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Significant reforms of vocational education are underway, but there are some mixed messages that, if not checked, have the potential to undermine employer confidence, at a time when skilled, qualified workers are desperately needed

The truth about vocational reform – By Warwick Quinn

Since the NZ government announced its Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) a number of myths and mixed messages have been circulated, which this article aims to dispel.

For those who are wondering what RoVE is all about, the government announced earlier this year that it will disestablish the eleven industry training organisations (ITOs) and replace them with:

  • (a) a new centralised delivery agency, the New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST), a merger of the sixteen institutes of technology and polytechnics, which will be responsible for all classroom, digital and on-job learning
  • (b) Workforce development councils (WDCs) which will be responsible for the development of qualifications, standard setting, skills leadership, brokerage and industry advocacy.

The WDC functions and the arranging of on-job training are current ITO activities.

Recent discussions with the government suggest there will be six to seven WDCs, of which a Construction and Infrastructure WDC (CIWDC) will be one. Under current arrangements, construction and infrastructure activities span five ITOs, and as WDCs will be industry-led, the formation of a single CIWDC will be complex.

These are significant reforms. While there are some things we like about the new direction, it is high risk, and if the process of establishing the new regime is not undertaken well, there is a potential to set industry training back many years. We are working hard to ensure this doesn’t happen.

A new modern framework

At the moment the vocational education system is not as efficient as it could be, and if you were starting from scratch today, you would not design it how it is currently structured. ITOs and polytechs compete – we don’t share best practice – and the regime creates winners and losers. We have been critical of the 28-year-old framework, saying it needs modernising so we can be more responsive to employer and learner needs.

When you strip away all the complexities, politics, positioning and postulating, the government is essentially undertaking a regulatory/provider split. WDCs will be accountable to industry for the qualifications/standards it wants, and they will oversee the quality of that delivery by the NZIST and other providers.

This all seems simple enough, and the foundations on which the new system is based have the potential to address all of the concerns we have raised, and then some. The things that will get in the way of a successful transition are people and poor cultures.

To avoid that we need good change management practices in place. Everything happens over the next three years, and there are already a bunch of mixed messages that, if not checked, have the potential to undermine employer confidence, at a time when skilled, qualified workers are so desperately needed.

Dispelling the ‘mega poly’ myth

One of the myths floating around is that all that is happening is the government is creating a ‘mega poly’ and it is only doing this to get the existing polytechs out of the massive financial hole some of these institutions are in. I cannot tell you if that is true or not, but I can tell you the system was creaking regardless, and it is not a system that is suitable going forward long term. Something had to change.

Another myth is that because there is going to be a ‘mega poly’, on-job learning (work-based learning) will be replaced by classroom learning. While one can understand how that is a natural thing to assume, it is not so. The NZIST is not a ‘mega poly’, but a new national entity responsible for all vocational learning, be it on-job, off-job or distance learning.

The industry will still decide where learning takes place, and the WDC is there to ensure that happens. In fact, given how rapidly the nature of work is changing and where future upskilling will take place, the government’s strategy is to increase the amount of on-job learning undertaken in the workplace.

Another myth is that ‘there is no point in signing up an apprentice as they won’t be able to finish their qualification’. I don’t know where this one came from, but it is absolutely a false assumption. All qualifications remain, and everyone entering one will be able to complete it. Qualifications are controlled by the industry and are updated regularly – no change there.

Some important takeaways

So, here are some very important takeaways:

  • • Some reform was needed
  • • The NZIST is not a ‘mega poly’, but a new national entity responsible for all training
  • • WDCs are industry owned and will set/control the qualifications that industry wants
  • • There is no reason to stop training for fear apprentices won’t be able to complete it.

If you have any questions about the reforms at all, don’t hesitate to discuss them with your local BCITO training advisor.

Warwick Quinn is the chief executive of the Building & Construction Industry Training Organisation (BCITO)


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