A thousand cuts to
the most vulnerable


Dinoo Kelleghan

What would Bob the Builder say to this sign on the Princes Highway? A Stop TAFE Cuts activist sums up the commercial interests riding the Smart and Skilled wave: “They’re not educationists, they’re salespeople.”

TAFE NSW’s classes in Adult Basic Education include students who are the most in need of a leg-up, the least able to beat adversity — the cuts to this sector are ruthless.

At Ultimo TAFE campus, Work and Study Pathways (WASP) lost a total of 48 full-time equivalent teaching positions last year. Eleven of those positions were vacant already. There were 12 casual teachers: now there are none.

Learner support for Adult Basic Education (ABE) at Ultimo was cut by 1000 hours to 1500 hours in the first semester of this year. Staff successfully negotiated an increase from the original allocation of a mere 360 hours.

Course hours were slashed: “In the three years from 2012, we have lost half our course hours,” one activist said. “How they think a person can learn to read and write in seven hours a week over just 18 weeks is beyond me.”

The cuts to TAFE budgets and sharp rises to TAFE fees across the state are the consequences of the Baird Government’s Smart and Skilled reforms covering vocational educational training. NSW has more than 2000 RTOs vying for millions of dollars taken from TAFE’s budget. Private providers have been boosting profits by cutting courses, with at least one provider offering a builder’s qualification in just three months.

With teachers and classes being jettisoned across TAFE institutes to cope with funding cuts, class sizes have increased. Activists say this is particularly difficult for teachers and students in introductory employment courses where students may not be literate in their own language let alone in English, and need extensive support. Classes that used to have six to eight students now have 18. Higher-level classes that used to have 12-15 students now have 20. The age range in a class could be 17-70 years.

Students with a disability were greatly aided by programs run by disability consultants — about half of these have been cut this year.

“My colleagues are completely demoralised,” one teacher said.

“Going into the classroom is what keeps me going.

“The lack of support is really hurting our students. People forget that some of our students can’t read and write. Most of our students are second-chance learners, many of them women. ”

This year, following the introduction of the new TAFE computer administration system, students were to do their enrolments online. The failure of this system meant there were queues of students waiting to enrol at many TAFE institutes. At Ultimo the queues became so long that staff put out chairs and handed out lollipops.

Reports say Customer Service staff faced a barrage of abuse over the enrolment complications and the new fees. “In four weeks,” said an activist, “this new system almost destroyed TAFE’s operations. We couldn’t get into the system. Students couldn’t get enrolled.” Information about available courses was wrong.

“The system generated letters to people saying they owe TAFE money for units that are uncompleted,” another activist said. “Some people who needed TAFE accreditation information to get into uni courses were blocked from obtaining it, so they missed out on getting into uni courses. The pass/fail information coming out of the system was incorrect.

“The amount of work needed to get a course up and running with all of this was nightmarish.”

The head of TAFE NSW, Pam Christie, last Tuesday publicly apologised for the enrolment delays caused by new software and a change to the fee structure under Smart and Skilled, saying staff were working hard to provide students with the “best possible customer experience”.

TAFE at a glance

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