Dumbing down polytechnics

David Cooke

The Coalition Government is reshaping vocational education in New Zealand, under the banner of a proposed New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. Presentations by the Minister and the Tertiary Education Commission focus on major points like the following:

  • meeting the needs of business and industry
  • preparing graduates to be work-ready
  • emphasising skills and training
  • teaching common programmes across the institutes of technology.

To many people outside tertiary education, these features are unremarkable. Vocational education is seen as direct preparation for work, such as trades, so the proposals are not controversial.

I want to suggest this view misses the point, and if it isn’t challenged, will lead to large-scale damage to a key sector of public tertiary education, potentially affecting up to 250,000 learners.

Consider areas of tertiary study that lead to vocations. They include: accounting, architecture, building and construction, computer studies and information technology, dentistry, education, engineering, journalism, law, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, religion, social work, sports, and trades.

Many of these areas exist at university level, where they are seen more as professions or callings rather than narrowly defined vocational education, and arguably, are constructed differently. Just as significantly, at university, they currently appear to lie outside the sort of regime covered by the bullet points above. What does this tell us?

One thing it suggests is that vocational education seems to be a convenient frame for very functional, reductionist training to meet the needs of business and industry, with a visible history in years of Tertiary Education Strategies. The 2007-2012 document for instance, lists indicators to “advance economic transformation”:

⎯ Improving skills and skill utilisation in the workforce, . . . improving the responsiveness of the tertiary education system to the skills needs of industry and business

Along with this orientation, there is a focus on employability, graduating work-ready employees. The Tertiary Education Strategy 2014-2019 states bluntly:

The priority is to ensure that the skills people develop in tertiary education are well matched to labour market needs (p. 10).

What’s lacking in this recipe is consideration of education for careers, life-long learning and occupations. Given the fluid and changing nature of modern work, graduates can expect career movement through and beyond business and industry, government service, NGOs, and international agencies, to name just some of the choices and turning points. That calls for different kinds of learning throughout life and work, shifts across occupations, and merging between public and private sectors i.e. comprehensive preparation that isn’t narrowed and limited.

Part of the mechanism for servicing business and industry consists of a worn-out notion of skills and training. In place of an in-depth understanding of complex and contestable fields of health care (e.g., nursing), construction, education, media, IT, and the rest, the public announcements talk of skills.

We need to insist instead on education for vocations, in the way we should talk of “teacher education” rather than “teacher training.” It should be an experience that enables students to draw critically on relevant practice, theory and disciplines, taking into account social contexts, matters of ethics, social issues, emerging technology.

The current concept of vocational education for polytechnic teaching ignores the public interest, the public good, and for that matter, education for the public service. The public service is a vital sector, but in the Tertiary Education Strategies, it scarcely gets mention, let alone equal billing with business and industry.

Instead, in the current proposals, there is talk of adopting common programmes across the polytechnics. A teach-by-numbers system prompts some necessary questions: Who would devise these programmes? How would they address the dynamic, contested nature of knowledge construction; the role of local staff; the content; critical and analytical thinking, awareness of societal issues, ethical and moral concerns; keeping up to date?

A short-cut of the kind proposed ignores at least three significant areas:

  • the scholarship, experience and learning of career tertiary staff;
  • the academic and teaching benefits that different staff can bring to different institutions around the country; and
  • the resulting dynamism and localised development of schools, departments and centres.

A likely scenario for a common programme could well be:

  • Tertiary Education Commission contracts out the writing of a given common programme;
  • The programme arrives complete with pre-determined assessment routines   (with, for example, grid marking);
  • Routines assess student performance (high-stakes testing);
  • Passing rates are used to measure teaching performance and institutional achievement;
  • Funding for courses gets linked to passing rates.

In short, despite a new name and aegis, the proposed teaching life of polytechnics looks very like the present Tertiary Education Commission’s concept of vocational education. And herein is a looming disaster. Many of the key features of polytechnics of the future are strongly reminiscent of Unitec’s savage and catastrophic restructuring of 2013-2018. (Reports on Unitec’s restructuring are here and here.) At Unitec, management casualised tutors, sacked career lecturers, and concentrated overwhelmingly on work, employability, the needs of business and industry. It created an obligatory online common semester for first-year students, contracted out enrolment, and centralised administrative course-planning services.

The point is that Unitec’s moves fit closely with neoliberal or market-oriented ideology, forcing corporate structures, values and practices on tertiary institutions to create a form of factory education. Some staff fear that the new proposals will usher in an era of Unitec-type restructuring across the polytechnic sector.

Meanwhile, we should face the Tertiary Education Commission’s part in this year’s proposals. In preparation for their presentations to polytechnics on its plans, one Chief Executive circulated an invitation that explicitly recognises the role of the Commission (TEC) (15 Mar 2019):

The TEC . . . was a key contributor to the proposal document shared by the Minister of Education last month.

A group of TEC representatives will hold sessions throughout the day for . . . staff, students, partners, and the community. It’s an opportunity to hear from an organisation which will play a major role in sector change, to ask questions, and provide feedback.

So there’s a double-bind wrapped around vocational education. Governments are still gripped by market ideology. Their exponent, the Tertiary Education Commission controls tertiary education.

The challenge for the tertiary sector is to resist these market forces and propose alternatives.

The challenge for the Coalition Government is to chart its own independent course in the best interests of students, tertiary institutions and the public good.

The challenge for the Tertiary Education Commission is to question its own culture and move out of the limiting mindset that has become embedded over the last several decades.

I argue that polytechnics should be freed and empowered to teach according to their specialised knowledge of disciplines, professions, occupations, trades, and practice, serving the needs of staff, students and the nation. As a polytechnic colleague puts it:

Certainly vocational education does need to be informed by industry. But not instructed. Employers cannot be expected to prioritise the needs of learners. That is the responsibility of educators, and it is educators who must be at the forefront when it comes to setting the direction of vocational education for the future. Let educators lead Education.

We don’t need another Unitec disaster, writ large.




Categories: Education
David Cooke
About the author

David Cooke

David Cooke is a writer, editor and researcher. He was previously on the academic staff of VUW, York University (Toronto), and Unitec. He is a member of the NZ Ethics Committee and National Chair of QPEC (Quality Public Education Coalition), which serves to maintain education that is publicly-funded and in the public interest. He is co-editor of Beyond the free market (Dunmore, 2014) and author of Blind Faith: Deconstructing Unitec 2015-2017 (TEU, Aug 2018).