Twelve Questions: Dr Rick Ede

Unitec CEO Dr Rick Ede is passionate about organisations that are focused on making things better.Picture / Doug Sherring
Unitec CEO Dr Rick Ede is passionate about organisations that are focused on making things better.Picture / Doug Sherring

Unitec CEO Dr Rick Ede says constant change is necessary for the survival of the polytech he leads. The self-confessed change addict moved from town to town as a child after his father's job became obsolete.

1. What was your childhood like?

We moved around a lot. I lived in 10 different houses in the first 10 years of my life. My father lost his job as a printer in Tauranga after the digital transformation of the industry forced the company's closure. He'd developed industrial deafness - printing factories were very noisy places - and the hearing loss knocked him quite badly. My parents ended up separating. He went to live on his own and disengaged from the world a bit. It's sad. He passed away a few years ago.

2. How did that affect you?

Moving a lot got me really comfortable with change. As a child you can't control the changes in your world and I guess that creates a certain adaptability.

I also realised how important it is to stay current and connected.

3. Last year you announced Unitec will axe up to 300 jobs as part of 'new technology and teaching methods' - if computers can replace teachers what's the point of going to Unitec?

In the old days teachers were subject matter experts, but there's so much new knowledge being created now that it's impossible for one teacher to know everything. What they can do is help students access knowledge, make sense of it and give it context. New collaborative teaching methods are based on teachers and students working together to find solutions. The Maori word is 'ako'. The 'Unitec experience' will be a third online, a third face-to-face and a third hands-on in work-based environments.

4. What about long-term staff members who struggle to change?

It doesn't rest easy with me that a large number of staff won't be able to adapt to the new paradigm. Unitec has failed to keep them up to speed with new teaching approaches. We're now investing heavily in staff training programmes. Change is challenging, but if we resist we'll go the way of the printing industry.

5. What were you hired to do when you became CEO of Unitec eight years ago?

Unitec had been obsessed with becoming a university, but AUT got there first and New Zealand doesn't need nine universities. Once Unitec realised all the doors had been closed to them, I was hired to reset the direction. It was soon obvious that the vast majority of our stakeholders were sick and tired of hearing about becoming a university. What they valued was practical, real world learning to prepare students for work. At the same time the finances were in quite bad straits after five years without surpluses. We'd had no inflationary adjustments in public funding since the GFC and couldn't keep asking the Government for more money. Once we'd sorted the finances and re-established Unitec's right to exist, we decided to lift our game and become more future orientated.

6. Change has been almost constant since your arrival. Who is driving this?

Although polytechs like us are accountable for the public funding we receive, we also have a degree of autonomy, like an SOE. The Unitec Council, which appoints me, operates like a board in the corporate sector. The minister appoints the chair of the council and half its members, the other half are internally selected. But there are very few things the minister can actually direct the council on. Unitec can discern for itself what areas of education to go into. The Government's main control mechanism is the Tertiary Education Commission, which decides what courses will get funded and by how much.

7. Is this a good model?

It does lead to an individualistic approach by some institutions rather than what will deliver the best outcomes for New Zealand. To be fair, that's higher on TEC's agenda now. Why should universities have less of an imperative to demonstrate the value they provide to society? One of the reasons I left university was the culture was very individualistic with too much focus on personal achievement and status and reputation. That was a higher priority than teaching and learning.

8. How do you anticipate what employers need?

We don't simply lob our graduates over the fence to employers. We have to build strategic relationships with industry to create a seamless supply chain. We're looking for employers that want to give that a go.

9. Your plans to sell off Unitec land to develop 1400 residences has alarmed locals already frustrated by a heavily congested Carrington Rd, is this Unitec's problem?

It is very important that we're a good neighbour. Our Community Liaison Group has made substantial headway and, after a recent mediation, we've been able to moderate a number of the community's concerns.

10. How did you go from scientist to chief executive?

I did my PhD in organic chemistry at Waikato University and was a senior lecturer there for eight years. While creating knowledge for the sake of it is perfectly valid, I've always been more interested in how you can put it into practice. So I went to the Forest Research Institute in Rotorua where I worked with industry, hands on in the plants, to show them how research could be applied. From there I went on to lead the forestry research division of Australia's billion dollar national research and development organisation.

11. Being a manager is a different skill set to being a scientist. Did you have any training?

My boss sent me on a seven-week management course at the London Business School, but mainly it was learning by doing. I was also able to learn from consultants I hired to help with a large merger. The biggest learning I had was when I was given a role working across the whole organisation to get all the siloed business units working together better. I had no management control, so had to use persuasion and influence to convince people to buy into the vision. It helped me realise there are more ways to get things done than being in a position of power. I decided to move to Unitec because I didn't want to become a long term inmate of a government organisation. It's easy to stagnate. I'm passionate about working for organisations that are focused not just on profit but making things better. Also organisations that are looking to change.

12. Are you a change addict?

Some might say that. Maybe I am.

Unitec programmes start on February 29.

- NZ Herald

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