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Education and Employment References Committee
02/02/2018
Vocational education and training in South Australia

ROBERTSON, Mr Craig, CEO, TAFE Directors Australia

[14:37]

CHAIR: I now welcome Mr Robertson from TAFE Directors Australia. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and giving of evidence before a committee has been provided to you. Thank you for your appearance today. I invite you to make a presentation to the committee.

Mr Robertson : I've been asked to appear here today and willingly do so. I would like to let you know that TDA is a representative body, not a governing body. As this inquiry concerns the relationship between the Australian government and the South Australian government, we decided not to put in a submission. Having been called, however, I'm pleased to make an opening statement and then give you an update on the remediation that TAFE SA has underway and has substantially complete. We, as the peak body for all TAFEs in Australia, take quality and compliance seriously. We well and truly accept that the rules of regulation are clear and that ASQA has clear parameters within which to fulfil its role. We respect and respond to their findings. In this case it is no different in TAFE SA.

Let me give you a quick update which might help answer some of the previous questions. Please note that in doing this I am not representing the South Australian government in providing these answers. We recognise that ASQA has given TAFE SA until 2 March to address the issues raised, as the commissioner mentioned earlier. TAFE SA is working hard on dealing with that. In fact I'm advised that about 350 of their lecturers and staff volunteered and came in over the summer break, when they would normally be on entitled leave, to respond to the issues that have been raised. This has included contracting top auditors from around Australia to come and provide that advice. These are auditors that are experienced in assisting ASQA in their work, as well. I'm told that at times there are about 120 people in a room dissecting and responding to the issues that ASQA has given. They've also commissioned a quite comprehensive staff professional development program, and they have mandated a new set of contemporary assessment tools that will need to be used right across the institute.

Let me deal with the findings of ASQA. The audit covered 16 courses. One was found compliant. One had a written direction concerning it, which I understand has been addressed. Four were superseded courses—in other words, there is no further delivery around those. That essentially leaves 10 courses that need some rectification. Across those 10 courses, those 10 qualifications, there are about 23 units of competency where there is some remediation required. Predominantly that's around assessment. I am advised that all or most of those issues are well and truly on the track to be presented to ASQA by 2 March, which the commissioner mentioned was the time frame.

In terms of the remaining units of competency that TAFE SA delivers, they estimate that there are about 5,000 units of competency that are on their scope that they deliver. They have embarked on a review of all of those units similar to what they're doing for the 23 units in scope. We also understand through the media that there are about 1,660 students who were impacted by this measure. 350 of those were signed off once it was determined that the electrotech qualification was cleared. There were about 60 secondary school students who had an issue with some recording of their qualifications, and TAFE SA has dealt with the accreditation body in South Australia to deal with that.

That leaves roughly 1,250 students. About 880 of those students are continuing this year, so if there are any issues that they uncover about assessment of previous units, that will be rectified during the period of their study and training this year. 318 who have completed have been given clearance by ASQA that those qualifications stand. That leaves roughly 140 students where there was some issue regarding their qualification. Mainly it's not to do with the student; it's to do with the nature of the work-based learning. Most of these were under contracted training arrangements, and I am advised that South Australian TAFE is in the process of contacting all those employers and expects to have that process finished by mid-February. So you can see that most students will have a rectification pathway well and truly cleared for them.

There is also the issue about CASA. I note that the ASQA view within their submission. I am advised that there will be no courses run in the first semester, with the agreement of CASA and students, and TAFE SA along with CASA is undertaking a roadshow across Australia with relevant employers to talk through how they will comply and start programs again in the second semester. I'm sure you'll agree that TAFE SA has responded admirably to these findings, and I am happy to answer questions.

Senator CAMERON: Thanks for putting that in context, Mr Robertson. I want to raise with you this issue of the private providers. When a system here; it's not just TAFE SA. There have been 140 students affected by the audit by ASQA. That's your evidence. Are you aware of a company called Careers Australia where 15,000 students were affected?

Mr Robertson : I'm aware of Careers Australia, of course. Under an arrangement with the Commonwealth government we have operated as a tuition assurance operator for select colleges, which did include Careers Australia. It has been our task to assist the students to transition to a new provider, and if they've asked for a refund of their loan, we organise that through the department.

