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Learner sitting in wheelchair talking with female nurse

Sixty days in the sector for Stephen

Stephen Town, NZIST’s CE has now spent sixty days in the sector. He has a clear understanding of the direction of travel, and how it needs to occur.

Traditionally, it’s the first 100 days that Chief Executives consider the time required to benchmark the measure of early success. It’s a time for listening, asking questions and forming impressions. You spend time getting to know the environment, getting to know the people and forming a good relationship with the governance Board or Council.

But NZIST is a newly established organisation with an ambitious transformation agenda, and Chief Executive Stephen Town knows following a ‘that’s how it has always happened’ path is not going to propel the change required. He’s focused on doing things differently to drive better outcomes across the vocational education sector. Having spent sixty busy days at the head of NZIST, and with six new DCEs now appointed, he has a clear understanding of the direction of travel, and perhaps more importantly, how it needs to occur.

“We have a significant portfolio of transformation projects to deliver, and they sit under a single unifier: We put learners at the centre. We know that Māori, Pasifika and learners with disabilities have been underserved by the system in the past. Achieving equity and ensuring access is a critical key focus,” says Stephen.

Achieving equity for Māori

“The greatest change we must achieve is to ensure NZIST’s systems and services work well for Māori. We must respond with excellence to the needs of Māori learners and their whānau. We need to support and foster the aspirations of iwi and Māori communities throughout Aotearoa.”

NZIST has a statutory requirement to achieve equity for Māori learners, reflected in the charter .

“Regardless of the formal obligations we have, achieving equity is the right thing to do. It just makes sense. When we create a system that serves Māori well, it will serve all learners well,” says Stephen.

A recently developed Te Tiriti o Waitangi excellence framework, called Te Pae Tawhiti, will support and enable that focus. Over the next two years Te Pae Tawhiti, a working draft, will support NZIST’s collective duties to:

  • ensure the governance, management and operations of the organisation give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi
  • recognise that Māori are key leaders in regional, social, environmental, and economic development
  • respond to the needs of and improve outcomes for Māori learners, whānau, hapu and employers.  

“Our transformation emphasis is on the start of the 2023 learning year, when NZIST will be operating under a new model that prioritises equity for Māori and places learners at the centre. Developing a cohesive sustainable vocational education system is not going to be a simple task. It will be complex and at times confusing and unsettling. I will do all I can to minimise confusion, maximise clarity, and make sure we take everyone with us on the journey.”

Clear near-term priorities

NZIST’s Council Chair Murray Strong has outlined the Council’s near-term priorities for Stephen. 

  • Establish a strong, professional and supportive head office function to ensure the capacity and capability required to underpin NZIST’s network transformation
  • Start to develop and define the type of organisational culture NZIST’s network will embrace to ensure learners are at the centre of all our decision making, particularly Māori, Pasifika and learners with disabilities who have all been previously underserved
  • Be nimble and innovative in managing the COVID-19 impacts. Take stock of our financial situation and when possible, put in place plans to mitigate the challenges NZIST’s network faces.  Use the expertise, size and scale of the network to do this, and play a significant role in helping the country recover from the pandemic

“I’m comfortable with progressing these very clear and specific priorities. To me they provide the opportunity to focus on what we must do, how we need to do it, and when we need to do it,” says Stephen.

The blueprint for transformation

Perhaps the most significant piece of work on the transform agenda is developing the operating model. NZIST’s operating model is the blueprint we will use to transform the current teaching and learning models. Potential partners have been shortlisted, and final decisions will be made soon. The initial work will be carried out over the next eight months, including an extensive consultation process in the first quarter of 2021.

What’s important is the process that developing the operating model will take. It will be a collaborative co-design approach, where feedback and insight will help inform the design of all facets of the operating model – people, process, tools and technology. The design process will affirm NZIST’s commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and will lead to a design that will support equitable outcomes for all learners.

“We need to reimagine vocational education. We will not do that in an office with a white board. Building on learning from the initial ITP Roadmap, Reform of Vocational Education process, and Mobilising the New World workstream processes, this must be a collaborative effort where deep and wide engagement with a broad range of stakeholders ensures we hear many voices. This is how we will design and then implement meaningful and lasting change,” says Stephen.

Taking opportunities

As the transformation progresses, and subsidiaries continue to deliver quality education and training to their predominantly domestic learners, NZIST must also grapple with the impacts of COVID-19. Even prior to the global pandemic, the network’s financial situation was challenged. The loss of revenue from international students has compounded that.

Stephen is very aware that well reported financial challenges have created speculation about the steps NZIST might take to mitigate the immediate fiscal situation.

“I approach things with a pragmatic lens, and I will also be honest and open about my plans for the future. Change is coming. The system is going to be transformed. The vocational education system will be very different in a few years’ time. The change required to drive the transformation will have impacts on people, processes, systems and infrastructure. 

“The development of our operating model will create the framework on which we can then make definitive plans about NZIST’s future. There will be no system level large-scale change implemented across NZIST’s network until we have finalised the operating model. But as we work through that, we should not let opportunities to make minor modifications pass us by.

“What could that look like? A good recent example is creating a joint CE who will now lead both Unitec and MIT. This opportunity was presented when Unitec’s former CE was appointed to a DCE role at NZIST. There are a few subsidiaries who are contemplating making changes to their Auckland based provision, particularly that which is linked to international students. There could be opportunities to create a collaborative approach to future international provision in Queen Street for example, consolidating office and learning space.

“The new DCEs will be looking to recruit small teams soon. Ideally, they will look across our network, seconding people into NZIST roles and backfilling where necessary so resources and capability are maintained.  This will offer us the chance to think about how we can fill gaps and still deliver what we must while the operating model is developed.

“Drawing on the significant amount of skill, experience and knowledge already in NZIST’s network makes sense to me. This is certainly an area I want to explore further alongside the development of our operating model.

“If we need to look at creating efficiencies with some of our back-office functions, I’m keen to explore options. One current example of this is where a smaller subsidiary is partnering with a larger subsidiary for the provision of financial services. This is a smart and pragmatic solution. I know there will be many more out there too,” says Stephen.

Progress continues

There is only about 100 days until the start of 2021. By then, Stephen and the NZIST team will have made even more progress, and the network will have greater clarity on what the transformation will mean for learners, staff, and industry. Developing a cohesive sustainable vocational education system is not going to be a simple task, but the system has a once in a generation opportunity to get it right.

Stephen and Council Chair Murray Strong will be visiting the 16 subsidiaries during September and October and look forward to listening to and engaging with staff and learners from across the network about the aspirations for NZIST.

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