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A new category of education

Media Release: 13 May 2014

We face an interesting irony when it comes to applied tertiary education in New Zealand and overseas. Both nationally and internationally, we need more vocational and technical skills to build successful economies, and the New Zealand Government is pushing for this. But a dark cloud of perception hovers over words like polytechnic and vocational training.

Universities are widely perceived as places of "higher learning" where the emphasis is on ideas, on "learning to learn" and on critical thinking; while institutes of technology and polytechnics are often thought of as "trades training" providers only, where intellectual learning takes a back seat to lower-level hands-on training.

People tend to view our institutes of technology through a blurred lens of the assumptions of what traditional polytechnics provide, yet if you spend the time to look at the institutes of technology across New Zealand, you’ll see that they’ve actually moved a long way on from this.

Institutes of technology are one of our key drivers of economic performance. They up-skill our country’s workforce from basic through to advanced levels, offering a range of applied education opportunities from certificates to doctorates. The larger institutes provide numerous degree and postgraduate level programmes, and undertake research that's aligned to industry needs and has the potential for commercialisation.

What our institutes of technology offer is a new category of tertiary education. Yes, the focus is on applied education, but what does that really mean in the context of these institutions?

It means that students get taught skills, knowledge and ideas through ‘real world’ experience and application. They learn the ideas, concepts, models and theories, yet more importantly, they learn how to translate them into the workplace by putting them into practice. Students learn to apply what they know to their chosen career, and that's a precious skill they can take with them into the workforce.

This translating of ideas into the workplace is built into the learning process in these institutions. It’s the way students are taught - that integration of knowledge and skills, ideas and workplace experience - that defines the experience that institutes of technology provide.

Then there’s the topic of industry engaged tertiary institutions. For this type of learning to exist within institutions, contribution from industry practitioners is vital.

Indeed, we see our "customers" as both the students and employers.

Outward facing education institutions and industry links are paramount to providing the right kind of education for students to ensure they’re ready when it comes time to enter the workforce. They ensure the relevance of our training, they keep us up-to-date with the latest trends, technologies and practices, they increase the chances of graduate employment, and finally they provide ‘real world’ environments for students to learn in.

The recently released Government’s Tertiary Education Strategy places an emphasis on delivering skills for industry and getting young people into a career, and many institutes of technology are already aligned in this way.

Institutes of technology provide a vital link between lower and higher level education. They play a significant role in progressing people to higher levels of study which has a positive impact on the economy in general.

Internationally, we're seeing a significant shift in the perception of the value of vocational and technical tertiary education.

Countries like Saudi Arabia, India and China for example realise its importance. They’re taking action to ensure a more well-skilled workforce that meets the needs of their job market.

The development of a major programme in Saudi Arabia for example, run jointly by international operators, is well underway. The Waikato Institute of Technology is one of these operators, demonstrating that New Zealand is able to perform at a world standard. There are other examples which send a clear message that internationally the understanding of the key role that institutes of technology play in economic performance is improving.

Back in New Zealand, the demand for engineering and technology graduates is a hot topic. There’s been talk lately around the fact that the success of our economy and international competitiveness relies heavily on these graduates and the applied tertiary education sector is working through long-term plans to address this.

The fact is that institutes of technology no longer provide what the traditional view of polytechnics assumes.

We’re in a different era in which New Zealand’s institutes of technology have moved into a new category of education. They’ve become a major driver of economic competitiveness, productivity and growth for New Zealand. They’re providing students with the combination of knowledge and skills from basic through to advanced levels with a focus on ‘real world’ experience and application.

It’s just that people’s perceptions haven’t caught up.

Metro Group chief executives:
Dr Rick Ede, Unitec Institute of Technology
Dr Linda Sissons, Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec)
Dr Peter Brothers, Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT)
Kay Giles, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT)
Phil Ker, Otago Polytechnic
Mark Flowers, Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec)