1280px CORP event Orientation 2015 001

Centralisation means putting us on the fast track to mediocrity

By Anna Campbell 

I have watched with interest the Government's position on centralising education delivered by polytechnics.

There has been much written by people more involved in the education sector than me questioning why we would alter the autonomous model used by two very successful enterprises, the Otago Polytechnic and the Southern Institute of Technology, to address the needs of less successful enterprises.

I cannot be any more forthright and articulate than those people, but I can address the issue from the perspective of an employer (who has worked closely with Otago Polytechnic to employ both interns and graduates) and as a parent of teenagers who are hurtling towards the transition of further training.

I am in the business of science and technology where we are hyper-aware of how fast-changing our working environment is.

To this end, Anant Agarwal (Forbes) writes that the "shelf life of hard skills will become shorter as technology advances more rapidly, and inputs become more automated."

The implication of this is multifaceted. We will need to constantly re-train throughout our careers. Sometimes this will mean a major shift and other times it will require a simple skill update.

In the future, the majority of this re-training will not be done in three-year degrees delivered in traditional university format - most people do not have the time, finances or inclination for that. Instead, we will expect to have education at our fingertips and to move freely between working and learning.

The Otago Polytechnic has already adapted to this need, offering an innovative micro-credential programme - "EduBits". As an example of an EduBit, a friend of mine has just completed a micro-credential of "Te Reo Maori in a workplace situation".

Anant Agarwel also predicts that education will emphasise "hybrid skills" across disciplines. Studying one subject for several years will become a thing of the past. Cross-disciplinary programmes will be desirable.

In addition, employers will increasingly look for adaptable employees that display "soft skills, or power skills including: collaboration; communication; critical thinking; and the ability to make quick decisions from a set of information."

In this context, the idea of 1000 bums on seats sitting through Biology 101 seems antiquated. Education will become more personalised, more flexible and varied in content.

High schools are grappling with this - how do we "flip the classroom" so teachers are enabling individual pupils to learn according to their individual needs and interests? The same will be true of our best tertiary institutes.

To survive, educational institutes will need to operate with one eye on the horizon and one eye on the here-and-now. Successful institutions will be autonomous, innovative, nimble and delivering content which is student-centred.

Luckily for those of us who live in the Otago/Southland region we have two polytechnics who display many of these traits already - remember, SIT was innovatively "fee-free" well before the Government got back on board!

Unfortunately, there are other polytechnics in New Zealand that do perform poorly. Addressing this by reducing autonomy of all organisations seems to me to be a fast track to mediocrity for all.

I want to finish with a memorable experience I had at Otago Polytechnic. You know by now that I am a foodie, always willing to try something new, always trying to spot new trends - when I bring home unusual goodies, I always tell my husband, who looks at me with raised eyebrows, "it's part of my job!"

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get a tour through the Otago Polytechnic Food Design Institute and play a part in judging some of the student creations. On one of those occasions, the students were to produce something quintessentially "Kiwi" through foraging the environment. This required thought, planning, creativity and a good understanding of food flavours and chemistry.

To this day, I remember one student's dish where she had combined her Chinese heritage with the Maori heritage of her adopted country. Her flavour combinations were inspiring and wonderful - I lived the cross-cultural story in every mouthful. I still think of that student when I think about food innovation.

I hope she is out there - somewhere, being magnificent and continuing to learn - she is what personalised, innovative education is all about.