Losing independence ‘terribly sad’

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Penny Simmonds is facing the most challenging time since she has been SIT chief executive. Photo: Luisa Girao

FOR the past 23 years, the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) has been Penny Simmonds’ mission.

She has proposed and overseen important innovative changes to SIT, including the successful Zero Fees scheme, the SIT apartment buildings and the Mayor Tim Shadbolt Accommodation Bursaries.

However, she said now she faced the “biggest challenge” of her career decision to merge SIT with 15 other polytechnics and training institutes nationwide was a shock to her and the Southland community.

Despite a huge Southland campaign against it, The New Zealand Skills and Institute of Technology (NZSIT) will start operating on April 1.

Ms Simmonds will continue to lead SIT

“It is terribly sad losing this independency of SIT because we have been able to do a lot of innovative things that benefit the community and SIT.

“It is sad thinking everything might go. Some of those things were very specific to Southland. So things that might be good for the rest of New Zealand, may be quite detrimental to Southland.”

The situation had been “very unsettling” for staff and students.

She said staff contracts would be transferred to the new entity, but her employees were still worried.

“Often politicians and people in large bodies, as this entity, forget how those people on the ground are experiencing the change.”

Southern Institue of Technology’s Tay St campus in Invercargill. Photo: Southland Express files

Ms Simmonds noticed a “slight” decrease in domestic students this year compared to last year and wondered how much of that was due to the uncertainty of the merge.

“We don’t know why about 100 people did not enrol this year. People are asking in particular about the continuation of the Zero Fees scheme… What we can say is we will do our very best to try to continue with all those things.

“But the fact that we are getting those questions, makes me think there is an uncertainty in some people’s minds.”

Another critical point regarding merger is about the SIT assets, believed to be worth more than $140 million.

In last year’s financial report, SIT reported it had more than $117 million in net assets and cash reserves of $39 million.

The Government said it had no intention to move any assets from SIT and it would be “ringfenced” when the NZIST started to operate.

However, the promises did not give comfort to Ms Simmonds.

“The legislation says the assets will be ringfenced but there are two things that don’t make a strong safeguard at which they will ringfence has not been decided yet and the second is, the assets there are ringfenced, the decision of how they use the assets will not be made by the local people. It is made by the central board.

“It can be one way or another helpful or they could be very detrimental.”

Another dramatic change was the news two SIT council members would not be on the new board.

SIT’s current chairman Peter Heenan and deputy chairman Tim Ward were advised their services would not be needed beyond March 31.

“Certainly the number of people appointed from our current council to the subsidiary was a lot more dramatic than expected. That feels like… it is a signal for a quite dramatic change and while there are a lot of comments about usual’ from April 1, the reality is with that big change in the governance body, it won’t be business as usual.”

She said three other councillors had been offered positions on the board, but she did not know yet if they had accepted the positions.

Ms Simmonds would not be part of the board entity.

There had been rumours around Invercargill in recent weeks she could be the next name in the hat for the National Party candidacy in Invercargill.

When questioned about the possibility this week, Ms Simmonds said the “rumour has been around about 15 years”, and she never dreamed of having a political career.

“It hasn’t been something that has been in my horizon. No, I always loved being here at SIT.

“My contract finishes at the end of the year and it will be the new board’s prerogative if they wish to offer me a new contract or not. I don’t have any control over that.

There is a selection process… and it will be National who will announce who their candidate is.

“But my commitment is with SIT.”

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