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By John Duncan, Chair, Funeral Service Training Trust

“A week is a long time in politics” - so goes the saying attributed to former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Mr Wilson’s rueful comment of 1964 was reputedly updated by American commentator, Dan Rather, in the 1980’s, to say “Overnight is a long time in politics; a week is forever.”

The adage must have resonated loudly with anyone and everyone who followed the US Presidential election in November. As I write, we wait to see if Donald Trump will ever formally concede the election, and will finally leave the White House with grace and dignity, or (perhaps more true to form) make a graceless departure, complaining to the last.

The concept of long weeks going on forever must also have been front of mind for many New Zealanders at many times through this troubled year, as Covid-19 wrecked havoc world-wide. The pandemic has created many challenges nationally and internationally, and looks likely to continue affecting us well into next year.

The days and weeks may also have seemed very long to some New Zealand politicians in the period before and immediately after October’s general election, especially as we awaited the results of the two associated referenda. However, unlike the United States, the election result in New Zealand was clear and unequivocal, and the business of government has continued apace.

One result of the re-election of the Labour government, with their absolute majority, will be to lock in the RoVE review of vocational tertiary education.

The October issue of the Tertiary Education Commission’s “RoVE News” notes, “The establishment of the six Workforce Development Councils (WDCs) has moved a step closer. Focus has now moved from active engagement with industry to gathering ideas and feedback to inform the development of the draft Orders in Council (OiCs) proposals, to prepare the final draft documents for formal consultation. An OiC is a type of ‘legislative instrument’ that is made by the Executive Council presided over by the Governor-General, and is needed to establish a WDC as a legal entity.” TEC says that “The formation of the WDCs is a significant legal milestone in the RoVE process.”

Despite earlier announcements from TEC, that in an attempt to help support New Zealand’s Covid-19 recovery the formation of the six WDCs would be fast-tracked for establishment by a target date of the end of 2020, ahead of the original target of mid-2021, it now appears the impact of Covid-19 has brought a new level of challenge for many sectors, which haven’t been available to engage with the interim Establishment Boards (iEBs) on the development of proposed content for their OiCs. Consequently TEC extended the engagement period, and advised the statutory consultation for the proposed content of the OiCs from each iEB would only commence in November.

FSTT has had significant engagement with the iEB, ensuring our voice has been heard as part of the statutory consultation. This has been complemented by our continuing discussion with Open Polytechnic about development of new courses to deliver the industry qualifications. It would be remiss of FSTT to simply walk away, and leave such progress to a WDC that may not exist in any meaningful form for many months to come.

However, it would be naïve in the extreme to expect it will be business as usual for FSTT in 2021 and onwards. As has already been flagged, the Trust is no longer an ITO. TEC’s removal of FSTT’s status as an ITO means the Trust is not able to maintain Standards Setting responsibility for the embalming and funeral directing unit standards. However, as the unit standards have not been used since 2014, this is a somewhat meaningless distinction, and FSTT agrees that NZQA’s intention to retire the unit standards is appropriate. NZQA have signalled they still see an ongoing relationship with FSTT, in the Trust’s role as qualification developer.

Given all that, Trustees agreed there was an urgent need to have a forward-looking industry consultation on the future role of FSTT, so that upon the full implementation of RoVE, and the establishment of the new Health, Community & Social Services WDC, FSTT will know if it has a future, and what that role might be. That consultation meeting is to be held in Wellington on 2nd December, so by the time you read this the Trust will know if it still has a mandate from industry, to be involved in the future of funeral services education in New Zealand.

Harking back to my opening comments, if the strategic review determines that “time is up” for FSTT, and industry’s answer is “You’re fired”, unlike Mr Trump, we will go gracefully!

But before it comes to that, if indeed it comes to that, I want to outline how coverage of vocational education provided by the 12 former ITOs, including FSTT, has been distributed across the six WDCs. (And as an aside, it is interesting to note that although FSTT was the only former ITO to not be granted the status of a Transitional ITO, we are still referred to as an ITO in the graphic that accompanied the RoVE News in October!)

Each WDC’s industry coverage is being described down to level 4 of the Australian and New Zealand Standard Industrial classification (ANZSIC) 2006, and between them it seems they will cover industry vocational education for some 509 such ANZSIC Classified Industries. The breakdown of WDCs, and numbers of L4 ANZSIC classified industries they will cover is:
• Manufacturing, Engineering & Logistics WDC = 225.
• Service Industries WDC = 104.
• Primary Industries WDC = 57.
• Construction & Infrastructure WDC = 45.
• Creative, Cultural, Recreation & Technology WDC = 39.
• Health, Community & Social Services WDC = 39.

Funeral service comes into the last mentioned (Health, Community & Social Services) WDC, along with qualifications previously delivered by former ITOs, Careerforce (except cleaning and caretaking), and The Skills Organisation (a range of community and social services), Education and childcare qualifications developed by NZQA.

Even sitting among just 39 industries, I fear it will be easy for our funeral service qualifications to be lost in the cauldron. Whether it is FSTT or another industry body, it will be essential that there is a strong voice advocating for our programmes, and providing knowledgeable advice to the WDC in its role as the new Standards Setting Body. Otherwise we could see our hard-won diploma level qualifications lost, or significantly diluted.

You may ask, does this matter? My answer unequivocally is “Yes”.

I believe our industry/profession is at a crossroads, which will determine the direction of funeral service in New Zealand for years to come.

When I entered the profession in 1977, my career choice was (like so many of my contemporaries) a lifetime vocation. At the risk of overlooking someone I won’t name them, but I know many outstanding funeral directors and embalmers who have notched up 40 and more years of service – indeed, a significant number have served this profession for more than 50 years. I’m afraid those days are gone. I see many of those who come into funeral service now are gone again in a relatively few years. I don’t criticise them for their decisions, but I fear that as my generation retire there will be a huge loss of “corporate knowledge” and “institutional memory”. Unless we maintain, indeed strengthen, our national
qualifications, this will risk making a mockery of any claim to be caring professionals.

A new generation of funeral directors and embalmers won’t know what they don’t know, unless there is a reputable and credible qualification to support them as they support the bereaved of New Zealand. This is not harking back to the past; it is looking to the future. And looking to the future, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and dare I say it, a Happy New Year, as we put 2020 with all its trials and tribulations behind us. I’m sure we all look forward to a brighter, more normal or maybe a “new normal” 2021.

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