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Stephen Town, Te Pūkenga, New Zealand

Stephen Town is chief executive of Te Pūkenga, New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology. He spoke to The PIE about the setting up of the vocational provider, international partners and its role in the Asia-Pacific region.


"We would expect our size and scale to create opportunities, to improve and grow the connections between Pacific island nations and New Zealand"

The PIE: How has Te Pūkenga been affected by the pandemic?

Stephen Town: Our international strategy is going through a reset because of Covid-19 and the international learner numbers inbound to New Zealand have reduced drastically. So, it’s going to take a long time to build that back.

It is true that the majority of our partners offshore at the moment, would be in China”

We at Te Pūkenga are taking the opportunity to develop a new strategy for internationalisation. And, it is an expectation of our government that we build a strong reputation internationally. So, we are open to partnerships with other countries. It is true that the majority of our partners offshore at the moment would be in China. You may know that China has been a very significant source of international learners coming to New Zealand to undertake degrees, study postgraduate/ masters [and other] programs.

[However] we are open minded about other countries. We have tended to focus on India and China, but following Covid-19 and the experiences of what happens with the border closures for a length of time, it will be helpful to perhaps diversify the number of countries that we are interacting with, to have regard for what might be quite a different future. With new variants of Covid arriving and causing borders to close within very short notice, it’s definitely a new challenge and a new opportunity for Te Pūkenga.

The PIE: How is Te Pūkenga looking to enhance Māori and Pacific Islander participation?

ST: There are two important features of the legislation that Te Pūkenga has been formed under. One is that we have traditionally been asked to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, between Māori and non-Māori. This new education and training act goes quite a bit further and requires us to give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the Māori version of the treaty. So, it has a different and much stronger emphasis and we are also required under our charter to substantially improve equity for Māori and to reverse a longstanding trend that sees Māori learners not succeed at the same level as other learners in our system.

There are two other groups of learners that we’ve been asked to focus more diligently on and they are our Pasifika people and our disabled learners. But, Māori stand apart because of the treaty and that is a document which directs effort towards a truly bicultural nation.

So, that’s our brief and we are taking initiatives now, even though some of these new arrangements won’t start fully until early 2023. We are already preparing to [provide] some new service offerings in 2022 to get ready for 2023.

The PIE: What initiatives is Te Pūkenga envisaging to foster sustainability, given that it will have a pivotal leadership role in the sector and the economy in New Zealand?

ST: We have adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and we have used that platform to seek financing arrangements for Te Pūkenga that are reflective of the UNSDGs. We are the first recipient of a social loan under that program from the Westpac Bank in New Zealand. They are our backing provider and they have agreed to loan arrangements that fall under the [purview of the] UNSDGs.

Secondly, because we are a new organisation, we have just been undertaking a sustainability stocktake. So [mapping out what] all of our current members of our network are doing towards sustainability; and we plan to develop a sustainability strategy and then to begin to implement that and make a contribution as a leader in this sphere, going forward, in line with New Zealand’s undertakings on climate change and sustainability.

The PIE: How would you describe the role of Te Pūkenga towards solving skills shortages in New Zealand?

ST: As part of the reform of vocational education the government has formed 15 Regional Skills Leadership Groups all over the country and one of their primary tasks is to produce a workforce skills plan for their [respective] regions.

We expect to be influenced quite heavily by such workforce plans, so that we can tailor our regional delivery to help deliver that workforce plan. That’s accompanied also by a change in the immigration policy for New Zealand, which has traditionally seen inbound employees filling many of New Zealand’s skills shortages, both in the short and medium term, and so our tertiary education system has often been used as a pathway to residency as well. That is now in the process of change and we expect that we’ll have to solve our skills shortages by being better at what we do with domestic learners and international learners who are already living in New Zealand.

The PIE: Any challenges with bringing in centralisation in the setting up of Te Pūkenga, as it is planned around centralising the TVET landscape in New Zealand?

ST: It is still quite early days, as we are still completing the design of the operating model. But there is an expectation of centralisation of some corporate services and the way we plan. We are also required to deliver into all of the regions of New Zealand and to enable or empower regional responsiveness to thrive.

I think the challenge is going to be in finding the balance between the distributed delivery and the centralised thinking and the core services that might be centralised.

So what we are [aiming for] is a better transformation program that will run over many years; I think 8-10 years is likely and because we haven’t done this in New Zealand for [around] 30 years, you have to take a long-term and incremental implementation approach to be successful. So, that’s what we are planning to do.

The PIE: How does the setting up of Te Pūkenga blend in with New Zealand’s education strategy?

ST: The New Zealand education strategy has just been refreshed and was approved by the government, just as Te Pūkenga was being formed. The strategy was released last year, so there is a good fit between what we are expected to do and how Te Pūkenga can contribute to a more successful education system and strategy.

Certainly, the Pacific nations occupy a very special relationship with New Zealand”

The PIE: What are your thoughts on sharing expertise with Pacific Island countries and some of New Zealand’s neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region?

ST: Certainly, the Pacific nations occupy a very special relationship with New Zealand and we would expect our size and scale to create opportunities, to improve and grow the connections between Pacific island nations and New Zealand.

We have the biggest Pasifika community in the world and we do want to make better connections with education and training opportunities for Pasifika people, [not only those] who are already living in New Zealand, but also enhancing our connections with the Pacific itself. So, watch this space!

The PIE: What would your concluding remarks be in regards to Te Pūkenga, looking at the future?

ST: Te Pūkenga is an ambitious project and the legislation is demanding. I think what we would expect, is that we are going to be the 35th biggest tertiary education institution in the world by 2023 — and it’s really exciting to have an opportunity to build our new vocational education and training system and to have Te Pūkenga take its place in that new system.

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