Senator CAMERON: It is terrible that 140 students are affected, but when the Careers Australia, a company who made political donations to the Liberal Party, who have ripped the system off terribly, who pocketed millions of dollars and then went bankrupt leaving 15,000 students in the lurch—was there a Senate inquiry on that, to your knowledge?

Mr Robertson : There has not been a Senate inquiry, on my understanding. I can confirm that we have helped deal with those 15,000 students. We've also been advised that there are potentially 40,000 students that were also part of Careers Australia, who at the end of 2016 decided not to transition or continue in 2017. We estimate that they would probably have debts with the Commonwealth of in the order of $10,000-$20,000. Based on our understanding and looking at the data of the 15,000 students that we've dealt with, we are pretty sure that most of those students never progressed at all.

Senator CAMERON: We had evidence from ASQA that significant funding cuts can take place and that that may not end up having an effect on the quality of the training. But the scope of the funding cuts in the TAFE system, both from the federal government and from different state governments over periods of time, have been really significant. Shouldn't there be a requirement on ASQA, when say a private provider is making windfall profits at the expense of quality, if there are massive cuts from government that have the effect of seeing thousands of TAFE teachers lose their jobs across the country, surely ASQA should be saying something about that in the context of its implications of quality?

Mr Robertson : As the commissioner mentioned earlier, ASQA operates within tight parameters that are prescribed within legislation and the standards that flow from that legislation.

Senator CAMERON: I accept that, but the question I am asking you is whether their scope should be widened to deal with these other issues that affect quality?

Mr Robertson : Obviously that's a matter for the governing legislation and government policy.

Senator CAMERON: You don't have a view on that?

Mr Robertson : What view I do have is that at the moment the government has appointed Valerie Braithwaite to review the regulation arrangements in the system, in the VET sector in particular. I note that in a report that she co-authored with Professor Kwong Lee Dow in respect of TEQSA they make comments very much that there is a regulatory environment which includes funding, and that can impact on quality. Quality cannot be assured solely by a set of standards that are looked after by the regulator. They are connected, but that's actually a matter for government policy as to how they would combine those two elements.

Senator CAMERON: But surely, as someone who has been involved in TAFE for all these years, you would have a view on whether the regulator should be dealing with an issue that is quite clearly affecting quality outcomes, the capacity to employ highly skilled, decently paid TAFE teachers and teachers in the private sector? Surely you have a view. I have a view on that. I think it's a major problem for quality. Why wouldn't you have a view on it?

Mr Robertson : I would view that those two issues come together and have caused a large part of the issues that are before this committee now. All I'm saying is that ASQA operates within the parameters that it has been given, and it would be up to government policy and the passage of legislation, quite frankly, and the agreement of the states and territories to say that we will put within their remit analysis and understanding of funding flows that occur as well. That would be a major shift, though.

Senator CAMERON: But do you think we should? That's the question I'm asking you.

Mr Robertson : In their role of providing input, advice and feedback, on the combination of funding cuts impacting on quality, I think they should have that role in particular.

Senator CAMERON: In ASQA's submission, they go to their role under the act. As I pointed out, under section 157 of the act, they've got a role to advise and make recommendations to the minister on matters relating to VET. Doesn't that give them sufficient scope to say to state and federal governments, 'Look, the cost cutting has got to a stage where it's affecting quality outcomes.' The rorts that are taking place in the private sector are affecting the reputation of the system as a whole, and these companies that are closing down leaving thousands of students stranded because the profit motive is driving their approach has to be looked at. Isn't there a need for those issues to be looked at? Don't you think that ASQA should be raising those issues with government?

Mr Robertson : I don't know, but they may well be. I do know that on a regular basis the commissioners are invited to the ministerial council meeting. Of course, TAFE representative bodies or the private college providers are not part of that conversation, and it may well be discussed in those fora.

Senator CAMERON: The academic experts who are appearing and who have made submissions basically have come to the view that there is a crisis in the vocational education system. I think every one of them says that there should be a fundamental review of the system. Do you have a view on those two points?

