10 May, 2013

TEC: Goodbye to all that

I said goodbye today to the board and executive team of the Tertiary Education Commission, where I've been a non-executive board member since 10 June 2002, which must set some kind of latter-day record for government board tenure. I first became involved with New Zealand’s tertiary education system in the late 1990s as CEO of telecommunications manufacturer Deltec:
  • Recruiting engineering graduates and post-grads from the University of Canterbury, and sponsoring research projects & internships;
  • Working with Whitireia Polytechnic and WINZ on an innovative programme to give long-term unemployment beneficiaries the skills to work in our factory, where they could quickly earn substantially more than the minimum wage, let alone the dole;
  • On the board of the Manufacturers Federation (now part of Business NZ) where I became a de facto spokesman on education reform.

In 1999, employers were very unhappy with the NZ tertiary education system. When the newly-elected government asked industry what needed to be fixed in tertiary education, I was one of those throwing rocks. In 2002, I was duly punished by being appointed to the TEC establishment board. I never imagined my sentence would last 11 years.

And it’s been a fascinating 11 years. On the negative side, I’ve hated the complexity, the voluminous board papers, and occasionally witnessing some venal or weak-kneed politics. On the positive side, we’ve grappled with some fascinating issues, I think we’ve made a positive difference for NZ, and I’ve been privileged to meet and work with many talented and committed people throughout the education system. There are too many to name, but I will single out one person for special mention. Throughout these 11 years, Dr Colin Webb has provided sterling service to New Zealand and the TEC, and he’s often (but not always) saved me from making a fool of myself.

I’ve worked with 6 CEOs (I include Colin in that number, he’s acted in the role so often), 6 chairs (7 if you count my short stint as acting chair), and 6 ministers of tertiary education (not to mention numerous associate ministers). I’m amazed that I’ve been tolerated for so long by ministers and chairs of all political stripes. As a promoter of radical change, only a few of of my big ideas made it through to policy, and then only slowly. But despite that, I’ll still be promoting them, if only from the sidelines. More on that another time.  For now, I have just 3 key messages:
  • Firstly: politics, bureaucracy and compromise have in general only added complexity to the tertiary education policy and funding system. It needn't be that way. We can and must make things simpler.
  • Secondly: the system (including TEC) is far too focused on education providers; not learners, employers and communities. We need to set the focus right.
  • Finally: it's hard to drain the swamp when you’re up to your arse in alligators, but TEC has a very clear core purpose: to help New Zealand - our learners, our employers and our communities - obtain the tertiary education we need. All else is secondary.

1 comment:

Dave Stringer said...

I found it interesting that when there was an opportunity to rationalise the polytechnic (by any and all names) area of NZ's tertiary education landscape, under the Cullen tertiary education strategy, the opportunity was fought tooth and nail by all stakeholders except students and industry.

Three still remain active in Auckland, to which can be added three universities.

Also to be added to the mire was the contention that EVERY institute of technology and polytechnic wanted to offer distance (or "open") courses as a means to expand its student roll. Indeed, while we have a specialist institution in the open polytechnic, there are still many government funded providers competing for each distance learing student.

As long as we treat education as an open and free domestic market, essentially funded by the government though direct subsidy and interest free student loans, we surely should be managing our resources far more effectively, and creating centres of excellence in tertiary education. Having Auckland as a "tertiary business centre" makes sense, as do law and politics in Wellington, technology and engineering in Christchurch and medicine in Dunedin. Waikato might become the centre for arts studies!

We are a nation as populous as a medium sized city, yet we insist on spreading our Tertiary resources thin and wide, justifying it with the statement that competition is good for quality. The justification is corrrect, but the competition should no longer be see as a domestic issue but a global one. With good strategic thinking and management, we could have institutions that compete with the best in the world, sadly, while every aspiring tertiary student in the third world has heard of Oxford,Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, etc., etc., none of the NZ institutions have similar mind-share. To me, that is a challenge that should be taken on by the TEC.