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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.