Mr Robertson : We would agree with the general thrust of those submissions that over a long period of time there has been a range of funding cuts. As I mentioned the other day, the sense of yo-yo funding makes it very hard for TAFEs to be able to make sure they deliver or plan to deliver quality courses. What I can say is that the majority of, as I say, all TAFEs around Australia take their regulatory responsibilities and their quality responsibilities seriously, and they have been trying to uphold those standards, and continue to uphold those standards, in the face of some of these funding cuts.

Senator CAMERON: If a company like Careers Australia are making a 50 per cent return on investment—massive profits—surely that has to come at the cost of quality for their training. I think that has been answered, because they went bust leaving everyone except the directors out of pocket.

Mr Robertson : I'm not sure about what has happened with the directors, but it would be a reasonable characterisation to say that the majority of students from Careers Australia have got a debt of, on average, about $15,000. Enrolled nursing students are an exception, because they were taken up by another provider and are continuing on with their training. What we have found is that they were enrolled in superseded courses. They were enrolled in courses from back in 2012-13—a good three or four or five years earlier. Careers Australia hadn't had any follow-up with them at all. I should make the point that this is the issue around a financial arrangement between the Commonwealth and Careers Australia. ASQA did go in and do a regulatory review, and that review was fine because Careers Australia was able to meet those requirements, although I note that ASQA had a set of findings against Careers Australia before they closed.

Senator CAMERON: Is it legitimate to argue that the combination of competition policy, funding cuts and the privatisation of the TAFE sector has resulted in a race to the bottom?

Mr Robertson : That would be a view that I would support. Over a period of time, what we have done—and you can sometimes see this in Productivity Commission reports. We claim that we deliver the same amount of training hours. But, if you look at the dollars investment, it has been going down. What we're really saying is: we are trying to deliver more for less. Essentially, that's what the Productivity Commission found.

Senator CAMERON: It has been put to me many times as the shadow minister that the private sector has gone in and cherry picked the easy-to-provide and cheap-to-provide courses and left TAFE with the more complex and expensive courses to providers. Is that a legitimate position?

Mr Robertson : It's a reasonable summation to make, although we do need to bear in mind that over a long period of time there have been high-quality, non-government providers, some of which are backed by industry players—their employee representative bodies, et cetera. It would be those providers who came into an open system that may well be characterised that way.

Senator CAMERON: Commissioner Paterson couldn't bring himself to accept the views of Professor Finkel, the Productivity Commission, some of the employer organisations and the academics. You do agree that competition policy, cost-cutting and the race to the bottom have implications for quality and productivity in this country.

Mr Robertson : I wouldn't characterise it exactly that way. We want to be able to have a diverse tertiary education sector and so I wouldn't sheet it wholly down to competition policy. Competition policy where there is no assurance around consistent delivery of a qualification is the issue. What can happen is a person who's never worked in the industry is sold a qualification; they don't actually know what represents an acceptable course or an acceptable length of course. That's essentially how people have said: 'Come on down, get this qualification,' potentially with an iPad attached to it, and they're none the wiser about what is a good-quality course and what is not.

Senator CAMERON: So user choice is a myth?

Mr Robertson : What we have to bear in mind with user choice is: is this training an experience good? I could take up a course in aged care, but I don't have that background and so I'm not going to know whether this is a good course or not. So the issue is around qualifications.

Senator REYNOLDS: I'd like to pick up on a few of the issues that Senator Cameron has raised. The first is the proposition that one of the factors in the dramatic decline of standards in SA TAFE was the commercialisation of it. I believe that was done under the Gillard government under the national partnership agreement. Were you supporting Senator Cameron in that?

Mr Robertson : No.

Senator CAMERON: Someone else introduced that.

Senator REYNOLDS: It was signed by the Gillard government. You had your time, Senator Cameron—I did not interrupt you.

Senator CAMERON: Julia Gillard did not—

Senator REYNOLDS: I did not—

CHAIR: Order! Senators can have this debate with each other in their reports.

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Robertson, you were saying one of the factors was the move to competition under the Gillard government. The second point Senator Cameron raised was budget cuts. I've just had a look at those and, as I understand it, the South Australian government cuts to the TAFE sector amounted to $91 million over five years, and the worst one was in 2015-16, $37.1 million.

Senator CAMERON: It's called a race to the bottom.

Senator REYNOLDS: Were you referring to those cuts which contributed to their poor performance?

