Ara Institute of Canterbury founder and chief executive Kay Giles retires

Ara chief executive Kay Giles retired on Friday after 40 years in education.
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Ara chief executive Kay Giles retired on Friday after 40 years in education.

Kay Giles says the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT) had a good reputation when she assumed its top job.

Now she's happy to have locals remind her the institution no longer exists.

"If I'm out in the community and I accidentally say CPIT, I have taxi drivers who correct me and say 'it's Ara now'.

"Rebranding was always going to be contentious because you're never going to find a brand everyone loves but I think it's caught on quickly," she said.

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"I feel really proud of my time here and I'm feeling excited about the next stage of my life."

Giles retired on Friday after six years as Ara's chief executive and nearly 40 years working in education.

She was thrown in the deep end, taking up the role just weeks before the 2010 Canterbury earthquake.

"I expected to work hard and try make some improvements, but when the earthquake came along it changed the job completely. It was all about getting everything up and running again.

"Even though it was a difficult time with a lot of worries, I think in the longer term it gave us a lot of opportunities."

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Knowledge of trades training she acquired during her directorship of two Australian technical institutes became useful as Ara expanded its own trades programmes in response to the quake.

Most of her work had been the "boring stuff," she said. Upgrading technical systems, changing course delivery, and improving student support services have helped the polytechnic achieve a $6.8 million surplus a year after CPIT merged with Aoraki Polytechnic to become Ara.

The last year has not been without its challenges. Falling enrolments forced unpopular course and staff cuts at Ara's South Canterbury campus earlier this month.

Despite locals' concerns that the Timaru campus was becoming "a shadow of its former self", Giles said it was "moving closer to viability".

"I think the future is bright, to be honest. What we need to do now is expand the number of programmes that are available down there and grow links with schools and industry."

Expanding Ara's offerings into Kaikoura, Hanmer and Culverden was also a possibility, she said.

Giles said Ara's future success would depend on its reaction to the changing nature of tertiary education.

"People want shorter, sharper bursts, they want their resources at two in the morning. The challenge for Ara is to be agile enough to respond to that."

That task would fall to her successor, Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology chief executive Tony Gray, who starts at Ara in September.

Giles asked the polytechnic's staff, whose commitment through the post-earthquake recovery "really impressed me", to treat him kindly.

She looked forward to a lengthy European vacation before returning home to Australia.

 - Stuff

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