National’s policy for tertiary education: Part 2

Note: This article was published originally in the now-discontinued NZME journal Education Central on 11 December 2019

In the first part of this series, I looked at the National party’s approach to forming its policy for next year’s election:  the party is road-testing options by flying kites, putting up possibilities and asking the public to comment.  Its 56-page education policy discussion paper set out a range of tertiary education options. 

I grouped their ideas around four main themes …

  • Student fees and student financial support
  • University quality and performance
  • The present government’s vocational education reforms
  • Careers and transitions.

The first article assessed the discussion in the first two of those themes.  This piece comments on the third and the fourth – vocational education and transitions to tertiary education.

The reform of vocational education

The most ambitious move the current government has made in tertiary education has been its Review of Vocational Education (RoVE).  That programme addresses two of the most intractable issues facing the system:

  • the split in the vocational education sector between institution-led training and work-based training
  • the focus, financial performance and the sustainability of the polytechnic network.

We have two vocational education systems: The dual vocational system dates from the reforms of tertiary education in 1989.  Those reforms they changed institutional arrangements, regulation, funding and the qualifications system, but didn’t address work-based training – leaving a subsequent government to reform industry training in 1992, creating industry training organisations (ITOs) to arrange and oversee apprenticeships and other work-based training.  The result was that New Zealand ended up with two separate, but interdependent, systems for vocational education, with different roles, and, crucially, very different approaches to funding.  The resulting tensions have simmered away for a quarter of a century. 

The polytechnic network has had serious problems: As for polytechnic viability … we all heard about the financial crisis that hit Unitec in 2017 and that threatened to spread throughout the network.  But that disaster had antecedents. Wairarapa, Whanganui, Tairāwhiti, Telford, Aoraki… the list of polytechnics that became unviable and disappeared into take-overs is a long and sorry one.  And many of those that survive have diced with disaster – WITT, Tai Poutini, Northtec.  This isn’t always simply a matter of governance or management failure.  Rather, these institutions have had a very ambitious brief.  They have been expected to serve small populations, scattered over a wide area, covering everything from foundation education, adult and community education, applied degrees, vocational education, block courses for those in work-based training … while reflecting regional and industry needs and acting as a community resource.  The problems were exacerbated by a funding system that favoured institutions with large scale.  With low funding rates for work-based industry training, ITOs were unable to pay the full economic cost of off-job training for their work-based trainees when they engaged polytechnics to conduct it.  Price-cutting threatened quality, undermining the polytechnics’ traditional focus on vocational education.  

Something had to change.  The government has a bold plan – merging all 16 remaining polytechnics and giving the new super institution some of the responsibilities of the ITOs, including the key role of arranging training agreements for work-based trainees.  In taking on this approach, the minister overruled advice from his officials for a more cautious response.  It’s a plan that has multiple challenges and risks.  

  • Will the new super-polytechnic – the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST) – really be able to build the links with the employers of work-based trainees?  Will an organisation of that type be able to support employers in their role as the primary trainers of employees who are undertaking industry training?
  • Will a large national institution really be able to foster the innovative approach to vocational education we have seen in some of the polytechnics?  Will NZIST centralise all decision-making?
  • What happens to the assets of the existing polytechnics, built up over many years by regional communities?
  • To balance the training needs of regions against the needs of industries and employers, trainees and Māori, to ensure that NZQA and TEC – government’s regulator and funder – are responsive to the needs of NZIST, industry, regional interests and learner interests, to protect training quality, the government has designed a complex vocational system where powers are shared.  It’s likely to be a system with high transaction costs.  Can it be made to work as intended, to deliver on government’s vision?
  • The one matter on which nearly everyone involved in vocational education agrees is the need for a new, integrated approach to funding.  The government has committed to this and has officials working on a new funding design.  The work that has been released to date looks excellent as a basis for a new approach.  But the finer detail will matter.  A lot.  How will the components of funding, discussed in the Ministry of Education’s design paper, be weighted?  Will the rates be adequate to address the underlying problems?    

The government is proceeding apace.  Legislation is already in the House and an implementation timetable has been laid out.  An implementation board has been appointed to get on with the establishment of NZIST; they are expected to announce a chief executive soon and they have already asked for expressions of interest in hosting the head office.

The problems, uncertainties and risks of the RoVE programme have proved fertile hunting grounds for the opposition over the last 12 months.  So, it’s no surprise to see that vocational education plays a big part in the National party education discussion paper.

