As tutors of Northland's largest tertiary education provider, NorthTec, were adjusting to a new way of teaching during lockdown, management informed them that some might lose their jobs in the coming months due to lack of demand for their courses.
In May, NorthTec started reviewing the closure of Health and Safety courses after enrolments declined earlier this year.
With the consultation coming to a close on June 12, Te Hautū Kahurangi/New Zealand Tertiary Education Union (TEU) criticised the approach NorthTec has taken, saying management has put additional pressure on staff during the lockdown.
TEU organiser Jill Jones, who has been working with affected NorthTec staff over the past weeks, said the review was a kick in the guts.
"The review was launched during the lockdown, when staff were totally severed from their support system."
According to Jones, NorthTec had played it "business as usual" until it made the announcement, and it came as a shock to everyone.
Staff were told about their pending redundancies at a Zoom meeting during lockdown.
About seven tutors could lose their jobs.
"People feel let down – it had a huge effect on their morale. This was done in a callous way."
Jones said NorthTec didn't look into other avenues to keep staff employed. The education provider had an obligation to operate more agile and collaborate with its staff appropriately.
Considering the recent finance boost in the 2020 Budget as well as the Government's support behind tertiary education as part of the post-Covid recovery, NorthTec's action lacked long-term vision, Jones said.
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In this year's Budget, the Government announced $334.1 million in funding for additional tertiary education enrolments and a 1.6 per cent increase to tertiary education tuition and training subsidies to meet cost pressures.
However, NorthTec chief executive Wayne Jackson says the potential cuts weren't a response to the pandemic.
"The proposed changes to the programmes for domestic students being offered in semester two are unrelated to Covid-19 or TEC [Tertiary Education Commission] funding. They stem from the changes NorthTec makes to its courses periodically, based on demand," Jackson said.
"These courses are part of our larger offering in Health and Safety. Enrolments this year have declined as other organisations in Northland have entered the market offering shorter and lower-cost alternatives."
Jackson said NorthTec wasn't able to replicate these while maintaining their required quality standards.
"We are conducting a full consultation with staff on what are, at this stage, proposals in line with our employment agreements."
Shortly before the budget announcement, in early April, a new national organisation called New Zealand Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST) launched with the vow to reprioritise vocational education in the regions after years of neglect.
NorthTec is one of 16 polytechnics that are part of NZIST.
"This is not a time to cut student capacity or undermine the delivery of education, as there will clearly be future increases in the number of students enrolling at polytechnics and wānanga," TEU communications and campaign officer Leigh Paterson said.
"Regional development is also well and truly back on the table given the cash injection for vocational trades by the Government in the recent Budget. NorthTec must be held to account and grilled on why they are making decisions that do not make sense in this current climate."
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Sharlene Nelson, TEU co-branch president who is also a NorthTec tutor. re-affirmed there was a shortage of qualified trade workers in Northland and that cutting courses would impact the entire region.
"We don't think there is a need to cut courses and staff," Nelson said.
She said the tutors who might lose their jobs had been at the polytechnic for a long time and that there was a lack of empathy towards them.
"It was cutthroat," Nelson said.
Shane Reti, Whangārei MP and National's spokesperson for tertiary education, skills and employment, has been in contact with NorthTec management and advocated for staff to be re-employed.
He said NorthTec indicated that competing providers would see a stronger uptake in enrolments for those courses.
"They [NorthTec] can only respond to student demand, and if the student demand for this course is less or, more specifically, someone else is doing a more cost-efficient job, then that is probably a good thing," Reti said.
"My point to the officials was, please re-employ as many as you can and please bear in mind Northland's employment need as you go about doing this reconfiguration. They reassured me that they already made a substantial effort in re-employment."
Reti said NorthTec had its new digital learning hub and skills centre that will launch on Monday saying it was considering Northland's employment needs.
Reti said there would be many opportunities for the provider to re-establish themselves in the post-coronavirus era. He had confidence that NorthTec would slowly make its way out of deficit.
"There is an opportunity that is coming through the funding to the vocational stream for NorthTec to beat itself in as a significant tertiary player in the Northland region," Reti stated.
"As unemployment goes up, training goes up. People lose their job, and they decide to upskill. Evidence suggests that for every one per cent increase in unemployment, 6200 people enrol in training. Wouldn't it be marvellous if NorthTec could pick up on that counter-cyclic?"