We face an interesting irony when it comes to applied tertiary education.

Nationally and internationally we need more vocational and technical skills to build successful economies, and the Government is pushing for this. But a dark cloud of perception hovers over words like polytechnic and vocational training.

Universities are widely perceived as places of higher learning where the emphasis is on ideas, learning to learn and critical thinking; while institutes of technology and polytechnics are often thought of as trades-training providers only, where intellectual learning takes a back seat to lower-level hands-on training.

Yet if you spend the time to look at the institutes of technology across New Zealand, you'll see that they've actually moved a long way from this.

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Institutes of technology are one of our key drivers of economic performance. They upskill our country's workforce from basic to advanced levels, offering a range of applied education opportunities from certificates to doctorates. The larger institutes provide numerous degree and postgraduate level programmes and undertake research that's aligned to industry needs and has the potential for commercialisation.

What our institutes of technology offer is a new category of tertiary education. Yes, the focus is on applied education, but what does that really mean in the context of these institutions?

It means that students get taught skills, knowledge and ideas through "real world" experience and application. They learn the ideas, concepts, models and theories, yet more importantly, they learn how to translate them into the workplace by putting them into practice. Students learn to apply what they know to their chosen career and that's a precious skill they can take with them into the workforce. This translating of ideas into the workplace is built into the learning process in these institutions. It's the way students are taught - that integration of knowledge and skills, ideas and workplace experience - that defines the experience that institutes of technology provide.

Then there's the topic of industry-engaged tertiary institutions. Outward-facing education institutions and industry links are paramount to providing the right kind of education for students to ensure they're ready when it comes time to enter the workforce. They ensure the relevance of our training, they keep us up to date with the latest trends, technologies and practices, they increase the chances of graduate employment and they provide "real world" environments.

The Government's recently released Tertiary Education Strategy places an emphasis on delivering skills for industry and getting young people into a career, and many institutes of technology are already aligned in this way. Institutes of technology provide a vital link between lower and higher level education.

Internationally, we're seeing a significant shift in the perception of the value of vocational and technical tertiary education. Countries like Saudi Arabia, India and China realise its importance. They're taking action to ensure a more well-skilled workforce that meets the needs of their job market.

The development of a major programme in Saudi Arabia, run jointly by international operators, is well under way. The Waikato Institute of Technology is one of these operators, demonstrating that New Zealand is able to perform at a world standard.

The demand for engineering and technology graduates in this country is a hot topic. There's been talk lately around the fact that the success of our economy and international competitiveness relies heavily on these graduates and the applied tertiary education sector is working through long-term plans to address this.

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New Zealand's institutes of technology have become a major driver of economic competitiveness, productivity and growth. They're providing students with the knowledge and skills from basic through to advanced levels with a focus on "real world" experience and application.

It's just that people's perceptions haven't caught up.

Mark Flowers is chief executive of Wintec and chairman of the Metro Group, comprising New Zealand's six largest metropolitan institutes of technology.