Fledgling Illawarra electricians will have six weeks shaved off their study time each year under TAFE cuts condemned by union figures as "insidious", "dangerous" and a "cost-cutting exercise".
TAFE Illawarra students normally spend 36 weeks a year, for three years, earning their Certificate III in Electrotechnology - Electrician. From this year the institute will begin delivering the course in 30-week annual terms.
The move has been slammed by unions including the NSW TAFE Teachers Association, whose president, Phillip Chadwick, said the quality of trade training would decline if apprentices were required to learn existing content in a shorter period.
Mr Chadwick said the institute had not adequately consulted TAFE's faculty director on the changes, and said affected teachers were "disgusted".
"The negative implications of these cuts to our students' learning have not been fully analysed," Mr Chadwick said.
"Teachers [are] deeply concerned about the safety implications for our students and the industry."
Mr Chadwick said institute director Di Murray had told union delegates the changes were made in order to "meet budget".
But with the majority of affected teachers on full-time salaries, delegates say the potential for saved wages is limited, and any forecast savings would be the result of a broader swathe of cuts - such as to campus-wide operating hours or building sell-offs.
According to a NSW Teachers Federation delegate, the occupancy rates of TAFE buildings has come under increasing internal focus over the past six months.
"We don't know where they expect to be seeing the savings," Mr Chadwick said.
"It begs the question - what is the ultimate strategy?"
TAFE Illawarra refused to answer the Mercury's questions on the future of its buildings - specifically at the Dapto Campus, where the library was axed and canteen closed last year amid dwindling student enrolments.
In a prepared statement, an institute spokeswoman addressed only the changes to the electrotechnology training, which she said were "improvements" made "in consultation with employers and apprentices".
"Apprentices will benefit from the institute's investment in new learning systems that will provide them with increased access to learning materials," the spokeswoman said.
"Apprentices will now have access to learning materials outside classroom hours and be able to use new learning technologies at home and to reinforce their learning in the workplace.
"Local employers have actually welcomed the improvements to apprenticeship training and have expressed support for the introduction of greater flexibility in the delivery of training."
The spokeswoman cited Thomas and Coffey among employers who supported the changes.
But Electrical Trades Union organiser John Thornton said he expected industry to respond negatively.
"It's going to reduce the quality of tradespeople because you're going to have young people coming for a reduced amount of time to TAFE," Mr Thornton said.
South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said the cuts were "insidious".
"The government itself will say it hasn't asked any TAFE to decrease any course. They don't have to.
"They will leave the TAFE institutes themselves to do the dirty work of government."