Mr Robertson : I am not in a position to point to causality in this instance, but there are a range of factors at play.

Senator REYNOLDS: But, Mr Robertson, with great respect, you were just agreeing to exactly the same propositions that Senator Cameron put.

Mr Robertson : No, Senator Cameron mentioned three factors, one of which was competition policy. I moderated that by saying we need a diverse training sector. I may not agree on your view of competition policy versus my view—

Senator REYNOLDS: But the competition policy was brought in under the national partnership agreement, brought in and signed by Julia Gillard. Are you disputing that fact?

Mr Robertson : No, I'm not disputing that fact at all. Part of that agreement, if you go back to that national partnership, was an undertaking between the Commonwealth and the states and territories that the states and territories would open up their funding or would implement an entitlement model—

Senator REYNOLDS: I'm sorry, Mr Robertson, but that is not answering my question. We have competition policy, which we have discussed. The second one is budget cuts. At best I can identify cuts from the South Australian government as $91 million over five years. Were you agreeing with Senator Cameron that those cuts are what caused problems in the SA TAFE system?

Mr Robertson : I'm saying there's an overall range, and under the agreement there was an undertaking that the Commonwealth continue to provide VET FEE-HELP for diploma/advanced diploma courses; over a period of time, most states and territories withdrew their subsidy funding for diplomas and advanced diplomas because—

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Robertson, I've got to say, with respect, I've got limited time and you are not answering my question. You could almost be a politician, I think, in the way you are not answering my questions! So I might put it another way. From the budget cuts and the catastrophic disasters—I don't think I could describe them in any other way—to South Australian TAFE, what are the lessons that perhaps other TAFEs could learn? I understand Victoria is also cutting their TAFE funding and may face similar problems as South Australia now is. So, in your position, what are the lessons to be learned for other TAFEs?

Mr Robertson : As I said at the beginning, the rules for VET have been set under standards. ASQA governs and regulates those rules. We will work closely—

Senator REYNOLDS: Mr Robertson, I'm sorry, but, as you've just pointed out, you did make that comment in your opening statement, which does not answer my question. What, in your position, as from TAFE Directors Australia, are your lessons learnt or your cautionary tales for other TAFEs out of the South Australian debacle?

Mr Robertson : My cautionary lesson would be: don't follow the lead of Careers Australia and a whole range of other private, for-profit providers, who have simply gone in to get money; close down; send the money offshore. TAFEs have strong responsibility to their students, governed by states.

Senator REYNOLDS: It's very interesting; in that almost non-answer to my question—but I will give you that it was half an answer—you mentioned Careers Australia. As to Careers Australia, who actually provided their insurance? Was that TDA coverage?

Mr Robertson : We did; yes.

Senator REYNOLDS: So can you tell me a little bit more about this insurance coverage for Careers Australia?

Mr Robertson : TAFEs made the decision to cover some private providers, knowing that we had a full network of TAFEs who could—

Senator REYNOLDS: How much did you earn from Careers Australia? What was your insurance coverage for them?

Mr Robertson : The insurance cover for them was that, if there were students at the time of closure who had not completed their unit of study, according to the legislation, we would support them.

Senator REYNOLDS: No, no; again, you're not answering my question at all. The question was very simple. How much did you charge Careers Australia for their insurance coverage?

Mr Robertson : I'd have to take that on notice, but it would be far, far less—it'd be about a percentage of what Careers Australia—

Senator REYNOLDS: But it's not my question. I'm very surprised, given you're representing TDA. And I note that you take it on notice. If you could perhaps also take on notice the insurance coverage for any other provider that you do. I also understand that not only do you provide insurance for Careers Australia but you provide insurance for students as well. Is that correct?

Mr Robertson : Part of the—

Senator REYNOLDS: For SA TAFE students in particular.

Mr Robertson : Yes, because if they are undertaking now VET student loans or FEE-HELP, they need that assurance—that, if TAFE closed down, they could transfer to another provider.

Senator REYNOLDS: Is that not a conflict of interest? Given the evidence you've given in some of the answers to Senator Cameron on Careers Australia, you're insuring both Careers Australia and also, I presume, the South Australian taxpayers; have they been paying for the insurance through you as well?

Mr Robertson : They've had to do that because that's an obligation under legislation.

