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EIT Excelling in Research

Rosheen FitzGerald01 August 2019

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Good things are happening between the curve of the Tutaekurī River and the shade of Ōtātara Pā. 

Academics at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT) are justifiably proud. Their teaching programmes have received the highest possible assessments from NZQA’s External Evaluation and Review, affording EIT the greatest degree of autonomy over their programme design and evaluation. 

And Webometrics, the independent international ranking system for tertiary institutions, places EIT tenth in the country, just behind the universities and second only to Auckland behemoth, Unitec, amongst fellow Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs). 

Unlike the broader state of the national ITP sector, EIT enrolments are above target and their finances are healthy.

“Fundamental to EIT is the objective of assisting Māori to exercise tino rangatiraganga, to take control and to live the life one wants to live. It comes across in how we teach, it comes across in how we think of ourselves and it comes across in how we conduct our research.”
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR JONATHAN SIBLEY, RESEARCH DIRECTOR

EIT’s expertise is not confined to the classroom or the field. EIT academics have built a body of research that has grown in strength and scope, and is independently acknowledged and acclaimed. 

Growing strong

Research at EIT began as an NZQA requirement with the introduction of degree courses in the School of Nursing. The Ministry of Education believes those with the ability to award degrees should also be expected to produce research. And so EIT complied, albeit patchily at first — more box-ticking exercise than fulfilment of passion. 

As the proportion of students taking degree courses rose — today around 35% — research expanded by necessity.

In 2002 Bob Marshall became their first research professor, tasked with bringing EIT’s research potential to fruition. He graduated to research director in 2011 and established the Research and Innovation Centre in 2017. This was a game changer for the institution that saw outputs leap by 28%. 

Each full-time researcher now produces a little over two complete pieces of work a year, the figures displaying an increase in individual productivity. Last year, executive dean for research, Natalie Waran established a professoriate — a group of fourteen professors and associate professors over three campuses, tasked with raising the profile of research at EIT, creating community connections, providing peer support and attracting external funding.

The focus and vigour EIT devotes to research is borne out in the figures — a 22% increase in the number of nationally ranked researchers compared to 2012, the second highest ratio of researchers to degree and postgraduate students, and the third most active researchers of all the ITPs — no mean feat when competing with thirteen other institutions, some with three times the student body. 

These positives are qualitative as well, with the highest proportion of researchers independently awarded an ‘A’ grade of any ITP, and the number of ‘B’ graded researchers doubling since their last assessment. 

This research leadership was celebrated over two days in April when EIT hosted the ITP Research Symposium — an opportunity for scholars from fifteen of the sixteen ITPs from Auckland to Otago to come together to present their work, to be inspired by keynote speakers, artistic performances and exhibitions, and to share ideas. In its fourth year, EIT debuted as hosts and allowed their manaakitanga to flow, from the spine-tingling pōwhiri to the abundant kai and cups of tea that acted as a catalyst for conversation. Of the sixty-three presentations, a third originated from work done at EIT, more than double that of any other institution — spanning each of the four focus areas for research — Arts, Education, Health and Sustainability.

People power

The theme of the symposium was Whanaungatanga — Community Centred Research. For research director Jonathan Sibley, who succeeded Marshall in 2017, the theme is instinctive, endemic to the philosophy of a technical institute in general, and EIT in particular. He sees the role of the researcher here very differently to that of the contemplative academic in his ivory tower. 

“We are an organisation that trains people to work here in Hawke’s Bay, so we’re inherently community-centred. We’re centred on employers here, we’re centred on schools here, we’re centred on iwi here. Our research reflects that.” This concept of applied, practical research with concrete, executable results is the thread that bound the symposium presentations, and which informs EIT’s research philosophy. 

Wrapped around all of this is the explicit goal of advancing Māori achievement, both educationally and in wider Hawke’s Bay society. As of last year, EIT’s student body is 52% Māori. With the establishment of Te Ūranga Waka, the School of Māori Studies and the marae on site as a focal point for events and graduations, the Māori community is embedded from the inside out. Research is conducted in partnership with the community, rather than on the community. Results are measured as much in terms of their benefits to the people they serve, as the quality of data gleaned. 

