Under state legislation, the purpose of TAFE NSW is to provide technical and further education that meets workforce and industry demands as well as ensuring access to disadvantaged students. TAFE’s commercial competitors in the private training sector are not required to fulfil any social objectives.
“TAFE NSW did not have the autonomy to operate like a government-owned business in a market environment,” the report said.
“And while TAFE NSW received separate funding to support students facing disadvantage this did not cover the costs of other non-commercial activities undertaken for social purposes, such as delivering uneconomic courses.
“Without clarity about activities undertaken for non-commercial purposes, it is difficult to know if enough funding has been set aside to cover the costs of these activities. This increases the risk that courses delivered under commercial terms are priced higher to offset the costs of services provided to pursue social objectives.”
The report said higher priced courses could hinder TAFE NSW’s ability to operate successfully in a competitive funding market.
It also found that the TAFE Commission Board was established by legislation as an advisory board to review and make recommendations to the government minister in charge of TAFE, but not to take responsibility for operational decisions. But, at times, “the TAFE Commission Board was closely involved in day-to-day workings of the business”.
“This impacted on its ability to provide independent advice to the Minister and effective oversight of TAFE NSW’s operations,” the report said.
Robin Shreeve, a former deputy director-general of TAFE NSW – who has also been a director of two TAFE institutes and the City of Westminster College in London – said the audit highlighted the tension between TAFE’s social and commercial roles.
“It also highlights the levels of day-to-day political intervention in TAFE NSW and confusion over the role of the TAFE Commission Board,” he said. “These all contributed in failing to achieve cost savings and reform.”
NSW Labor spokesman for TAFE and Skills Jihad Dib said the audit report revealed the government’s reform agenda was never about delivering better education and training outcomes for students.
“The report highlights this was never about improving student outcomes or providing the best possible education. It was always about cutting $250 million from TAFE NSW,” he said.
The audit said TAFE NSW estimated it had achieved $84 million in annual savings in 2018-19 and $155 million in 2019-20.
Tertiary education and training sector adviser Claire Field said the audit report was “deeply concerning”.
“Millions of dollars wasted because of poor project planning, impossible timeframes, a lack of expertise and a lack of clarity on the role of the TAFE NSW Board,” she said.
“As the Audit Office makes clear this led to serious quality problems identified by the national VET quality regulator.”
Steffen Faurby, managing director of TAFE NSW, said it was undergoing once-in-a-generation reform and “leveraging its state-wide expertise to continue as a comprehensive public provider of vocational education and training”.
“TAFE NSW has accepted all the recommendations of the Audit Office and has already taken steps to implement them where they haven’t already been completed,” he said.
A spokesman for TAFE NSW said it is half way into its six-year plan to transition to the One TAFE model, “which is about delivering the quality training that employers want and students need, while building on best practice and remaining competitive”.
NSW Skills and Tertiary Education Minister Geoff Lee said TAFE NSW has received “unprecedented support to deliver on its important social purpose while spending taxpayer’s money responsibly”.
“I am proud of TAFE NSW’s vital role in delivering training opportunities across NSW including to groups with disadvantage,” he said.
“TAFE NSW has also offered fee-free courses during COVID-19 and for bushfire recovery, as well as delivering Connected Learning Centres in regional areas.”
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Anna Patty is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald with a focus on higher education. She is a former Workplace Editor, Education Editor, State Political Reporter and Health Reporter.