PHOTO/FILE

Taratahi’s day in court finally seals its fate
Judge declares final end ‘rather sad’

PAM GRAHAM
pam.graham@age.co.nz

Taratahi Institute of Agriculture is moving to full liquidation in the hands of accounting firm Grant Thornton, which now has the power to sell assets and make staff redundant.

An interim liquidation was made in December at the request of the board of trustees after the Crown declined further funding, and this was made final at the High Court in Wellington on Tuesday.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins this week finalised a deal for Southern Institute of Technology to take over the Telford campus near Balclutha, securing 20 fulltime equivalent jobs.

But there is no reprieve for the other campuses, including Wairarapa.

Taratahi had only taken on Telford from Lincoln University a year prior, for $1, though the university provided $2 million in funding for the first year.

The Government has committed to investing $1.8m in SIT to deliver primary industries training at Telford and through distance learning. SIT is aiming to teach 200 primary industry students in 2019.

“The agreement with SIT is for 12 months. On top of the $1.8m, SIT will receive further Crown support for expenses if operations cease at Telford at the end of 2019,” he said.

Hipkins said reforms to vocational training will be announced in coming weeks.

“We’ve chosen to continue to invest at the Telford site while the longer-term change is being considered as SIT is a strong institution with solid financial backing.

“There is no similar proposal for Taratahi at this stage.”

The Wairarapa head-quartered farming education provider with 10 campuses and 250 staff will not make it to its centenary, which was this year.

In the High Court, Judge Kenneth Johnston called the situation “rather sad”.

Lawyer Steve Flynn agreed and said the liquidators had a little bit to do.

A former employee who declined to be named said: “Why did something with $42m of assets and $25m of debt have to go into liquidation, why didn’t they just manage it out of there, it’s ridiculous.

“I feel they could have done better and managed it out. What s**t news it was for people before Christmas,” he said.

Liquidator David Ruscoe said on Tuesday the educational business was no longer operating and staff would be made redundant. He could not say how many were in Wairarapa.

The farms are a going concern and have continued to operate during the interim liquidation.

He said there was a potential option of maintaining the farms operating going forward to repay creditors.

“Potentially that is something to consider.”

Under that scenario, about 25 people working on the farms will have employment contracts with the liquidator going forward.

He declined to say if the value of the assets, estimated at $42m at September 30 in a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, or indicate if there will be a shortfall for creditors. He must provide a first public report after 20 working days.

He said staff being made redundant would get paid for the period they were suspended but he could not comment on the size of redundancy payouts. The law provides for staff to be preferred creditors up to an amount of $23,960 each but after that they become unsecured creditors.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said it was clear the liquidation of Taratahi was symptomatic of a fragmented system with a plethora of providers that were providing training not always matched with the skills needed for the future of the agrisector.

The Primary Industry Training Organisation said it was doubling the size of its Trades Academy to cater for students previously working with Taratahi.

Chief executive Dr Linda Sissons said the ITO has also found places with other training providers for all of the ITO’s trainees who had been learning through Taratahi.

“We know it has been a very challenging time for former staff and students of Taratahi and we’re pleased that we have found ways to ensure that the trainees doing our qualifications can continue with them.

Sissons said it was disappointing that Taratahi was no longer available to provide training but the education, government and primary sectors needed to work together to ensure vocational training was strengthened.

“Anecdotally, we’re hearing that some students who had planned on going into Taratahi’s fulltime programmes have instead moved into employment and are now looking at training on the job. We think that this earn-while-you-learn model is the best way to develop vocational skills.”