Mismatch in education

21:24, Feb 01 2013

This week we've seen two education institutions, one successful and one a near failure, being treated very differently.

The unsuccessful institution, a private one, is receiving millions of taxpayer dollars to bail it out. The successful one is facing turmoil because the governing council doesn't want to keep its highly successful chief executive.

It looks like politics has determined what has happened in each case.

The success story is our local polytech, Witt.

The Witt chief executive, Richard Handley, is finishing up later this year. He doesn't want to. He is at the end of a five-year appointment and has asked to continue for another couple of years. The polytech council has refused.

It looks like a run-of-the-mill employment issue.


Mr Handley was on a five-year agreement. The five years have come to an end. The Witt Council has no legal obligation to extend his employment. He can see out his time. Witt as an employer is acting legally. End of story.

Except it's not the end of the story. There's a lot more to it.

Mr Handley's stewardship of Witt over the past five years has been exceptional.

His predecessors had left the local polytech heavily indebted and with big problems. I know from my work with many local engineering businesses that there was a growing distance between the polytech and the local industries, which it should have been working alongside.

It had ditched many of its engineering trades courses.

Promises of large numbers of overseas students went unfulfilled and the roll was falling.

Things were so bad the entire council was sacked and a commissioner put in their place.

Witt was run from Wellington.

Against this background, Mr Handley arrived and had the job of getting it back to a well-functioning polytech.

He was under immense pressure. For one thing, most of us didn't have high expectations that we'd ever see a half- decent polytech in our community again.

But Mr Handley rescued Witt, and with it the community's confidence in the facility. The measure of his efforts is not just in the fact that Witt has eliminated its debt, nor in the fact that the roll is rising.

Surely, the best measure of his success is the response from staff and students since his "resignation" was announced. I cannot recall anything like the response we have seen this week in any workplace I've dealt with. There have been petitions, messages of support and a general out-pouring in his favour.

So, what should the governing council do? First, it should front up to the community that the polytech is a part of. It's not acceptable that the council refuses to explain why it has not renewed the contract of its highly successful head.

Secondly, in responding to the community, it shouldn't hide behind legalities. It might be acting legally, but it's not acting properly.

Right now, the Witt Council is seen by everyone I've spoken to as rewarding excellent performance with termination of employment. What a way to treat your top performer. Which edition of the Harvard Business Review did it get that gem from?

Let's not overlook what sits behind what is happening at Witt. Since 2010, most council members are now appointed by the Minister of Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce. Those who aren't appointed by him directly, are appointed by those who were appointed by him. The connection between the council and the community the polytechnic serves has been broken. This might have something to do with why the council seems so unresponsive to the concerns at the way Mr Handley's employment has been handled.

Contrast what has happened at Witt with what has happened at Wanganui Collegiate, the far less successful educational institution.

Collegiate has been the desired school for the sons and daughters of the wealthy and privileged for many years. It once hosted Prince Edward as a tutor for a year.

Like all private schools pitching itself to the wealthiest, Collegiate charged steep fees for the privilege of attending.

But it has been in decline for many years. I don't know why. Maybe fewer of the landed gentry want to send their treasured darlings to boarding school. Maybe Whanganui is just too far away for young folks to bother travelling there anymore. Who knows?

So, Wanganui Collegiate applied to be an integrated school, a form of state school. This meant its taxpayer funding would go up from $800,000 a year to $3 million for its roll of about 150.

Other schools in the region, especially in Whanganui, have rolls that are growing, but none has had access to the sort of support Collegiate has had.

On top of everything, Collegiate is still charging fees as if it were still a private school. I can't think of any state school getting away with this. Look at the reaction when state schools charge "voluntary" contributions of a couple of hundred dollars.

For a failing school, Collegiate has done very well. The government has rewarded it handsomely.

Welcome to the politics of education under this government.

A polytech whose governing council doesn't think it's answerable to the local community. And an elite school being enriched at our expense, so it can continue to serve the wealthy and the privileged.

Taranaki Daily News