consultation ahead of the minister’s discussion document release in February.

This has led to a war of words, with ITOs criticising the lack of detail, lack of costs and possible outcomes, while the minister accuses some in the sector of making misleading comments and scaremongering.

"What we've been saying in public represents our sincerely held analysis of the possible outcomes from these proposals."

Other arms of the sector were included in the pre-emptive reviews - the review of the vocational education and training (VET) system and the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITP) Roadmap 2020 – but the ITOs and private training establishments say they were not.

The sector is complicated and wading through discussion documents and submissions can sometimes feel like drowning in alphabet soup.

But the crux of Chris Hipkins’ proposal is relatively straightforward, and separates into three core parts: merge 16 autonomous polytechs into a single, centralised New Zealand Institute of Skills & Technology; create a unified funding system, encompassing both provider-based and work-based learning; and redefine the roles of industry training organisations (ITOs) and instead establish “industry skills bodies”.

This would mean the ITOs would no longer exist in their current form, but Hipkins says industry will still have a core role to play, and training will be more employer-led than it is already.

ITOs are wary, and believe transferring industry training and apprenticeships to vocational education providers could lead to employers withdrawing, giving fewer opportunities for on-job training.

Consultation frustration

The proposed reforms come following the bail-out of four polytechnics last year at a cost of $100 million to the taxpayer.

The cost of the polytechnics, and the potential for the system to fall apart, has created a sense of urgency in the Government’s eyes.

Hipkins says he wants to push ahead with polytech changes to be implemented by the start of next year. To stick to this timeline, consultation has to be brief so decisions can be finalised and any legislative changes moved through by the end of the year.

But there is concern over the nature of the consultation, which closed on April 5.

The Auditor-General’s office has issued a warning in its submission, saying the tight timeframe is troubling, and the lack of detail in the proposal makes it hard to assess the outcomes.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says he needs to push on with vocational education reforms to do away with uncertainty, but the industry training sectors begging for him to slow down. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“We understand that the losses incurred have resulted in the Crown having to provide financial support to some institutions, and are adding to the urgency for system reform. However, because of the scale of the proposal, we have some concerns about the timetable for that reform,” the report says.

Hipkins says there was genuine consultation with those who gave constructive feedback, and no final decisions had been made from the outset.

But ITOs have felt locked out of the process.They weren’t in the room ahead of the minister’s February 13 bombshell, and they don’t believe there has been enough detail in the proposal to have a genuine consultation in just seven weeks.

In response, Skills Active, an ITO which is a member of the Industry Training Federation (ITF), has filed a judicial review of what it calls an “insufficient consultation period”.

Skills Active chief executive Grant Davidson says there needs to be robust examination of Hipkins’ decision to set a seven-week consultation period for a “once-in-a-generation reform that will radically overhaul 16 ITPs and 11 ITOs and will impact quarter of a million learners”.

Scaremongering or genuine analysis?

Things could be improved, but the ITOs say there is no need to rush through major reform just to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

ITOs have seen the number of students grow in the past five years, and the cost per student to the Government is significantly less than those training in the classroom.

Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams says it would be sad if the initial proposal was implemented as written.

Williams, and the Federation’s 11 ITO members, see a number of laudable goals in the proposals, and much that can be built on to ensure an integrated and sustainable system.

“However, as described, the proposal will result in a loss of industry voice on the ground. Unless employers have a voice in how training is organised, they will not participate.”

Hipkins has categorised this message, and the assertion by ITOs that they will cease to exist as misleading and scaremongering. He says the new industry skills bodies will do everything ITOs currently do, and more.

When consultation came to an impasse letters were exchanged between the minister's office and ITOs.

Skills Active's Davidson says Hipkins ignored “consistent, repeated and reasonable requests” to extend the consultation period.

Eventually, meetings took place, but there was a feeling that if someone disagreed with the proposal they were being written off as obstructive.

Given the tight timeframe, Hipkins made it clear he was not going expend energy consulting with those he deemed weren’t genuinely engaging in constructive consultation.

But the Federation's Williams says the industry training sector can be "justifiably aggrieved at the lack of engagement prior to the proposal, and the very short timeframe".

"What we've been saying in public represents our sincerely held analysis of the possible outcomes from these proposals." Those views are based on discussions with 6500 employers, and ITOs reject the claim they are scaremongering.

The Federation, along with private training establishments, are calling for a taskforce to be set up, with a range of representatives from across the sector.

Williams says there is a "strong level of unified concern" about one specific element of the proposal: the transfer of industry training and apprenticeships to vocational providers. There is a chance for further consultation and changes around this proposal, he says.

Feroz Ali, who is head of Quality Tertiary Institutions (QTI), an organisation representing 14 private tertiary establishments, (PTEs), says the Government has the opportunity to create a legacy.

“This can be a good thing or a bad thing”.

While there are polytechs that have been failed by poor governance and financial management, there are also examples of successful training establishments, Ali says.

The Government needs to consult with those living and breathing success in the vocational education sector, rather than tethering itself to a proposal based in theory, he says.

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