GOVERNMENT’S TAFE enrollment figures were called into question during budget estimates this afternoon, via an Opposition gotcha moment: An alleged internal document showing student numbers were down, and not up, as declared in budget papers.
Deputy Premier and Skills Minister John Barilaro said he had not seen the document before and could not verify if it was accurate – but noted the accusation from Labor “that the professional staff of TAFE NSW are somehow fiddling the figures” - and directed any further TAFE questions to assistant skills minister Adam Marshall.
Labor’s John Graham told Mr Barilaro it appeared as if tricky TAFE matters had been foisted upon “junior office member” Mr Marshall, who was made assistant skills minister in January this year.
Mr Barilaro denied this and added that National Centre for Vocational Education Research data showed NSW was growing enrolments, and growing students “right across the VET sector”.
Budget Estimates hearings often serve up fiery exchanges, with ministers grilled repetitively by the Opposition and crossbench.
Today was no different.
As well as TAFE, the NSW Nationals leader was asked about the delay in Ken Matthews’ report into alleged water mismanagement in NSW, and why it was held over until after estimates.
The hearing was told Mr Matthews had himself requested more time, not government.
Mr Barilaro was also asked whether one of his staff members, who has family ties to north west irrigators mentioned in the Four Corners report Pumped, was involved in discussions over the allegations. He said this was not the case.
Meanwhile, The Greens’ Jeremy Buckingham asked if Mr Barilaro was “concerned that the Premier (Gladys Berejiklian) is disinterested in agriculture?” because she had apparently not visited a farm.
Mr Barilaro countered by pointing our the Premier had extensively visited regional NSW.
When first asked about TAFE, Mr Barilaro agreed that he believed enrolment numbers had increased in 2016, though admitted the sector was not without challenges.
This included the cessation of the Federal VET Fee Help program, which he said had caused reputational damage, while he said a number of myths around TAFE also needed to be debunked.
The 2017-18 budget papers show TAFE course enrollments in 2015 at 431,868, rising to 543,309 in 2016, and forecast to reach 516,700 in 2017. Mr Barilaro confirmed there had been a change in how enrollments were counted pre-2015, but it now better reflected the number of students.
Mr Graham provided the hearing an alleged internal document titled TAFE NSW enrollments preliminary count 2016 to 2017 – which he said showed year-on-year enrollments were down, including:
- Total enrollments year on year down 11.2 per cent
- New enrollments down 14.6 per cent
- New enrollments for diplomas and advanced diplomas down 45.8 per cent
Mr Graham said the document also alleged the figures counted students multiple times if they attended a course at multiple TAFE campuses, counted students enrolled in one unit, and counted incomplete enrollments in relation to community service obligations.
It is also alleged to say that 2016 enrollments were potentially overstated.
Mr Barilaro said he had not seen the document and would need to verify its authenticity, but pointed out the National Centre for Vocational Education Research data showed NSW was bucking the national trend in terms of vocational education.
TAFE got $1.7 billion of the $2.2 billion skills budget this year.
Mr Graham also asked about government’s impending re-branding of VET in NSW, via a $1.24m communications and creative strategy that is yet to be unveiled.
The campaign was confirmed by a department secretary.
Worry over bush jobs
Mr Barilaro also had to defend government’s performance on employment in the bush.
Mr Graham pointed out over next five years, jobs in the regions were projected to grow by 7 per cent rather than 11 per cent in Sydney, while inequality was also currently higher in the regions than the city.
“People have got a right to feel they are slipping behind, do they not?” he said
Labor used the Griffith regional economy – including Griffith, Leeton, Murrumbidgee, and Narrandera— as an example of the struggles facing the bush.
“Between 2001 and 2014 the population grew by 1 per cent compared to 15 per cent in the rest of New South Wales. A couple of years ago taxable income was $43,000, compared to $62,000 in Sydney,” Mr Graham said.
“The two industries that are identified by the Government for the future in the Griffith regional economy are sewerage and drainage services and supermarkets. Unless you are a plumber or you are behind a checkout in these towns, the Government says "You're future is looking pretty bleak."
Mr Barilaro said while government had refocused on the regions, and there was plenty to be excited about, it was also competing with automation.
“We will see much disruption when it comes to industry because of innovation and technology,” he said.
“As a country, one of our most significant costs is labour; therefore, businesses will continue to innovate, to look at new technology and robotics, and to invest in innovation to minimise costs.
“That is the challenge. Plenty of recent reports talk about the challenges we have, but jobs growth is in health, biotic, cyber security, ICT, tourism, hospitality and agriculture.
“I remind everyone that the unemployment rate is at 4.8 per cent.”