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UCOL’s head is optimistic despite sector uncertainty

While uncertainty remains about the future of New Zealand’s polytechnics in the face of financial losses, falling enrolments, and the new government’s decision to disestablish Te Pūkenga, the director of UCOL Wairarapa says the region’s polytechnic is performing well.

The coalition government’s 100-day plan has committed to the de-centralisation of the mega-polytechnic that resulted from the merging of 16 polytechnics and nine industry training organisations and restoring local leadership of the original institutions.

Leaked financial statements showed Te Pūkenga was facing financial strain with a deficit of $185 million in December last year.

However, although Wairarapa UCOL director Carrie Mckenzie told the Times-Age she can’t say anything about the dissolution of Te Pūkenga, she is optimistic about UCOL’s future, thanks to “skyrocketing” student enrolments, which have increased by about 20 per cent this year.

“That tells me we are doing the right thing.”

The polytechnic is on track to exceed its budgeted target for the first time in three years, sitting at 97 per cent, which is about 450 students, Mckenzie said.

Student enrolments went from 199 EFTS [equivalent full-time student] in 2023 to 243 EFTS this year.

“The buy-in from the community and our industries, that’s where our sweet spot has come.”

Mckenzie said students are enrolling in pre-trade courses rather than jumping straight into an apprenticeship.

When students graduate from UCOL at the end of the year, industry leaders are invited to speak with them so they can explore apprenticeship opportunities.

The fact that coursework can be cross-credited into the work-based learning apprenticeship programme is appealing to both graduates and trade businesses.

With the trade arena booming and identifiable gaps in the sector, about 70 per cent of Wairarapa UCOL graduates are employed, Mckenzie said.

Last year, a government study revealed that New Zealand could face a deficit of 40,000 manufacturing and engineering workers by 2028.

Multiple factors are attributed to the shortage including overseas opportunities, New Zealand’s immigration policy settings, and Covid-19 travel restrictions.

This has also led to a drop in international student enrolments nationwide, but McKenzie said UCOL remains resilient because of their small cohort and local reach.

“We didn’t suffer quite as badly as some of the other polytechs,” she said.

A pōwhiri for new students will commence at the UCOL Wairarapa marae on February 19.

Although the government aims to improve the training sector’s financial performance, it’s acknowledged that some of the country’s polytechnics may experience job losses, and it remains unclear whether UCOL will be among them.

“Further progress will need to be made on a new direction before any impact on UCOL’s structure can be fully understood,” Te Pūkenga executive director Mark Oldershaw said.

“Te Pūkenga has halted all work on the implementation of an organisational structure supporting a nationwide network.

“The disestablishment of Te Pūkenga will require legislative change and further development of a proposed future model for the sector.

“Any organisational change required to meet the government’s expectations will not impact the learning, skills, and qualifications of UCOL ākonga [students] enrolling or continuing study.”

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