Sibley is unequivocal, “At EIT, our strategy on success for Māori is unquestionable. It permeates everything … not just for Māori … for all of us. This is how we see ourselves here.” For him the goal is to impart tino rangatiratanga — a degree of personal sovereignty that comes through education, “to take control and live the life one wants to live.”

Sustainable futures

The area of Sustainable Futures spans a number of schools and disciplines. As a business scholar, Sibley’s focus is on the world of work. As part of the Hawke’s Bay Growth Study, he’s engaged in predictively mapping the course of industry, trade and commerce in Hawke’s Bay to plan to meet tomorrow’s needs. “An ITP can really make a difference because this is not academic research … this is sitting down with employers, with communities, with school leavers, and really understanding the landscape of work, the landscape of employment.”

Intertwined with industrial sustainability is the idea of responsible environmental management. 

Executive dean for research, professor Natalie Waran is invested in making environmental consciousness a cornerstone of all that EIT delivers. “Our vision is to transition EIT into an organisation where sustainability and environmental responsibility is mainstreamed, part of our normal teaching, embedded within our research, something that we bring to life within our physical campus, part of our institutional culture, informing decisions we make and also contributing to the life of the region.” 

Her primary tool for doing so is the development of an outdoor classroom, the Ōtātara Environmental Learning in Nature Space, funded by the Air New Zealand Environment Trust, in partnership with Cape to City, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council, the Department of Conservation, the Enviroschools and the local iwi from Waiohiki Marae. 

This innovative new teaching and learning resource will be used by a diverse range of groups from EIT and the local community. This large outdoor space, between EIT’s campus and Ōtātara Pā, offers an opportunity for students to get their hands in the soil and learn about the land, its history, horticulture and guardianship, as well as for academics to document the process of learning outside the classroom.

Community health & wellbeing

Professor David Tipene-Leach’s research background proceeded his time at EIT. As a general practitioner and public health doctor on the East Coast, his work in developing, assessing and distributing wahakura, flax woven baby baskets, is credited with dropping rates of Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI) in Māori whānau. 

His research model is inherently practical, bottom-up. “My modus operandi has been to identify a problem, and then to develop a solution, and then to think of the research around it.” His goal is to find solutions to public health problems, and to robustly demonstrate their efficacy so that they might be funded and rolled out on a large scale for maximum impact. Fluent in Te Reo and embedded in Te Ao Māori, he sees his role as, “translating stuff going on in the community, drawing out what’s needed in order to construct it into a programme doable inside of the mainstream.” 

“EIT is showing good leadership around some of the really important issues that face society going forward. I can’t imagine this sort of work is going to be impacted at all by changes to the ITP sector. It’s just too important for the region.”
PROFESSOR NATALIE WARAN, EXECUTIVE DEAN FOR RESEARCH

Addressing inequities is a personal and professional passion for Leach, who is also professor of Māori and indigenous research at EIT. Developing cultural competency, tackling institutional racism, acknowledging the social determinants of health outcomes and the impact of historical trauma are central to his approach. 

Shifting practitioner thinking and programme design to serve vulnerable populations is a linchpin for his work, whether it be encouraging smoking cessation in pregnancy, improving access to mental health services or providing wrap-around social services for at risk children. “If you get it right for Māori you get it right for everyone. If you get it right for poor people everybody benefits.”

Engaged arts

IDEAschool, EIT’s centre for creative practice, spanning visual arts, design, music, fashion design and screen production, shone particularly brightly in the government’s independent assessments, achieving the highest number of ranked portfolios of work in the institution. At its head, Professor Matthew Marshall emphasises the hands-on nature of what they produce.

“We do research that is relevant to our teaching, our industry focus. It’s entirely relevant to what we teach and what we’re wanting students to learn.” 

Practically this involves staff – themselves working artists, musicians, designers – taking a day a week out of teaching to work on their own projects to produce new art. Marshall, a guitarist of renown, commissions musical compositions which he then performs and records to international acclaim. 

Other IDEAschool outputs include a deep dive into historical taonga culminating in an installation at the National Maritime Museum in London; traditional painting and sculpture exhibited at Te Papa; kapa haka performances in Taiwan and at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Australia, as well as a number of lectures and published scholarly articles.

