Institute chief to drive change in vocational training

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The man charged with leading an ambitious amalgamation of the vocational training sector takes up the role at a challenging time with a student influx likely as Covid-19 bites.

Chief executive Stephen Town will join a small team at Wintec House, as the newly formed NZ Institute of Skills and Technology sets out on a path of bringing the country’s polytechnics into one organisation while also folding in the industry training organisations.

It represents a radical shift from a competitive to a collaborative model, and Town says it will also create one of the larger tertiary entities in the world.

The choice of Hamilton for NZIST’s head office marks a symbolic victory for the region, and a sign of the city’s growing appeal, rather than a major economic boost, as the office at Wintec House will have small numbers.

“The aim is that our head office is very slim and doesn’t have a lot of people in it because what we’ve got to try and do is make use of the resources that are throughout the country, right through our network of polytechs and institutes of technology,” Town says.

The executive team has a formidable job ahead of it reforming the vocational education system. “That’s something that is very relevant in New Zealand right now – Covid has made that even more so, because the prediction is there will be a big increase in demand for retraining and short courses and people looking at maybe switching careers over the next year or so,” Town says.

“So that means we’re going to be busier, and we’ve got to be ready to meet those needs.”

A letter of expectation from the Minister of Education outlines short-term priorities, including working up an implementation plan for learners to come across into NZIST from the industry training organisations (ITOs).

The institute will also be contributing to the design of a unified funding system for tertiary education in the vocational education and industry training space, and it must co-design an operating model for the new entity to be implemented by the end of 2022.

“And we have to get the network ready to continue with work-based learning, online learning, face to face learning and a blend of those things,” Town says. “Again, Covid has given us a big kickstart to changing the way learning takes place, when you’re in lockdown, and you’ve got to move to an online environment. And all of the polytechnics will be engaging in that over the next couple of years.”

The new operating model will see polytechs and institutes of technology, currently limited liability subsidiaries of NZIST, cease to exist by the end of 2022, at which time they will be replaced by  a single network of integrated provision across New Zealand.

The new entity in 2023 will, by one estimate Town has heard, become the world’s 36th largest tertiary institution.

“And we go from there,” he says. “The whole idea is to make our system more learner centered. Rather than convenient for the institution, make it more convenient for learners, with a bigger variety of delivery methods.”

Town is well placed to manage the change, as a former chief executive of Wanganui Polytechnic and, most recently, a six and a half year stint as chief executive of Auckland City.

His polytechnic stint coincided with the sector’s last major upheaval. He saw the transformation from community colleges to polytechnics, the introduction of bulk funding around 1990 and the introduction of the student-based funding system in the early 90s. “So competition was introduced when I was in the sector. That competition has largely continued for 25 years.”

While that stint gave him familiarity with the vocational training sector, his most recent Auckland position is arguably more important.

“I think one of the reasons I was chosen for the role is my experience in bringing the Auckland supercity together,” he says. “That is bringing different entities together into an integrated single organization. The CCOs in Auckland are not dissimilar to the subsidiary polytechs that we’ve got now in the IST entity.”

Five of seven members of the executive team will live in Hamilton, and that includes Town who will shift from Auckland after Christmas.

Top executives have been recruited over the past weeks, and will begin arriving over the next month or two as they finish in their former roles. At least two have strong Waikato connections: Merran Davis was formerly dean at Wintec and is currently interim chief executive at Unitec, and Vaughan Payne arrives from a position as chief executive at Waikato Regional Council.

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