Ara Institute meeting renews confidence, but issues remain

Ara Institute of Canterbury chief executive Kay Giles and South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wendy ...
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Ara Institute of Canterbury chief executive Kay Giles and South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wendy Smith sign a memorandum of understanding last year.

A meeting to shed light on the Ara Institute of Canterbury's position has helped allay South Canterbury stakeholders' fears - but the region's economic development agency says there are still issues to address. 

The Waimate, Mackenzie and Timaru district mayors met with Ara chief executive Kay Giles, acting chairwoman Janie Annear, and Timaru-based council member Jeremy Boys on Friday, while representatives from the South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce, Federated Farmers and Aoraki Development also attended. 

Ara came under fire last month for considering primary industry course cuts, with Timaru mayor Damon Odey questioning its commitment to South Canterbury. 

However Mackenzie mayor Graham Smith said Friday's meeting was "very positive" and he was optimistic about Ara's future in the region. 

READ MORE:
* Ara proposal to cut courses, staff, criticised by mayor
* 'Deep concerns' over Ara Institute of Canterbury's operations in South Canterbury

Low numbers for some courses and potential staff cuts were "certainly addressed"  at the meeting, and Smith said he was convinced the problems were a national issue. 

"In times of full employment or very near full employment people don't seem to find the need to upskill," Smith said.

Late last month an Ara spokeswoman said a review of the Washdyke training farm was still underway, and no decision had been made about whether to close the facility. 

Giles, who is retiring this month, was unable to be reached on Monday.

In a statement she said Ara's council members "genuinely appreciate" the South Canterbury representatives taking the time to meet and to engage in open conversation.

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"It was valuable to clarify concerns and to discuss perceptions. Ara looks forward to further communication with the group and to constructive development of tertiary education opportunities in the region."

Smith said he was confident the institute's position would improve, and his positive view of the institute was echoed by Waimate mayor Craig Rowley. 

Timaru mayor Damon Odey could not be reached for comment on Monday. 

At the meeting stakeholders were told pre-merger reserves of $20.9 million remained in place. 

South Canterbury Chamber of Commerce chief executive Wendy Smith said the chamber was keen to see those reserves invested in education in South Canterbury, and it was a matter of keeping track of the institute's financial performance.

Informal meetings would be held regarding Ara, where key stakeholders could all catch up, she said. 

Ara needed to focus more on designing short courses that could be taken by people who wanted to retrain but were in full-time work, Smith said. 

"It's an absolutely accepted and known fact in education that when there is high employment there's a correspondingly lower number of students.

"The challenge is to provide shorter courses people can take while working." 

Smith said she never questioned Ara's commitment to the region, but she was surprised to learn some courses might be cut. 

Aoraki Development chief executive Nigel Davenport wrote to the institute in May, saying he was concerned about the prospective cuts, declining EFTS and regular staff resignations. 

Davenport said in a statement put out on the weekend the stakeholders had urged Ara to get on with fixing its issues. 

"There are some good things happening that we have urged Ara to communicate better to us and the wider community on, but likewise there are matters we have persuasively suggested they get on to addressing sooner rather than later." 

He was pleased Ara was committed to improving communication with stakeholders. 

"Ara has been asked to give us a further breakdown on the student numbers in terms of the EFTs (equivalent fulltime students) at the campus and we look forward to receiving that information soon." 

Davenport said the institute was currently working on plans to "enhance the student experience and course offerings here" - and he was keen to learn about them. 

Federated Farmers South Canterbury president Mark Adams was unavailable for comment on Monday. 

 - The Timaru Herald

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