Home > News > Archive > 26th May 2005

Wananga wants long, black cloud lifted

Courtesy of Te Awamutu Courier
Te Wananga o Aotearoa

By Grant Johnston

Rongo Wetere can’t wait for the Auditor General’s report into financial management at Te Wananga o Aotearoa to be released.

Among other things, the chief executive has been accused of gross nepotism by politicians under parliamentary privilege and of financial mismanagement by Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard. He is eager for the report’s release because he is sure it will clear him of wrongdoing.

Harold Maniapoto and Edwin Te Moananui, who were Wananga council members with Dr Wetere over many years, say the accusations against him are laughable.

“We were there when these things allegedly happened. We know the processes that took place,” says Mr Maniapoto. “When you know the facts you don’t take much notice of the fiction,” he says.

The most damaging accusations against Dr Wetere, in terms of public perceptions, have related to purchases by the Wananga of businesses from family members and close associates. Mr Maniapoto says when discussions on the potential purchase of the Mahi Ora (workskills) education systems business (owned by Dr Wetere’s daughter, Susan Cullen) came up, Dr Wetere immediately withdrew himself from the debate.

“We didn’t ask him to do that. He felt it was the correct thing to do.”

The $7 million price tag has pushed ‘the big red nepotism button’ for many people.

Although many believe Dr Wetere is omnipotent in the organisation, it is ruled by a council of 20 people representing a wide
cross section of the community.

Mr Te Moananui says council members themselves were surprised by valuations for the Mahi Ora business and the number of students it was attracting. Three valuations were obtained before the purchase went ahead.

“We were getting property (on Pokuru Road) and intellectual property, and as a council we were very satisfied as to the value of what we were purchasing,” Mr Maniapoto says.

Dr Wetere says when the Auditor General’s report is released next month, he hopes it will remove the “huge dark cloud” that
has been hanging over his head and the Wananga.

“I know within myself I am not guilty of these things I have been accused of. It is difficult for me to walk down town in Te Awamutu - people think I am a crook. It is a strange thing that I have struggled, as has the Wananga, for recognition in my own home town. Hamilton City gave me a gold medal (for services to tertiary education) and I have been offered six honorary doctorates, most of which I have turned down.”

Tomatoes were thrown at one of the Wananga cars at a Te Awamutu intersection, and abuse has been hurled at the occupants of signwritten cars, here and in other centres.

Conversely, there have been many messages of support from throughout the country.

Dr Wetere says he started up the Waipa Kokiri Arts Centre in an old dairy factory shed 22 years ago because he was concerned about the expulsion of Maori secondary school students and their virtual non representation at traditional tertiary institutions. Courses offered included plumbing, drainlaying and carpentry, along with traditional Maori craftsmanship courses. His vision was for an education system that was affordable, open and accessible to all.

Despite commonly held misconceptions, the Wananga is open to all races - in the past five years 17% of enrolments have been from Europeans and 61% from Maori, while more than a dozen other races are also represented. The Wananga is also non political and is not aligned to any one iwi or tribe (a former Education Minister mistakenly thought the Wananga was a Tainui initiative).

Mr Te Moananui says the presence of three generations of one family at a recent graduation ceremony in Huntly illustrated
that it also reaches out to different age groups. This is because of the Wananga’s atmosphere as well as its accessibility, and because of this it is reigniting lost generations of learners.

While it aims to meet the needs of all peoples, Te Wananga o Aotearoa particularly helps those who have either been failed by mainstream education, want a second chance at education, are not in employment or represent the lower socio-economic groups in New Zealand.

Many Wananga courses are free - it has been estimated that the Wananga has saved half a billion dollars from being added
to New Zealand’s student debt mountain.

Dr Wetere says it is fiction that all the Wananga’s achievements have been funded by the taxpayer. When they started out, council members and supporters took out bank guarantees themselves to establish the premises on Factory Road. Dr Wetere says the Crown’s capital contribution to the Wananga represents $2000 per student, compared to $37,000 for Auckland University and $28,000 for Waikato University. The Wananga, which has 65,000 students enrolled, received $156 million (plus GST) last year from the Government (not $239Million as frequently quoted).

“At about $2,500 per student and given we provide the courses basically free, no other tertiary institution comes even close to us for value for money,” Dr Wetere says.

Mr Maniapoto says claims Wananga courses are ‘mickey mouse’ are also unfounded.

“All our courses are approved by our own academic board and New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA is the Government agency that administers standards assurances).”

Dr Wetere says the Wananga has never enjoyed a level playing field.

“We have had to think outside the square and to think about how to turn every $1 into $3 (an NZIER report in 2003 actually
quantified the economic benefit of every Wananga $1 spent as $8).”

The trio believe being forced to think in innovative ways helped the Wananga to develop its unique model of taking education
out into the community.

“To make education accessible to the essential New Zealand demographic, we had to take it out into the places people lived on a hill,” Dr Wetere says.

Mr Te Moananui says the Wananga has had a philosophy of providing buildings and facilities of the highest standard.

“We have wanted the highest quality for the Wananga. We have added value to the communities we have moved into around the country.”

Mr Maniapoto says the Wananga brings millions of dollars annually to the Te Awamutu community - as well as a huge amount of ‘social capital’.

“In terms of employment and community input, we filled the vacuum left by the closure of Tokanui.”

Despite the trials and tribulations of the past few months, the Wananga has strong and emotive support from most of its students. And despite announcements to the contrary, Wananga enrolments have not plummeted.

‘In fact, we are on track to do better than last year, at a time when tertiary enrolments nationally are down,” Dr Wetere says.

Mr Maniapoto says he hates to think what would happen if the Wananga was closed. Mr Te Moananui says Dr Wetere’s input is critical to the institution’s future.

“We need Rongo’s passion for seeing opportunities and just charging ahead, achieving seemingly inconceivable things.”

Dr Wetere says he is concerned the Government’s actions in relation to the Wananga are pre-determined. But he’s not backing away from the fight to keep the Wananga going, in its present form.

“I’ve dealt with eight Ministers of Education. They come and go, the Wananga will still be here. They will change our kaupapa of total inclusiveness over my dead body.”