CPIT aims to drive a new city's success

19:25, Apr 13 2013
CPIT has an increasing roll and a budget surplus.

CPIT has become one of the quiet achievers of the struggling tertiary education sector. JOHN McCRONE reports

The Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) seems to have been rather quiet since the earthquakes. Which is surprising given that you might think it would have emerged as a major player in the central city's rebuild plans.

The need to get youth and activity back into the centre of Christchurch has produced all manner of excited speculation about the city's tertiary education institutions.

A first obvious call was to shift the University of Canterbury back inside the four avenues. Many remarked how the city started to lose life the day the students moved out to Ilam.

And if not the whole university, then why not lop off some suitably large chunks like the fine arts school, or revive the plan to move the music college into town? The same for Lincoln University sitting way out there on the plains with its swollen range of tourism, urban planning, recreation management and other non agricultural courses.

Both universities have been struggling to attract students post-quake. Both have expensive building damage. So why not look at sensible steps that would divert some of that rebuild potential back into the heart of Christchurch?


Indeed, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce sent shivers down academic spines last year by instructing Canterbury, Lincoln and CPIT to "consider every option" including mergers in a bid to rationalise the delivery of higher education in the region. Something radical looked on the cards back then.

The University of Otago's Dunedin School of Medicine was seen as another possible "big move" to revitalise the central city.

The 142-year-old school has been drifting Christchurch-wards for a long time. Its fourth year trainees already come to Christchurch because they need a city with a large enough population of patients to practice upon. It has established a research base with 26 professors and 450 post-graduate students.

So why not now think big, ignore the inevitable stink it would cause, and just shift the whole school up State Highway 1 to its natural South Island home?

With the central city a blank canvas, a set of gapping holes to be filled, even more adventurous thoughts have been circulating.

Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker likes the idea of persuading a major Asian university to set up a local branch - its Oceania campus - in Christchurch.

It is not so far beyond the bounds of possibility, he says. Parker recounts a conversation he had with a Malaysian billionaire last year. The businessman is building schools and educational infrastructure right across Southeast Asia. The growth over there is staggering.

"He said to me, Bob, I could deliver you 25,000 students a year in a few years' time."

The billionaire wanted to do it because he had fond memories of studying in Christchurch as a Colombo Plan student. Parker said you mean our lovely landscape, our open culture? But no, what the businessman wanted to recreate was the Asian melting pot experience he had as a result of the old colonial aid plan.

"He said there was a guy from Indonesia, from the Philippines, from Nepal - he would never have got to mix with the many other cultures in his part of the world if he had stayed studying in his own country."

Parker says it shows how in a global economy, opportunities for Christchurch could pop right out of left-field at any moment. Especially because Christchurch is in the unique position of being able immediately to offer such a venture a prime inner city location.

But then, even if none of these bigger ideas take off - indeed, especially if they don't - many have been saying the least that should happen is that CPIT is vamped up in some way.

Turn it immediately into a full university, make it Christchurch University, urged one recent letter to the paper. Get the government to refocus it on the international possibilities, demanded another.

In the current central city vacuum, the polytech needs to become a driving force.

For this reason, the comparative silence coming from Madras St has been more than a little surprising. But no news may be good news. CPIT might have no spectacular headline-catching ambitions to report, but that does not mean it is not acting as one of the vital cogs of the recovery.

From the roadside, CPIT looks fairly drab. A motley collection of buildings and asphalt car parking taking up a block or so of the least attractive part of the old city.

But once inside the Rakaia Centre, the main block housing the library, cafe, student services and administration, the atmosphere grows rather friendlier with the high glass walls and quirky architecture.

The office of chief executive Kay Giles, an Aussie import, is on a first floor landing. Smart, calm, well air-conditioned, yet nothing too lavish.

Formerly manager of SkillsTech Australia, Queensland's state-wide network of trade and technician training academies, Giles arrived in August 2010 and confesses she was expecting her watch at CPIT to be one of quiet consolidation. The earthquakes quickly put paid to that, of course.

In fact, the February 22 quake caused relatively minor damage to the polytech's buildings. However, there was still huge disruption because CPIT was immediately shut off behind the civil defence cordon.

Giles says a quick read-up of US recovery research stressed that institutions need to start back in business as soon as possible to secure their long-term future. And by begging and borrowing premises, within two months, CPIT had 95 per cent of its courses running again.

"We were operating all over the place - in church halls and private dance studios, the Papanui Club and the Cashmere Club. We had a big presence at Lincoln University. They were really kind to us. It was a big positive we were able to get up and going again so quickly."

Giles says - as a lot of Christchurch organisations will have found - the experience was liberating in its way.

"This is an institution that's been going about 107 years and you can get a bit staid. We showed we can be flexible, we can do things in a hurry if we need to."