“If you get it right for Māori you get it right for everyone.
If you get it right for poor people everybody benefits.”
PROFESSOR DAVID TIPENE-LEACH, PROFESSOR OF M ORI AND INDIGENOUS RESEARCH

The prestige of the institutions and exhibition spaces that showcase IDEAschool’s art is an indication of quality, and serves as one of the criteria for award by the government-allocated Performance Based Research Fund, which distributes resources based on independent evaluation of work.

A new area of innovation involves cross-discipline collaboration. On the back of the newly established Bachelor of Creative Practice, presently unique in New Zealand, to EIT, Marshall encourages creatives to work together, blur boundaries and exercise artistic freedom. “When you get people from diverse backgrounds coming together that’s where the magic happens…rather than narrow their focus down to one area we enable them to explore all those areas.” 

He sees the value of an arts education as not just in teaching practical skill, but encouraging a flexibility of the mind. “The outcomes for artists can be quite broad and varied…we’re enabling our students to work in whatever fields they want to simply by the way they think or by what they do.”

Innovative education

Pedagogy is Dr Emily Nelson’s business, both in her role of teaching the teachers of tomorrow, and in chairing EIT’s Research Committee, in conjunction with Te Ūranga Waka. With a wealth of research experience behind her, she takes a mentorship role, developing the capabilities of others to ensure a robust research culture for the future. 

For Nelson, educational research formalises the innate process of good teaching — “the best teachers are enquiring into their practice while they’re doing it anyway. Research is really just a systematic organisation of that.”

Partnering with schools and communities is key to Nelson’s work. She identifies ‘Innovative Learning Environments’ – listening, observing and documenting successful approaches to teaching, and ensuring her student teachers are exposed to and immersed in them. 

Because of EIT’s status and relative autonomy, Nelson enjoys a degree of liberty in what and how she chooses to inquire. It’s something that she values. “Academic freedom is a bottom line for universities and tertiary institutions … EIT is starting to develop a structure, but the structure is so broad, the themes are so broad that you can still follow your passion. That’s a really important thing as a researcher and an academic.”

“EIT has a very good case to retain a significant amount of autonomy … it’s ranked very highly with strong support from the local community.”
PROFESSOR MATTHEW MARSHALL, HEAD OF IDEASCHOOL

Eyes on the future

Change is brewing for the ITP sector as a whole. The Government-proposed Reform of Vocational Education (RoVE) is in the consultation stages. But with little concrete information available, academics are wary to speculate on how the proposed centralised system might change EIT’s research landscape. Certainly the funding model needs updating, when even a fiscally healthy institute like EIT is unsustainable under the current system. 

The institute’s success under its own governance breeds cautious optimism. IDEAschool’s Matthew Marshall hopes centralisation will cut back on infrastructure costs while retaining local control over what they’re doing well — to keep the baby but throw out the bath water. “EIT has a very good case to retain a significant amount of autonomy … it’s ranked very highly with strong support from the local community.”

Research director Sibley welcomes the merging of workplace-based industry training and campus-based polytechs. “A single model for training with industry organisations looking at skill requirements will enable a much better coordinated approach to training.”

Because of EIT’s success in serving the region, dean Natalie Waran does not envisage centralised governance removing community from the heart of all they do. “EIT is showing good leadership around some of the really important issues that face society going forward. I can’t imagine this sort of work is going to be impacted at all by changes to the ITP sector. It’s just too important for the region.”

Research committee chair Emily Nelson sees EIT as a blueprint for success to be adopted by the new unified regime. “EIT is a leader of the other ITPs, so whatever happens with RoVE, EIT is being called on to suggest the direction of that. If EIT is committed to research then research is going to play a big part of the revised model, whatever it happens to be.”

In his opening statement at the ITP Research Symposium, professor Tipene-Leach issued a challenge to Government in the process of vocational education reform to support and nurture the kind of practical, applied research that EIT does. With a wealth of strong, independently acclaimed work to back him up, let’s hope they are listening. 

Rosheen FitzGerald01 August 2019

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