Friday, March 11, 2005

President's Column - Bluffers Guide to the Te Wananga o Aotearoa Scandal

Unfortunatly, it was not as good as I hoped, due mainly to the time I had to complete it in the end. However, here it is.


Unless you have had your head in the sand (or prefer to watch Neighbours and Friends), you will have noticed a considerable amount of coverage in the media over the past few months the Te Wananga o Aotearoa ‘scandal’. At the beginning of the week I was asked my opinion on this, and I realized that I know very little about it. So you don’t get caught in the same dilemma, here is the “Bluffer’s Guide to Te Wananga o Aotearoa Scandal”.

Te Wananga o Aotearoa was set up in 1983 in a “corrugated-iron shed on a former rubbish dump in Te Awamutu”, offering courses in Te Reo and trade. It grew slowly to 1000 students on 5 sites in 1999, and then took off, with some 64,000 enrollments (or 34,000 effective-full-time-students) in 2004, 13 campuses, and 1200 staff. CEO Rongo Wetere credits the growth to a “move to provide free courses and mixed modes of delivery,… a direct response to student preference and demand”, although offering an education beyond high school to a group that this was previously perceived to be out of reach undoubtedly had something to do with it also.

This little-known institution (despite being the largest tertiary institution in New Zealand) initially hit the headlines earlier this year when it was accused by the New Zealand Vice Chancellor’s Committee of miss-using the term “university” – it’s name directly translates as “The University of New Zealand”. While this has been resolved (to a certain extent), the Wananga came under further fire when ACT MP, Ken Shirley, drip-fed allegations of worthless government-funded courses, extravagant use of tax payer money, and non-tendered contracts going to family members of the management.

Unfortunately, the water has been muddied a little of late with personality politics getting in the way, including linking Wetere with the National Party (of which, it has been revealed, he is a member), and as a personal friend of National leader Don Brash (which turned out to be untrue), Maori Party leader Tariana Turia justifying it by claiming that “its not unusual for [Maori} to employ our own people” as Whanaungatanga or “kinship”, and general accusations of Maori-bashing and special treatment for Maori from respective sides of the house.

So what is at the crux of this issue? What are the main points of conflict?

Firstly, there’s the abuse of the per-EFTS funding model. This is where by an institution is funded according to the number of full-time students it enrolls. Subsequently, it would be in the institution’s best financial interests to enroll as many students as possible, through whatever means possible (god bless Capitalism). Once again, this is why 200-level law students have to sit in the aisle, and the School of Information Management are giving out yoyo’s. This pales in comparison to Te Wananga’s allegations. Students are alleged to have been offered laptops, cell phones, and even international flights as an incentive to enroll, clearly abusing the per-ETFS funding system.

Secondly, there’s allegations that a number of Wananga contracts were not put out to tender, but were awarded to companies associated with Wananga management. This includes buying a Cuban literacy and numeracy course off Wetere’s fiancé for “over a million dollars”, awarding a $7 million migrant course to a company directed by Wetere’s daughter, and that a car-cleaning contract went un-tendered and was awarded to a company owned by the partner of the deputy chief executive.

Finally, there’s the extravagant spending of tax payer money on seemingly justifiable and accountable purchases. This includes a fleet of over 120 cars, an apartment at the Whanagaparoa resort town of Gulf Harbour, two pubs; one in Hamilton, the other in Te Rapa; and a half-million dollar golf driving range for 25 students. The apartment was, apparently, the base for the captain of the Wananga waka, and, according to Wetere, was a “working office” not a holiday home, despite being on the other side of Auckland to the nearest Wananga campus in Manukau City. The pub in Hamilton – the Glenview International Hotel – was to be converted into a management training facility, but is still open to the public two years after purchase.

So, to return to the original question: what do I think?

Te Wananga o Aotearoa has lifted Maori participation in tertiary education to new heights. 40% of all Maori tertiary students are enrolled there. These are certainly admirable figures, however, unless they are getting a worthwhile education (which is debatable), is there really any point in them attending?

There is absolutely no way any institution can justify the use of public money to fund enrollment incentives. $2 million spent on cell phones so students can contact their tutors is a waste of money, but, is this the Wananga’s fault? They are, after all, simply operating within the parameters set by the government funding model – a model which has to be destroyed.

To quote a New Zealand Herald editorial (as much as it pains me to do so) “Whanaungatanga, of course, does not make nepotism right.” No one should be reliant on family connections for an unfair advantage in any field. Relating to the extravagant spending also; if a public institution wants to be funded through taxpayer money, they must be account able and transparent with how they spend it.

There is room for Wananga in the New Zealand tertiary education sector. Maybe it’s a yet another victim of Maori bashing. Maybe not. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe not. But I hope Te Wananga works through this, and comes out the other end an even more reputable institution.
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