And since the earthquakes, despite being in the central city amid some of the worst damage, CPIT has had a strikingly happier story to tell in terms of its student numbers and finances.

Unlike the universities, CPIT has an increasing roll and a budget surplus. Already last year it was back to 4400 fulltime equivalent students. This year that rose to 4800.

Giles says CPIT has also performed on other measures of success.

"I'll have a little gloat here. Even in 2011, the year of the earthquake, our course completion rate was the highest in the country and our qualification completion rate was second highest."

So it seems CPIT has not gone quiet because it has been too mired in its own woes. Instead, it finds itself in an unexpectedly healthy position. Which then makes it all the more of a puzzle that people have not been hearing about some grand rebuild plans from the polytech, I suggest to Giles.

She says the reason is simple: All its energies are going in a different direction.

To an outsider, it might seem logical that the polytech would want to go kingdom-building - that it would grab the chance to turn itself into a university-style research institution or open up a new national centre of excellence in something or other. Some construction project that would fill another block with buildings.

But Giles says CPIT sees its mission as being connected to the economic success of its region - training local people for local jobs.

It hasn't gone looking to open campuses in other cities. Most of its intake is from local schools. "About 80 per cent of our students are from Canterbury, which is about the highest. At places like Otago, for instance, it would be more like 50/50."

So Giles says if the earthquakes have now created an opportunity, it is to become still more integrated with the future of the province.

"It's a chance to be even more community-connected and community-relevant, because clearly the community has a greater need."

Not a sexy plan perhaps, but valuable, nevertheless.

The core has been the Skills for Canterbury Unit.

"People in that unit go out to industry and specifically ask: What do you want CPIT to deliver and when do you want us to deliver it?"

Giles says CPIT runs courses in practical subjects like architectural drafting and construction management, so it is obvious there is going to be a huge demand for those kinds of skills during the rebuild.

But what is different is the effort being made to co-ordinate with industry. For example, it turned out there was a new call to upskill existing local workers so they could step up into foreman and management roles. With the rebuild, Canterbury businesses were expanding their numbers suddenly.

"We found we needed to increase our part-time offerings and find times when the employers said the courses would work."

One large firm needed to upgrade the qualifications of a whole team of welders.

"Their staff had issues travelling into town so our tutors went out to the workplace and delivered the classes there."

The rebuild has become an ever-changing target. Last year saw a spike in demand for food and hospitality training, says Giles.

"When the central city hotels closed down, many of their staff left Christchurch. So as things started opening up again, there was then an enormous demand and we had to throw on a lot of extra classes. This year it's dropped back to normal again."

The better integration is happening in many other ways, she says. Since the earthquakes, CPIT has rapidly expanded its Canterbury Tertiary College, a scheme where school children doing NCEA vocational subjects can spend a couple of days a week studying at the polytechnic level.

"We've really grown that. In 2010, we had about 110 places. Last year, it was 300, and this year it will be 450. So that is just one youth initiative that is growing year on year now."

At this year's graduation day, business leaders were invited to join the academic staff on the stage, emphasising the shoulder- to-shoulder relationship.

Giles says this is why it might be hard to appreciate CPIT's role in the recovery. As Joyce's talk of mergers indicates, the initial thought of many was that it would be the identity of the tertiary institutions that would see change. There would be consolidations and refocusing of some kind.

But she says it quickly became apparent there was little practical overlap. Each had its own job to do and just needed to concentrate on doing it better. So CPIT's efforts have been going into the largely unseen task of improving the connection between vocational training and the long-term needs of a recovering city and region.

Looking to the future, Giles sees more ambitious CPIT plans. She says with the government's central city blueprint creating new health and innovation precincts right on the polytech's doorstep, there will be considerable opportunities there.

CPIT is already the main training centre for South Island nurses and as a health precinct takes shape around Christchurch Hospital it may become logical to relocate CPIT's nursing college down that end of town.

With classrooms next door to the hospital, trainee nurses would be able to do things like join in the early morning ward rounds, says Giles. She would expect the new health precinct businesses to also create a demand for new technical training courses.

"But we would be doing these things in partnership. We would do it working with the hospital and the Otago medical school."

Again, the projects might not look so dramatic because a number of organisations would have their names attached. However, networks and relationships are what are going to make the new Christchurch strong in the end, Giles says.

The innovation precinct will likewise offer all sorts of partnership possibilities. She says the games developers and IT support firms will need local back office staff as they expand, so there should be opportunities for CPIT students to get a foot in the door on work placements.

"Locating technical support in the precinct would be really attractive because we could offer the student labour - second and third year IT students - working a few shifts a week to get their on- the-job experience."

Imagine a Christchurch which has a thriving ecosystem of high-tech start-ups and a polytech acting as a conveyor belt to the jobs, Giles says. There is no lack of ambition in driving towards that goal.

The Press