Hipkins to face SIT merger critics

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    Southern Institute of Technology's Tay St campus in Invercargill. Photo: Supplied

    EDUCATION minister Chris Hipkins and senior ministry officials are set to face a raft of questions from Southlanders, if not outright hostility, when they hold a public meeting in Invercargill over plans to merge the country’s polytechnics and institutions into one national institution.

    Mr Hipkins and his officials will face the public over the controversial proposals at the Southern Institute of Technology on Friday between 4pm and 7pm.

    Education spokesman Mr Richard Trow said that Mr Hipkins was “almost certain to be there for the first hour at least”.

    The proposals, which envisage 16 institutions merged into the New Zealand Institute of Technology, have raised concerns across the region and in many cases severely criticised.

    A “Stand Up for SIT” campaign, headed by former Southland Chamber of Commerce president Carla Forbes, has kicked off with the first banner going up in Invercargill.

    Ms Forbes said she hopes that by the time Mr Hipkins arrives in Invercargill on Friday, the city will be plastered in orange banners.

    Southland District Council Mayor Gary Tong said SIT was important to keeping people in the district.

    “I haven’t found anybody that isn’t concerned.”

    He pointed out that while the proposals were still in the consultation phase, SIT had helped to retain people in the region.

    Ms Forbes was more critical of the proposal. “This proposal not only spells the end of the highly successful and popular Southern Institute of Technology but will lead to the severe decline of the Southland region. I am deeply concerned. To be honest, I’m angry that in the face of decades of under-investment in the regions, especially Southland, we now have a proposal on our hands that threatens one of the largest economic drivers in Southland.”

    Outgoing Venture Southland chief executive Paul Casson said Government should assess each institution individually before deciding on a single entity.

    “We have some polytech schools that work extremely well in Southland and Otago. It is really unfair to put all in the same bucket. They shouldn’t penalise the good ones,” he said.

    Barely a week after winning the 2019 New Zealand Innovator of the Year Award, Dunedin entrepreneur Ian Taylor labelled the proposals as ludicrous.

    Speaking last week after a presentation to local business people in Invercargill, Mr Taylor said Government’s idea was flawed.

    “This isn’t just about us. It isn’t about us not wanting to help, but any idea that shifting control to a bureaucracy in Wellington will improve things has just been proven wrong time and time again. The Otago Polytechnic, here in Southland (the Southern Institute of Technology), they’re models that should be replicated, not models that should be taken over and handed over to somebody in Wellington to run. I just think its ludicrous.”

    Southland Chamber of Commerce president Neil McAra described the proposal as a major travesty.

    He did not believe the Government had listened to the input from Southland and said it would not be able to run a national institution as successfully as the Southern Institute of Technology.

    Senior SIT officials were in Wellington on Tuesday to prepare the way for Mr Hipkins’ visit.

    SIT, which was the first to initiate the free fees programme, announced that the number of domestic fulltime students enrolled at the Invercargill campus was up 15% over 2018.

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