Two new courses in Whanganui – Carpentry and Automotive – and both are “well subscribed”. Photo / Bevan Conley.
The closure of four UCOL courses is a sign of wider issues impacting tertiary education in Whanganui, local experts say.
On Wednesday, the Chronicle reported that hairdressing, level 4, security and the NZ Certificate of
Music would not be running in 2023.
Former UCOL Te Pūkenga Whanganui student life co-ordinator Elise Goodge said the main problem she ran into during her tenure was a lack of autonomy within her role to act in the best interests of the students on the Whanganui campus.
“There was a generally a lack of trust in staff ability and a lack of trust in the knowledge of local staff to be able to understand what was needed in our community,” she said.
“I could be wrong, but it also felt like there was a lack of understanding that every community is different.
“What works in Wairarapa might not work in Palmerston North, and what works in Palmerston North might not work in Whanganui.”
All UCOL campuses are now under the Te Pūkenga umbrella, an amalgamation of 16 tertiary institutions around the country.
UCOL business division executive director Brian Trott said there were 259 equivalent full-time students (EFTS) at UCOL Te Pūkenga Whanganui.
At this time last year, there were 335 EFTS.
“In terms of total students, we have over 490 students studying at different levels at the Whanganui campus,” Trott said.
He said this week that no more than two students signed up for the courses that had been canned.
Goodge said Whanganui was “fighting against the tide” to stop its students from going elsewhere.
Because of the impacts of Covid-19, UCOL also had very little presence in the local community, she said.
“You also have to be communicating with students that yes, it’s very attractive to get a job right now, but you get your first year of study for free right now as well.
“Young people I talk to about it (free study) don’t even know that’s an option.
“After the next election, that option might be gone.”
Labour’s policy to pay for the first year of tertiary education was introduced in 2018.
Chonel Hairdressing owner Carol Hayward said as an industry stakeholder, she was invested in Whanganui being able to maintain a tertiary provider.
UCOL had looked at cutting the hairdressing course in Whanganui before, close to 20 years ago, she said.
Pushback from business owners and educators prevented that but the contract to deliver the theory component to apprentices was lost.
Hayward said course cutting was of great concern.
“We have a number of very talented, very knowledgeable, experienced lecturers that have put their heart and soul into maintaining their programmes.
“I just don’t feel they are treated with the respect they deserve.
“We are seeing our rangitahi (youth) put on a bus and shipped over to Palmerston North to partake in courses that could be delivered here.”
There was a disconnect between UCOL and local secondary schools, Hayward said.
She said one example was music, where in the past lecturers had close relationships with high school teachers and heads of departments.
“For our community, it’s very much about those face-to-face relationships and hand-holding students into the campus,” Goodge said.
“That kind of outreach has been gradually taken away, to the point where staff are very much discouraged from forming those kinds of relationships or doing any kind of promotion locally.”
Tertiary Education Union organiser Ben Schmidt said making staff members redundant was the completely wrong approach.
“Te Pukenga needs to continue to employ these valuable local lecturers and actually invest in proper local marketing that is responsive and appeals to the needs of students and the community in Whanganui.
“Give staff the time and resources they need to get out to schools and continue to build relationships. But, they (Te Pūkenga) need to continue to employ these staff to do that.”
Trott said UCOL Te Pūkenga Whanganui was actively working to provide relevant training and education opportunities.
“Recently in Whanganui, we created two new courses – carpentry and automotive – and both are well-subscribed.
“Every year, we undertake two significant local marketing campaigns targeting school leavers and those looking to change careers.
“Additionally, we have hosted two career days in Whanganui in the past six months. Usually, we only hold one.”
UCOL was growing its relationships with various communities, particularly Whanganui’s growing Pasifika community, he said.
A “key success” had been growing the In School study option.
“Many learners who study with us via those courses continue to study with us once they leave school.”
With the axing of cookery level 4, the only course left in the catering and hospitality department on the Whanganui campus is the U-Skills (in-school) programme.
Deputy chief executive of ako delivery at Te Pūkenga, Gus Gilmore, said at present, its marketing was co-branded and led at both a national and local level.
“Local activity continues to be led, funded and directed by marketing teams in our business divisions, including UCOL.
“The difference this year is that our network has developed a co-ordinated approach, aimed at reducing the competitive elements of our advertising and visually reflecting the move towards a cohesive, integrated unified network.”
Te Pūkenga needed to ensure the courses it offered aligned to ākonga (learner) demand, he said.
“For us, this happens at a local level.
“It’s normal practice to regularly review what is offered and to make changes to reflect ākonga demand. Our charter is very clear – we must be responsive to local and regional needs.”
Hayward said she knew parents of secondary school students who didn’t want their children getting on a bus to Palmerston North every day.
“They want them to study here.
“Whanganui is already struggling to retain its youth, which is our succession, and this is what’s happening in the background?
“To also hear people say they don’t even know where UCOL is, that’s just crazy.”
Goodge said there was no one person to blame for the current situation and it was a result of all sorts of extenuating circumstances.
“Of course, it’s always going to be the more regional campuses that suffer the most.
“There is a real potential for Te Pūkenga to be a success if we can get the message across that the community, along with campus management, go hand in hand.
“We need to manage those relationships ourselves, the way we know they need to be managed.”
Te Pūkenga closing the Whanganui campus altogether wouldn’t be completely doom and gloom, she said.
“There is still potential for us to look at micro-courses and to look at the way education is changing at the tertiary level.
“Technology is moving so fast that studying for short periods of time and often is likely to be the future.
‘Whanganui has responded incredibly well to having to establish its own tertiary options in the past. I think we could do it again.”