National’s paper stops short of winding back the reforms completely.  Rather, they have focused on two main aspects of the programme:

  • First, they want to look at what is done centrally by the NZIST and what should be left to the old polytechnics, (which, under the government’s proposals, become regional branches of the NZIST).  National wants to centralise “back-office” roles, business intelligence and corporate information systems, but to see that much decision-making is devolved to the regional branches (and to ensure that assets built up by regional communities don’t get swept up into a national pot).  National’s wish to centralise generic, corporate functions but retain local responsibility for things like academic decision-making, appears to echo the original advice of officials as well as many of the submissions to government’s consultation papers.
  • Second, National wants to keep the role of arranging training and setting training agreements for apprentices and other work-based trainees separate from the NZIST.   This would involve using industry/employer bodies (perhaps the Workforce Development Councils to be set up under the reforms) to be responsible for arranging training, taking on the current ITO role, in addition to the other tasks assigned to them in the current Bill.  In this, they are echoing the views of ITOs, many of which argued that this work needs to be handled by a body that is clearly industry-led and industry-facing.

It’s too soon to give a verdict on this set of ideas yet.  The new funding system is crucial to the success of the RoVE programme.  The minister had planned to have much of the detail settled by the end of November – who knows, there may be an announcement before the end of 2019.  We don’t know yet how much the new NZIST will decide to centralise and how much (and what functions) it will devolve.  We will know more, and National will refine its policy thinking, during 2020 as the RoVE programme rolls out. 

Careers and transitions

In 2008, when National last fought an election from the opposition benches, their flagship post-secondary education policy was the Youth Guarantee (YG) programme, a set of initiatives targeted at young people who had performed poorly in the school system – keeping them in the education system for longer, developing new approaches to lift their educational attainment and providing a base for better long-term outcomes.  Ten years later, how to provide young people with pathways to successful labour market outcomes, remains one of the most pressing problems most developed countries face. 

So this area of policy occupies much of National’s attention as it works out what to include in its manifesto for the 2020 election.  The National discussion document canvasses an array of initiatives: improving career information from an early age; building the engagement of the education system with employers and industry; strengthening the pathway from school to vocational education; pre-university acclimatisation programmes; new scholarships for Māori and Pasifika; lifting pastoral support for new students.  There’s merit in all those ideas.

But, ten years after the introduction of YG, it’s hard not to think that this approach represents a missed opportunity.  Improving outcomes for those at risk remains an important but extremely difficult area for education policy.  The comprehensive monitoring of YG suggests that some components of the current mix – Trades Academies, for example – have worked well, but others less so – for instance, those who completed YG fees-free programmes ended up, two years’ after completion, no more likely to be in work than a control group of similar people who hadn’t undertaken the programme.  

Recent Ministry of Education research explores the data on the problem group – what the researchers term “youth at risk of long-run limited employment”.  The research identifies the scale of the problem we face and the factors associated with the risk of poor labour market outcomes.  It also reviews research on these types of programmes around the world.  The most important findings of that research relate to:

  • The importance of non-cognitive skills in determining labour market success: Non-cognitive skills have important impacts of individual labour market outcomes. Measures of non-cognitive skills predict labour market outcomes.  Non-cognitive skills improve the development and use of cognitive skills.
  • The timing of interventions: Education can improve non-cognitive skills, especially before and during adolescence but they tend to stay stable thereafter. The earlier in life that education designed to lift non-cognitive skills start, the better.

The effectiveness of different types of programmes that target the risk of poor outcomes: The international research suggests that the most effective programmes have been found to be job-search assistance programmes and programmes where on-job training is a key part of the programme.  The least effective are skills training programmes – such as YG fees-free programmes and their predecessors, Youth Training and Training Opportunities.

A fresh, comprehensive look at how government is working for at-risk youth might include the roster of initiatives considered in the National discussion document, but it would also take a broader canvas and look again at the design of current programmes.

In summary …

National’s discussion document is the starting point for the party’s policy development for the 2020 election.  It’s a way of signaling ideas and avoiding the trap of producing a policy that is driven by the interests of those who are disaffected by the changes made by the government in power.  It’s a start … but they need to capitalise on the feedback to their discussion starter if they are to produce something that will stand up to scrutiny in the heat of an election campaign.  

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