Audits by regulator point to problems at four out of five TAFEs

Australian Skills Quality Authority chief Mark Paterson. Picture: Hollie AdamsAustralian Skills Quality Authority chief Mark Paterson. Picture: Hollie Adams

The crash of South Australia’s public training provider could be a taste of things to come, with a Senate inquiry hearing that breaches are more widespread at Australia’s other TAFEs.

The national vocational training regulator says that while 67 per cent of its audits of TAFE SA ­activities have revealed problems, the noncompliance rate across Australia’s other TAFEs is an ­extraordinary 80 per cent.

The figures were revealed during a public hearing of a Senate committee inquiry into TAFE SA, which spectacularly failed a random audit by the Australian Skills Quality Authority last year.

ASQA suspended 10 TAFE SA courses in December in a crackdown that triggered the departure of chief executive Robin Murt and board chairman Peter Vaughan. It followed a May audit that identified failings in all 16 courses ­scrutinised.

The regulator has since given the organisation until March 2 to apply for the suspensions to be overturned. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority also suspended a TAFE SA aviation maintenance course last year.

The senators wanted to know whether the problems found at TAFE SA existed beyond the state’s borders.

Under sustained questioning, ASQA chief Mark Paterson would not express an opinion on whether TAFE SA’s difficulties had been triggered by funding cuts. Such judgments are “outside our remit”, Mr Paterson told the committee. However, in submissions to the inquiry academics have put the organisation’s difficulties into a broader context.

University of Queensland economist John Quiggin said ­vocational education and training was in a “state of crisis” driven by budget cuts and market ideology. While the worst quality breaches had been in for-profit colleges, he said “the same pressures have been applied to the TAFE sector and are respon­sible for adverse outcomes such as those reported in South Australia”.

University of Toronto tertiary education expert Gavin Moodie said “Australia’s problems with vocational education are pervasive, covering all states”.

University of Sydney analyst John Buchanan said TAFE SA’s difficulties raised wider questions. “Why has TAFE SA sailed so close to the wind in complying with the ASQA quality regime?” he asked.

Former TAFE SA chief executive Jeff Gunningham said it was “just a matter of time” before similar problems emerged in other ­jurisdictions. He said it was “rubbish” to suggest that funding cuts were not to blame.

“The funding cutbacks are now affecting TAFEs across Australia,” he told The Australian. “There is a strong correlation between funding cuts and quality. Between them, the state and commonwealth governments have decimated TAFE in Australia.”

The latest Report on Government Services, released last week by the Productivity Commission, says total government appropriations for vocational education fell by $400 million in 2016. “As each year goes by, governments are spending less and less on creating the skills Australia needs for the future,” said Rod Camm, chief executive of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training.

The ASQA figures suggest private colleges perform slightly worse at audit than TAFE SA, but better than other TAFEs. However, West Australian senator Linda Reynolds said TAFE SA had attracted roughly one-quarter of all the regulatory decisions handed out to the 37 ASQA-­regulated TAFEs.

An ASQA spokesman suggested such sanctions were not unexpected. “With very large training providers with an extensive scope of registration, like TAFE SA, there will generally be a level of ­inconsistent quality,” he said.

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