I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people wondering why Hawke’s Bay doesn’t have a university. Before I became involved in tertiary education, firstly as a council member of the Eastern Institute of Technology, and then as its Deputy CEO, it’s a question I would have asked myself.

The question of why Hawke’s Bay doesn’t have a university is a good one, and it deserves some consideration by all of us.

I went through the university system. I always assumed that I would leave town to study. I knew nothing about the Institute of Technology and Polytechnic (ITP) sector, just a vague notion that it was inferior to the university sector, and didn’t offer degree level study.

Today, better informed, I take every opportunity to put that notion to bed.

When people pose the question, I usually ask what they think a university would do for our region. Some common themes emerge: bring some high-powered research to the Bay; offer degrees in architecture, law and other professions to keep young people here and attract new people to the region; deepen the ‘intellectual firepower’ available to address our region’s issues; and boost the economy via an increased population and retention of young people.

If these potential benefits could be proven, then why don’t we get on with it?

Firstly and most obviously, universities are incredibly expensive. Any government (the main funder of our university system) would have to think hard about adding yet another university to a country which some argue already has too many per head of population.

The primary focus of universities is research, which generates income but is also expensive, in that teaching staff need release time to undertake research, both to generate income and to underpin the teaching of degree and post-graduate programmes. The resources and technology needed for the volume and type of research that universities undertake are extraordinarily costly. Staffing costs are high because of their qualification and age profile.

To ensure universities are viable financially, first year classes in particular are often huge – many of us fondly or otherwise remember the packed lecture theatres of Accounting 101 or English Lit 102. The economies of scale that are generated by lecture theatres filled by hundreds of students are what, amongst other things, enable universities to offer their range and depth of degree and post-graduate programmes … and still survive. A stand-alone university in Hawke’s Bay would need to attract that kind of critical mass, and no one has been able to prove (yet) that this is possible.

Balancing supply and demand

In economic terms, supply and demand statistics would also need to stack up. On the job front, Hawke’s Bay is not renowned for its plethora of highly paid jobs – in fact the salaries in our region consistently hover below the national averages. This government is particularly focused on ensuring that employment outcomes match the supply of graduates. We would need to be very sure if we trained, say, lawyers, architects, and scientists here in Hawke’s Bay, that job opportunities would be available for them here, nationally and internationally.

You could argue that if the graduates emerge, the jobs will come, but that has not always been evident in the past. New Zealand is renowned for its out-of-work scientists, and cyclical oversupply of various other professions is well documented.

Brand-wise, we would need to calculate carefully which degree ‘market’ we would be in. Certain universities have reputations as centres of excellence for certain disciplines. What could Hawke’s Bay add that would be different, and could we compete with other universities in their current markets?

In case this sounds defeatist, we do need to wonder why none of the current universities have set up campuses in Hawke’s Bay. Massey is our closest neighbour, and it has progressively withdrawn face-to-face teaching programmes from the region, presumably because they are too expensive to run here. If a pre-existing neighbouring university with its infrastructure already in place can’t afford to run programmes in Hawke’s Bay, even utilizing other organisations’ campuses, then that must raise questions about the chances of a brand new operation succeeding.

EIT is right for Hawke’s Bay

In recognition of the above and other factors, a series of visionary leaders decided to set up and further develop a ‘Community College’ in Hawke’s Bay in 1974. That Community College has now morphed into EIT, and I would argue that if Hawke’s Bay could only have either a university or an Institute of Technology, there is only one logical answer – it has to be the latter. There are several reasons for this in my view.

Firstly, all the data collected by statistical bodies in New Zealand indicates two key things – our region has more than its fair share of people with few or low qualifications, and local employers mostly want people with qualifications at Levels 1-3 of the Qualifications Framework, not at 7 (degree) level. That, combined with the fact that many of Hawke’s Bay’s potential students need to undertake some ‘bridging’ programmes to prepare them for degree level study, would indicate that there is a clear need at both the supply and demand end for certificate level qualifications. Universities are not allowed to provide these – but ITPs like EIT can.

So, while universities are limited as to their span of provision, ITPs can offer degree and post-graduate as well as lower level programmes, providing they meet a rigorous set of criteria to ensure quality.

ITP degrees are fully equivalent in quality to university degrees. Let me assure you that the scrutiny around degree level provision in ITPs is massive, for the very reason that any suspicions about quality must be laid to rest. Every man, woman and their dog is involved in checking and rechecking the quality of ITP degrees — from internal academic boards to external bodies such as NZQA, and professional associations such as nursing councils and chartered accountants. External panels contain people from the university sector to check on the work of their ITP counterparts.

Thirdly, there is a difference with ITP degrees – and EIT offers 13 of them – and it’s a good one. ITP degrees are deliberately related to specific professions. Be they Viticulture, Computing, or Nursing, they are ‘applied’ hands-on degrees that include significant chunks of practical work in industry, opportunities for internships post-graduation, and the ability to undertake research specifically focused on the needs of regional employers. My university BA stood me in good stead, but there’s not always a clear career path arising from university fields of study.

Another beneficial difference in the ITP sector is that its main mission is teaching. Its degrees are supported by the same research expectations that you find in a university, but quality teaching is a very strong focus because of the range of learners and programmes. Many ITP staff across all levels of programmes are straight from industry, and along with the experienced ‘academics’ in the team they ensure that what is being taught is relevant to the workplace.

Fourthly, although high quality teaching and learning is a priority, EIT has invested also in high quality research. The recruitment of nationally and internationally renowned research professors from the university system has helped to strengthen the research performance of ITPs like EIT.

EIT staff are celebrating unprecedented success in the Performance-Based Research Fund that ranks tertiary organisations, mostly universities, for their quality of research. EIT has trebled its performance over the last five years, out-performing many of the large metropolitan ITPs and generating more income and further confidence in the quality of research occurring in the institution. In addition to this, we perform research for local industries and government and non-government organisations that is specifically related to improving outcomes for our local economy and community.

I value New Zealand’s university system highly. I loved my two stints at university study, 25 years apart. We all have access to our nation’s universities via distance learning, including on-line study and block courses that fit around employment and other responsibilities.

But alongside that, Hawke’s Bay has its very own Institute of Technology. Today, with 13 degrees, Masters and other post-graduate programmes, along with a range of certificates and diplomas in everything from trades to health to agriculture and applied sciences, EIT offers the best of both worlds for our region. It partners with universities over a range of teaching and research activities. It runs the biggest Trades Academy in the country. Its research is going from strength to strength. Its smaller, personalized classes at degree level, which students rate so highly, are only financially sustainable because of the range of programmes it can offer at other levels.

There is no reason for Hawke’s Bay to bemoan the lack of a university. Rather, we should celebrate the endless opportunities for the best of both worlds that an ITP like EIT can provide for our region.

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