Senator REYNOLDS: So that's a yes? So you've got Careers Australia, who you haven't been very complimentary about. So you are taking money from Careers Australia—as to which amount you have got no idea how much it is—and, at the same time, you're also taking money from the South Australian taxpayer for SA TAFE students. Is that correct?

Mr Robertson : That's right, but TAFE SA has got no other choice. If they want to be able to access FEE-HELP—

Senator REYNOLDS: Again, Mr Robertson, you're going off on a foray of your own. That's not the question I asked.

Senator CAMERON: Chair, a point of order—

Senator REYNOLDS: The question I asked was: how much?

Senator CAMERON: A point of order.

Senator REYNOLDS: How much did the South Australian taxpayer pay?

Senator CAMERON: A point of order.

Mr Robertson : I can take that on notice.

CHAIR: I'll take the point of order, but I'm not sure there is one, Senator Cameron.

Senator CAMERON: Senator Reynolds should let Mr Robertson at least finish a sentence!

Senator REYNOLDS: Well, if it was remotely relevant, but Mr Robertson now has consistently not answered my questions.

Senator CAMERON: You're not the chair!

Senator REYNOLDS: He's gone off answering in any other way than actually answering very simple questions.

CHAIR: Thank you for your view on the point of order. I don't think that there is a point of order. What I will say, and I was going to give you the opportunity at the end of this, given that you have been interrupted regularly—not just by one senator; by multiple senators—is that if, after reading the Hansard, you think you may have been misrepresented, we do invite you to put in a supplementary submission to correct any of those contextual issues if you think you need to. There's no point of order.

Senator REYNOLDS: So you've got money from Careers Australia, and other providers no doubt, so you've got a nice little earner there. You're getting money, for the last five years at least, from the South Australian taxpayers for South Australian TAFE students. If you're taking insurance money from South Australian TAFE students or the taxpayers, at what point in time did you become aware that there were issues with those courses for the South Australian students that you were insuring and how did you deal with that?

Mr Robertson : We don't insure certificate level courses; we only insure diploma and advanced diploma against the legislation. I'm not sure that there are any diploma or advanced diploma qualifications—

Senator REYNOLDS: Again, that wasn't quite my question. Maybe I'll be a bit more specific: at what point in time, as the insurer of SA TAFE students, did you become aware that there may be problems with the quality of the courses and their qualifications? Before ASQA did their investigation and made their findings, were you ever aware of any problems with any of those courses that you were insuring?

Mr Robertson : No.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: I want to ask about the $91 million—or closer, probably, to $100 million—that has been cut from TAFE SA by the state government over the last five years. I understand that that has coincided with staff losses of over a quarter, 26.5 per cent. What is your assessment of the impact of that on the quality of courses, teaching and learning for students?

Mr Robertson : Again, I'm making a general comment; I don't have particular details about direct impact. Of course, when you withdraw that amount of money and you're still expected to deliver a full range of courses—particularly, South Australia has the expectation that it would deliver throughout all of regional Australia—it would have an impact. They'd have to cut some courses, shave some courses and, equally, cut some staff as well.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: What's your understanding of the practice of shortening course times? If a course is paid for to be delivered in a nominal 100 hours per se and, in order to be a bit more efficient, come in within budget and try to be as tight and efficient as possible, that course is delivered within 50 hours, what kind of impact does that have on the quality of the course? Is that something that you believe is happening within the TAFE SA system?

Mr Robertson : They may well be having to do that. I'm not sure whether in fact that has been the case; I'd have to look at the data. But for the system generally around Australia, ASQA has put a report out in the public domain to say that unreasonably short courses are part of the big issue that's facing the VET system in Australia. In fact, in a standards-based system where what you're trying to do is meet a standard, not a certain set of delivery, you can get away with it, and that is essentially what has been happening. You're getting away with very short courses.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Surely that's pretty substandard for the students' outcomes at the end of the day? If a course is nominally meant to be delivered, or accepted to be delivered, in 100 hours and it's being delivered in half the amount of time or even less, and it has been put to me that this is happening in an even tighter time frame, yet banking it at 100 hours because that's what's paid for—I feel like students are getting ripped off.

