Fiji-born entrepreneur Feroz Ali has bought New Zealand's biggest privately owned art school, the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design.

Ali, who lived in New Zealand for 26 years but is now based in Canada, plans to expand the college into new fields including information technology and teacher training.

He has also registered a new company, Skill New Zealand Ltd, which will offer training in trades related to infrastructure, aquaculture and tourism in Northland and farming and the racing industry in the lower North Island.

Whitecliffe College, established in 1983 by Greg and Michele Whitecliffe, has 420 fulltime-equivalent students and 70 fulltime and part-time staff at campuses in Parnell and Christchurch.

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An evaluation by the NZ Qualifications Authority in December said it was "one of a very small number of private training establishments that offer postgraduate programmes" including masters in fine arts, arts management and arts therapy.

The evaluation rated the college in the top quality category, saying the authority was "highly confident" in its educational performance and "confident" in its self-assessment capability.

The Whitecliffe art school rented this prominent building in Grafton until the property was sold to the Church of Scientology in 2007. Photo / File
The Whitecliffe art school rented this prominent building in Grafton until the property was sold to the Church of Scientology in 2007. Photo / File

Michele Whitecliffe, who has led the college alone since her husband Greg died of cancer in 2001, said Ali first explored the idea of buying the college when he headed ACG's tertiary division in 2014-15.

"I said no then, but I'm about to turn 61, and it's really important to me to secure the long-term future for Whitecliffe," she said.

"He has the ability to come back and put in other resources to take Whitecliffe to a whole other level that I couldn't do on my own."

Ali has taken an 80 per cent stake in the college and Whitecliffe will keep the other 20 per cent and the role of president.

Feroz Ali built a career in tertiary education in New Zealand before moving to Canada in 2015. Photo / Supplied
Feroz Ali built a career in tertiary education in New Zealand before moving to Canada in 2015. Photo / Supplied

Ali, 45, was born in Fiji but came to Auckland with his parents in 1988. He was educated at Auckland University, then worked for his father's Asia Pacific Training Centre in East Tāmaki, which was sold to Chubb in 2001.

He went to Canada for two years and returned to establish NZ Career College, which offered courses in early childhood education, health, motor trades, business, technology and retailing until he sold it to ACG in 2014.

He said more than 80 per cent of NZ Career College students were Māori and Pasifika and he hoped to reach those groups again through his proposed trades training venture in Northland.

He chaired the Auckland Council's Ethnic Peoples Advisory Panel from 2014, but resigned in March 2015 saying the panel was "only there for token consultation and frankly a waste of ratepayers' money".

He left ACG in August 2015 after it was sold to Australia's Pacific Equity Partners, and moved to Vancouver with his Canadian wife in December that year.

His Vancouver-based company Asia Pacific Education Corporation now owns the Canadian Tourism College and Sterling College in Canada, a franchise branch of the tourism college in the Philippines, and NZ Fashion Tech in Grafton, which he bought last August.

He plans to open another franchise of the tourism college in Vietnam in September, and sees scope to take the Whitecliffe art school brand to Canada.

"We are definitely looking at taking Whitecliffe to Canada, taking NZ qualifications to offer Canadians," he said.

"I think the Whitecliffe brand can move into other areas like ICT, and perhaps in education - doing graduate education programmes, training more teachers especially at masters level.

"It has been called the Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design. Going forward we will call it Whitecliffe College, that will allow us to expand into other areas."

Asked for a timetable, he said: "ICT will be this year 2018, teaching will be in 2019. We are strategising. ICT might come through acquisition, the other one might be a start-up."

He said he also hoped that "by the beginning of 2019 we should have a platform to launch in Northland".

"I think Northland is a growth area. There is going to be more urbanisation happening, and maybe looking at the travel and tourism industry, and aquaculture and the marine space.

"I also think that trades in Northland is going to continually be required because of the regional development the current Government is focused on, including infrastructure and civil works. Why can't we train our people to work in the civil engineering space?"

But Tertiary Education Union president Dr Sandra Grey said Ali's expansion plans came at "an odd time", with a bill in Parliament to repeal the previous National Government's policy of funding private and public tertiary institutions on the same basis.

"We have very clear signals from the Government that they want to treat tertiary education as other than as a market, so this hint of a competitive market doesn't really fit with the ethos of the sector," she said.

"There is still a role for the private sector, but we would say we want to focus on making sure that core public providers are able to continue operating because they are the ones that have a long-term stake in their communities."