ASSISTANT skills minister Adam Marshall returned the favour to his party leader on Monday afternoon, firing a budget estimates question on government’s TAFE-versus-private-operator balance back up the chain.
The Northern Tablelands MP also moved to douse an ‘unfortunate’ leaked document on student enrollments, telling the hearing different counting methods were in play, and that student numbers, while undoubtedly down, were not as severe as Opposition made them out to be.
TAFE matters took up the bulk of the hearing – with Mr Marshall’s tourism portfolio taking a back seat, barring questions on how he is progressing rail trails, and maximising the opportunity for NSW at the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
Following a barrage from Labor on TAFE student numbers, Mr Marshall was asked by Christian Democrat Fred Nile why government seemed to be encouraging private operators to compete with its public TAFE model.
Mr Marshall, echoing Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s delegation of operational TAFE matters last Thursday, told the hearing it wasn’t for him to comment on policy settings, and that he was responsible for running TAFE under the conditions provided.
“You're a member of the cabinet,” Mr Nile replied.
“You're the defenders of TAFE. If you don't defend them who will?”
State government has, in the past, been accused by Opposition and the Greens of propping up private vocational education operators while weakening the publicly-funded TAFE system – with alleged asset sales and online learning at the expense of practical demonstrations regularly held up by government’s critics.
But Mr Marshall was adamant TAFE is, and will remain, the primary provider for vocational training in the state, and that it had the the resources and people to compete in a “highly competitive market”.
The minister also told the hearing government was engaging with the Federal government to ensure the university and wider tertiary sector did not move into learning areas currently occupied by TAFE, further putting numbers at risk.
Mr Marshall sad that if not managed this could see the same downturn in enrollments as Federal changes to VET fee help had created.
Labor’s John Graham countered by asking Mr Marshall if he was blaming a downturn TAFE enrollment figures – which the Opposition claims are worse than government admits – on decisions made by the Federal government.
Mr Marshall said while it was crucial the Commonwealth measures were put in place to “stop the rorting” by unscrupulous VET providers, they had seen an even worse downturn in TAFE enrollments than predicted.
The issue of TAFE enrollments featured prominently this afternoon, courtesy of the leaked internal TAFE document shown to the Deputy Premier last week, which purportedly shows student numbers trending opposite to what government had reported in its budget papers.
“The Deputy Premier said you were going to clear this up. He's pointed the finger at you,” Mr Graham said.
“Nice of him wasn't it,” Mr Marshall replied.
Mr Marshall said the discrepancy came down to two different data sets.
He said government relied on end of year data from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research, rather than use of an internal TAFE counting, which, in some cases, used an older model.
Meanwhile data released by Mr Barilaro today showed the number of people taking up apprenticeships or traineeships in NSW continued to climb, though there was no mention of TAFE.
Mr Barilaro said the latest report from the National Centre for Vocational Education Research showed a 2.3 per cent increase in NSW apprenticeship and traineeships in the year to March 2017.
The figures also showed growth of 1.5 percent in the number of NSW people taking up trades like plumbing, carpentry and electro-technology.