Mr Robertson : Even national policy documents will say that, whilst there is a standard to be reached and a range of hours should be committed to it, it may vary depending upon the prior experience of the individual who is participating, whether the training course is being undertaken within an industry sector and whether it's being done online. I suspect that what's going on is that everybody is grabbing those three or four things and saying, 'That's my reason for extra-short courses.' I understand that is one of the reasons that ASQA has put out the report about unduly short courses. It's because of that factor.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Yet they're not prepared to comment, at least at this hearing, on the impact of funding constraints, which is perhaps driving that whole process.

Mr Robertson : That's a matter for ASQA. I'm in a different position to be able to say that funding is driving some quality issues.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Good. I want to ask about your concern. There's been quite a bit of criticism levelled at the exorbitant pay cheques for directors of TAFE SA. You're representing TAFE Directors Australia. What's your response to that? This is at a time when we're seeing budget cuts—$100 million cut from the TAFE system—and students are being given substandard results in terms of learning outcomes. The idea that some board directors are getting big pay cheques doesn't sit very well.

Mr Robertson : I wouldn't be able to answer the specific details, apart from saying that most board members for any government entity would be subject to remuneration review and, clearly, the South Australian government has an entitlement to review and pay at a rate they think is important. What was important in terms of the board composition of TAFEs was to be able to make sure there was some business acumen and industry representation on the boards, because that was part of the long-term criticism of TAFEs—that they'd lost that connection. That was part of the rationale for them joining boards.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You are aware of this criticism?

Mr Robertson : No, I'm not, in fact. I'd have to check that.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: In relation to some specifics—and hopefully you can answer this—what was the rationale behind TAFE SA voluntarily suspending the aircraft maintenance engineers licence training?

Mr Robertson : As we are aware, CASA is the industry regulator on top of the base regulation from ASQA. I'm not aware of all of the full details, but certainly, as part of their ongoing dialogue with CASA, they found some issues and, because safety is their fundamental concern, that is the reason they decided to suspend courses for a while.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: Do we have any information in relation to the status of students who have been through that course and whether they are actually qualified at a level that is required in terms of safety standards?

Mr Robertson : Part of the issue from the CASA viewpoint is to make themselves satisfied. I'd have to take on notice the view they had in terms of students coming through.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: You might need to take this on notice. I'd like to know how many students earned the certification for that particular course through TAFE SA between 2014 and May 2017. It was put to me yesterday by a number of TAFE teaching staff representatives that TAFE SA has delayed courses starting. I put the question to ASQA earlier and they said it's not up to them and that they have held off. Is it your understanding that some courses have been delayed to start and, in fact, may not even start until term 2?

Mr Robertson : My dialogue with TAFE SA is indicating that, under the arrangements Mr Paterson gave, they intend to open all courses that were subject to the ASQA decision.

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: At what point?

Mr Robertson : At a normal opening time, which is during February. They're in the middle of enrolment now, and they would start those courses. There is one small element of delay for apprentices and trainees in terms of liaison with employers, but they're working hard to rectify that.

Senator PATRICK: You've talked about the link between quality and funding and obviously cutting staff and the pressures that are then left on the remaining staff. ASQA talked about overheads. Are you aware of the constitution of the loss of jobs? Was it predominately management or was it support staff or was it frontline teachers?

Mr Robertson : I'd have to take that on notice. I'm not aware.

Senator PATRICK: But you'd have that data?

Mr Robertson : I'd have to go back to TAFE SA to look at it. One of the interesting things about the national training system is that there is no national reporting on staffing.

Senator PATRICK: So you can't necessarily also link loss of staff with the particular courses that may have failed?

Mr Robertson : No, I wouldn't be able to. Going back to my opening statement, we take the standards seriously, and there's no excuse for those standards not being met.

Senator PATRICK: Another allegation that's been put to me, similar to Senator Hanson-Young, in the case of practical courses being run, is that the material necessary for the practical is being withheld or reduced on account of loss of funds. Are you aware of that going on at all?

Mr Robertson : No. I don't have particular examples, apart from, of course, that these students can go to TAFE SA headquarters and put these issues on the table, and they can be addressed. There's always a mechanism for a student to put a complaint in and management will look into it.

Senator PATRICK: What about a teacher?

Mr Robertson : In terms of the resources for the teacher?

