The demise of Taratahi Institute of Agriculture that has wrecked the lives of more than 1000 students and close to 200 staff is the result of a short-sighted and a cynical politically-motivated decision, OPINION by TINA NIXON.
While there has been much talk in the community about the need for something to replace Taratahi, which was on the verge of celebrating 100 years of operation, most of that talk has centred on what leaders are calling the ‘future’.
It is understandable that they take this position. It means they can ‘start afresh’.
But it also means, they too, will be doomed to fail.
There are two fundamental problems with the future success of primary sector vocational training.
The market: The rural sector needs different farmers than they did a decade ago and the job market is full. People can get good jobs without training.
The government: The present government [and those of the past] has never really understood the sector, the cost of training or really got to grips with the woeful performance of the Tertiary Education Commission [TEC], the body that decides what will be funded and how.
This became patently evident when I first became involved with Taratahi.
I suggested that it got into training beekeepers, which, as it turns out, has been lucrative.
The process for actually delivering beekeeping courses took months – TEC should be geared up alongside NZQA to get ahead of industry demand but it doesn’t – they lag at least a year, sometimes a lot longer.
TEC is without a doubt one of the most bureaucratic organisations I have ever interacted with, and I have worked with a few.
It has not served the country and its governments well. I applaud the current government for looking to overhaul the tertiary sector, but I condemn it for the short-sightedness about how best that overhaul is carried out.
If the TEC and its current administration survive the next year, then this government will have failed the sector.
The government’s decision not to fund Taratahi was based on advice from TEC — behind closed doors with no chance for Taratahi to talk directly to the ministers involved.
So, Taratahi doesn’t even know what was presented – but the $30m touted by some as what was required for the organisation to continue is wrong. What they needed was $5 million – pretty much the same amount it had repaid of the previous administration’s legacy debt.
We are now in a situation where students’ lives are in some cases wrecked, a pipeline of workers for the industry is disrupted and some extraordinary staff, who have taken Taratahi from a wounded, dying, incoherent organisation to one where students were treated like adults, success rates were up and farms performed in the top 25 per cent of farms in the country, have lost their jobs.
Taratahi’s team had also grown the non-state funded side of the business considerably to the point where it was set to return $4m in the coming year.
Student enrolments were also up for the coming year. And I would bet my life on Taratahi regaining its NZQA EER (external evaluation review) accreditation which meant it could take international students again.
The organisation that Arthur Graves and his team took on was a woeful mess with antiquated systems in place.
For the first six months I was there, every day was a new day of discovering another hole in a very leaky ship. But with strong staff, it was turned around.
So, when Taratahi finally got its books straight in 2018, it could finally tell TEC exactly the cost of training students, who come with far greater needs, and it could present TEC with a very realistic picture of what was needed to fund the education of our future farmers and rural sector workers. It asked for $5m.
And it also presented rigorous evidence to TEC that the difference in what it was funded and what the farms subsidised was about $6k per student.
It pleaded the case for a rethink on funding levels for primary sector tertiary education on that fact-based basis.
You would think that the TEC would have said to the ministers [Chris Hipkins, education, and Damien O’Connor, agriculture] that it was time to forgo the albatross of the legacy debt Taratahi carried – after all, the government had bailed out other institutions such as Westland Polytechnic to the tune of $33m.
On all other fronts, Taratahi was doing well.
TEC, in my opinion , has sought to deflect criticism away from themselves.
After all, Taratahi geared up for students based on TEC forecasting — which was like everything else they do, a little bit slow to pick up on the real trends, which was downwards.
Coupled with that, TEC got Taratahi to pick up the students from other failed organisations with no increase in funding.
So, while I hear the call from community leaders to look forward, they will not succeed unless there is a deep analysis of Taratahi.
It will provide the answers for the future.
It is sad that the Labour-led coalition didn’t put Taratahi on notice for six months while its review and redesign of the sector was completed — which definitely needs to happen — and then required the institute to make the changes it needed at that point.
That was largely the 11th-hour solution that was put before the government which was rejected.
While the government dealt the death blow to Taratahi, it is spinning it that it was the National-led government’s fault that it had to kill it off.
While National did not act fast enough to sort out the sector it must be remembered its advice came from the TEC.
It is no secret it was unhappy with the quality of advice it got from TEC.
The Labour-led coalition must own the decision to kill off Taratahi and the ugly aftermath it has created including the disruption to the lives of thousands of people and around $10 million to the Wairarapa community – not blame previous governments.
This was a cowardly decision and ultimately a costly one as a new ‘Taratahi’ will be costly to rebuild from scratch.
This government must now ask some hard questions of TEC. My expectation is that TEC will be found wanting.
So what of the future?
If the community leaders consign all that has been learned and achieved by Taratahi in 2-1/2 years into the dustbin, then they will be condemned to creating yet another failure and snub some of the best educationists in the industry.
What we need to see is Taratahi rise again in the next few months – underpinned by all the good systems and knowledge built up in the past two years, within a newly-framed tertiary education sector with the required funding levels. With all that in place, it will become an enduring engine room for primary sector talent development.
Tina Nixon is an independent consultant, who was employed Taratahi to provide strategic communications advice until December 2017 and assisted with advice leading up to liquidation. She has sought no input for this column from either former staff or board members and is still owed money by Taratahi.