Wananga heads for profit after years of struggle

By Yvonne Tahana

After three straight losses and years of political turmoil, Te Wananga o Aotearoa is forecasting it will produce a $3 million to $4 million surplus this year.

The institution won't reveal the scale of its losses over the past few years, saying it must first report to the Government.

But chief executive Bentham Ohia said the turnaround showed the wananga was shrugging off the past and moving on.

Intense scrutiny started in 2005 when allegations of financial waste and nepotism culminated in an auditor-general's report which found no fraud but concerns about accountability and conflicts of interest.

Wananga founder and chief executive at the time Rongo Wetere resigned at the end of 2005 and a crown manager was installed to oversee financial decision making.

Mr Ohia said the resulting restructuring - which including culling 380 jobs - had not been easy but the losses and management changes were necessary.

"To be honest, we had to do it to survive. There's been difficult challenges over the last three years. It [the surplus] is a major, major turnaround for us."

Mr Ohia said the damage done to the wananga's reputation during the furore was bad but not irreparable.

"The reputation challenge will continue to be a challenge. We will focus on the quality of our programmes, the quality of our learning experiences for our students."

And the future was looking good, he said.

Plans were under way to introduce 11 new programmes next year and increase the provider's interaction with secondary school students.

"We don't want this [surplus] to be a one-off. I would say the goal is to sustain current student numbers and absolutely focus on effecting real change for Maori in education."

In more good news for Mr Ohia, the wananga council which oversees the institution voted unanimously to offer him a new five-year contract, which is now under negotiation.

When Mr Ohia applied for the job two years ago, the council was split - some saw his closeness to Mr Wetere as a definite prospects killer.

Wananga chairman Craig Coxhead said the concern centred on the fact that Mr Ohia was second-in-command to Mr Wetere.

"I suppose everyone was very conservative and a bit wary. I think it is fair to say there wasn't the full unanimous support for Bentham at that time."

But Mr Ohia's performance had answered his critics, Mr Coxhead said.

"Bentham's his own man. He's focused on quality in terms of our systems - that was a huge task."

And crown manager Brian Roche, who was appointed in 2005 to manage the institution's finances, was in line to leave by the end of the year, Mr Coxhead said.

At its height, the wananga was the country's biggest tertiary provider with 60,000 students and Government funding worth $239 million.

This year, the wananga received $120 million in funding for 40,000 students, 52 per cent of whom were Maori and 48 per cent non-Maori.

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