Senator PATRICK: Yes, putting in a complaint about a lack of resources?

Mr Robertson : TAFE is one organisation where, with all those teachers working for it, there'd be mechanisms within the TAFE to be able to put those issues on the table.

Senator PATRICK: It was also put to me that there's a prohibition on teachers talking to the media—maybe I understand that from an external disclosure perspective—and also not talking to politicians, to their local representatives. Are you aware of any—

Senator HANSON-YOUNG: A threat or a warning not to?

Senator PATRICK: No, just a prohibition in contracts or agreements that basically state that you can't go and make representations to your local member or a federal politician in relation to lack of resources or concerns you have about what's happening inside your organisation.

Mr Robertson : There are whistleblower provisions. In fact, I think there are whistleblower provisions that they've spoken about in the annual report.

Senator CAMERON: Nick Xenophon only put it in for unions—no-one else.

Senator PATRICK: The rest is coming!

Mr Robertson : The other thing to bear in mind, of course, is that these are essentially public servants, and the last time I was a public servant it wasn't looked upon very favourably if I went off and spoke to politicians. There are set mechanisms by which those things are to occur, and they're set up within TAFE SA appropriately.

Senator PATERSON: Well I guess I'm interested in a written prohibition on talking to a member of parliament, because it has some privilege and implications.

Mr Robertson : I don't know what the nature of that prohibition is, if indeed it is there. Clearly, though, TAFEs are always out and about in the community. They go to events where there are politicians, and of course they're talking with politicians freely, and nobody's denying them that opportunity.

Senator PATERSON: Thank you for that. As a broader question, do you consider that TAFE SA is sufficiently funded to deliver the course loads that it is undertaking?

Mr Robertson : There is enough evidence that the amount of money has decreased substantially, and there is an expectation that they maintain current effort. If you look through all reports, including reports from the Mitchell Institute, the amount of funding, by both federal and state governments, into vocational education and training has been declining consistently over the last four or five years.

Senator PATRICK: The Australian Education Union argues that a significant reinvestment is required and, as a priority, governments must guarantee 90 per cent of TAFE funding. Do you have a view on that?

Mr Robertson : I think it's actually 70 per cent, but—

Senator PATRICK: Sorry, 70.

Mr Robertson : Yes, 70 per cent is the policy. We would like to argue that TAFEs would earn the right to that level of money. They don't need to be assigned it, because by the time you look at the breadth of programs they offer, particularly for all ranges of students, and you allocate on a fair basis, 70 per cent would be a reasonable cut and TAFEs are prepared to take that onboard and would be prepared to deliver.

Senator PATRICK: Just in relation to national standards, there are a range of different courses. Courses of a similar type may be run in Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia, yet, it seems, on the evidence, that the assessment criteria is determined at a local level rather than at a national level. In some sense, it would worry me if that were the case, because of the different levels that would be possible across states but also because of a doubling up of resources. Do you have any comment on that?

Mr Robertson : I have a very strong view on that, and if I can have two minutes I'll give you a very quick analysis of it. Within the national training system there are 20,000 units of competency. Within national policy you can contextualise each delivery according to the needs of the industry, the learner or the location. Even if you think there are three variable points on those—three by three by three—that's 27 different ways that each individual unit can be delivered. All of a sudden, if you look at 20,000 by 27, you've got 540,000 different ways that a unit of competency can be looked at. Then you say, through training packages, that you have to contextualise the assessment, and if you think that assessment can be done in the workplace, an institution, online or a variety of other things. Let's say, there are five different ways assessment can be done—all of a sudden, you're up to about 2.7 million different points of variability against one unit of competency. Then you go back to a standards based approach and, let's say, there's a standard that says, 'Cut hair appropriately.' I am sure your view about cutting hair appropriately is quite different from somebody else's view of doing—

CHAIR: I have very strong views!

Mr Robertson : Yes, I'm sure you have very strong views on it! Essentially, what I'm saying is there is far too much variability in the system. And that is the challenge. It's very different when we're talking about, what I'd call, the regulated trades, because most states and territories have very strong rules around that, particularly where there's a safety concern for the community and industry. I think that’s the fundamental issue: we've got too much variability and it's too hard to regulate.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Mr Robertson, for your presentation to the committee and for your submission.