Interview on FIVEaa with Leon Byner
Topics: TAFE SA crisis

Leon Byner: As you know, the TAFE disaster is getting more intriguing as every day progresses. Our interest really is about the students. Now, there’s a whole lot of things which we’ll unpack for you shortly. Now, you remember that the Minister yesterday couldn’t shed any light on Renewal SA borrowing $400 million and buying the TAFE campuses and giving that money to Treasury. Mr Koutsantonis – the only thing I’ve got from him out of it was this will stop unnecessary subsidies, but the people I’ve spoken to that know about education have just looked at me and said: oh, that’s nothing. Just don’t even consider that.

But look, there is a deal here. TAFE is unable to provide at least 14 courses, because it’s not accredited. So it has to go to the private sector. Now, wouldn’t you think that the Government and the Minister – right, the Minister – would’ve told TAFE to go to the providers that they are unable to offer courses with and get the students in touch with those providers. Wouldn’t you expect that? Well, to the best of my knowledge, up until late last night, that had not happened. And I told you earlier this morning that we’ve had it confirmed – and this has been said for a long time – that you only get funding if you work with TAFE if the student passes. And you know exactly what that means, don’t you? Fudge, and I’m not talking about the stuff you enjoy with the family that’s very sweet.

I caught up a few minutes ago with the Federal Minister Simon Birmingham.


Leon Byner: For the record, how much money have the Federal Government given TAFE? Because there’s a campaign out there that’s trying to say that you’ve underfunded them or defunded them, and as a result, much of the debacle that we’re now seeing in this state is caused by you, by the Federal Government.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Leon, over the last five years, the Federal Government has provided $771 million to the South Australian Government for vocational education and training, which, of course, can include TAFE. That’s grown from $119 million in 2012-’13 up to some $129 million this year. Over the same time, over the same time, what the State Government has chosen to spend itself on vocational education and training has slumped from $577 million in 2013 down to $425 million in 2016, the biggest cut of any state and territory government in the nation in terms of the level of TAFE funding or vocational education funding they provide. So let’s put that to bed once and for all. The only cuts that have been seen are cuts, of course, applied by the Weatherill Government.

Leon Byner: Given 90 per cent of the audited courses were deficient – it indicates systemic failure – why did ASQA only discover this in recent months?

Simon Birmingham: Well, ASQA undertakes a process of auditing on a random basis around the country. It also follows a process of renewals at different times where it also audits different processes. This, as I understand it, was one of their random audits. They have audited 16 courses, and in what is a quite extraordinary outcome and one where they have little precedent of such an outcome, TAFE has been found to be essentially incompetent in 14 out of those 16 courses.

Now, this is the job of the national regulator to go around the country and check up on different institutions, but I have to say, they don’t usually find problems in TAFEs. They certainly don’t usually find problems of this sort of scale that the expectation is that the state government-run agencies ought to be able to be trusted in their delivery of high quality training.

Leon Byner: Well, there’s going to be a Senate inquiry, it’s being supported by the Greens and the Xenophon group, so what are you hoping to achieve? And of course the results are going to be out before the election, aren’t they?

Simon Birmingham: Well that’s certainly what the Senate has moved for, a committee inquiry of the Senate to be undertaken before the next election. I hope that Susan Close and Jay Weatherill will front up to that inquiry and answer questions because listeners have to remember the South Australian Parliament does not sit again between now and the March election next year. So, the Senate recognising that scale of more than $700 million of federal funding that’s been provided to SA figures that we have as much right to ask what’s happened to that money? How has it gone so wrong as the State Government has chopped and changed from its different policy settings, its Skills for All program, that of course was the best thing since sliced bread until they got rid of it a few years ago and replaced it with their new Work Ready program and caused decimation in the private and not-for-profit training markets at the time, so we need to get to the bottom of that. But also urgently, urgently, we need to understand, what are the State Government’s intentions for how it is they are going to provide certainty to students who may be affected immediately by this, as well as of course to people looking at getting training, accessing training, either students or employers next year? What are they going to do to help remedy the situation for existing affected students and ensure there’s certainty in the training market next year?

Leon Byner: What happens if the Premier and Dr Close refuse to come to the Senate inquiry saying that it’s a political stunt?

Simon Birmingham: Well Senate committees have a number of powers at their disposal and they can indeed subpoena people to appear before Senate inquiries. Now that is something that is not usual but we would hope that the State Government will cooperate. You know, just a couple of weeks ago Jay Weatherill came out and said he was having a royal commission into the Murray Darling Basin and whilst I think there’s a fair degree of political stunt in that at a federal level we said: fine, we’ll cooperate, our officials will be available to answer questions, we’ll deal with that. Well, we would trust that the State Government will cooperate fully with the Senate inquiry which of course has real justification behind it because we’ve given $770 million of federal taxpayers’ money to South Australia to support a training system and it appears as if they have been more than hopeless in their management of that system.

Leon Byner: Well that’s the Federal Minister Simon Birmingham. Now, as I said the main point for us now is that we know that- and this is a very conservative number because it’s even been conceded by Dr Close, that there are more than 14 courses that could well be suspect, alright. So, the fact of the matter is we have to make sure now that TAFE contact every one of those students that’s affected – and there could be up to 1000 or 1300 and that’s only in the courses we know are defective. There are many others that we suspect are but we’re not going to test it. Probably because we don’t really want to know. But this nonsense that you only pay on a pass is fraught with danger. I wonder if there’s anybody within the bureaucracy or the Government that’s got the guts to put their hand up and say: that was my idea and this is why I did it. It won’t happen. But as I said I think the concern now has got to be for those students who have lost a lot of time in their growing up which should have been very productive, where they’ll have to go back and study again – and of course there’s the other expenses that if you came from overseas or the country and you had to set up here and live here, there’d be a lot of other associated expenses.

Now what we’re going to do shortly, we’re going to talk to the law firm that’s going to do a class action on this. We’re also going to talk to one of the people who represents the training providers and ask them: have you heard from Dr Close or TAFE, those courses which TAFE will not be able to offer, that they’ll have to go to the private sector to get the students to do. I wonder what the answer will be.