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TAFE fails when SA needs it most

Opinion

TAFE SA has become a punching bag for every politician, bureaucrat and unelected board member, who thinks a large educational and training organisation can be run like a corporation.

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Former Employment, Higher Education and Skills Minister Gail Gago failed – and I cite her mandate from the recent TAFE SA annual report – “to take responsibility for the delivery of efficient and effective services that respond to training, employment and workforce needs”. Considering the issues facing TAFE SA, her resignation was overdue.

Although TAFE SA is funded by the state government, Gago seemed to hide behind its new found statutory authority, and when it struck problems, instead of interceding, she effectively turned her back.

The context of her failure is crucial for South Australians. Over the next 18 months, the automotive manufacturing sector and most of the supply chain will fall, in the first instance booting more than 3000 South Australians on to the dole. Some parts suppliers are already cutting staff.

As the mining industry continues to contract, more jobs will go in the north of the state. The Air Warfare Destroyer project has entered the “Valley of Death” – the period between the completion of one project and the beginning of the next – so more workers will face the sack. TAFE SA is their lifeboat.

Let us see how TAFE SA is being revamped to help our job hunters and career changers:

The slashing and burning of TAFE SA is tantamount to educational and economic vandalism.

In the eastern states, if more than half of the non-recurrent income from a public funded training provider vanished, there would be a major investigation. At TAFE SA, one only hears the sound of adding machines.

In a clear case of magical thinking, the government hopes TAFE SA’s online course push will offset the lack of humans in the organisation to teach and administer the content.

Implementation practice between the Department of State Development and TAFE SA is in chaos. In the past two years, courses on the Funded Training List and the subsidy prices, have changed eight times. No organisation can run a profitable business with such ludicrous commercial practice.

Last July, the number of TAFE courses receiving State Government subsidies was cut from 900 to 700. It is believed some of the terminated courses may be offered as online full-fee short subjects.

The successful Advanced Diploma of Professional Writing will close this year, leaving more than 40 students unable to complete their qualification. So much for being an arts-driven state. (There are accusations that TAFE SA is deleting critical but non-defamatory student posts from its Facebook page.)

As more courses are scrapped and campuses close, its no wonder applications are down 5.6 per cent. Last year at the same time (January), applications were down 6 per cent.

In 2015 the State Government awarded TAFE SA 90 per cent of the subsidised places under its WorkReady policy, much to the chagrin of the private training providers. In a clear case of magical thinking, the government hopes TAFE SA’s online course push will offset the lack of humans in the organisation to teach and administer the content.

In 2012, TAFE SA was made an independent statutory authority, with the CEO reporting to the board. There has been a revolving door of CEOs ever since. Current CEO Robin Murt replaced acting CEO Miriam Silva who was in the chair after Jeff Gunnigham came, saw and left within a year. The door started spinning after Elaine Bensted, who seeing the shape of things to come, left to become CEO of Zoos SA in 2012.

After Gunningham left TAFE SA last year, in a veiled attack on the board, he said the performance of governing bodies must be reviewed on a regular basis.

“The Premier has introduced a review of all State Government boards and committees which is much needed… there needs to be a significant amount of independence to the review process rather than the board simply going though a form of self-evaluation which they submit to the State Government,” Gunningham said.

While they may lay claim to other credentials, a number of the nine TAFE board members have no apparent education management experience. In my view, the board has failed to preserve the fundamental elements required for TAFE SA to fulfil its mandate and failed to prepare the organisation for the rising storm of unemployment.

The new Minister, Susan Close, must immediately review the performance and make-up of the board and get TAFE SA battle-hardened for the greatest educational challenge in its history.

Voters in the Adelaide’s north and west and the state’s north will be watching as if their future careers and livelihoods depend on it.

Malcolm King works in generational change and is an Adelaide writer.

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