A major employer of apprentice electricians has withdrawn up to 20 students from Illawarra TAFE campuses after the institute cut back classroom time from its electrical trades training.
The students will instead complete their training at Gymea TAFE, where course work is still delivered during 36 weeks of classroom time per year, as opposed to the Illawarra Institute’s now 30-week annual offering.
The Illawarra Mercury understands the Illawarra is the only TAFE institute in NSW to have reduced electrotechnology training from the 36-week norm.
The students who have been withdrawn in response to the change are among 500 apprentices employed Australia-wide by the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).
They are receiving electrical fitter and mechanical trade training.
General manager at NECA Group Training, Barry Dawson, said the cuts represented a 16per cent reduction in direct teaching hours, and would seriously dilute the quality of training.
‘‘That’s the hardest trade course in TAFE – it’s a very complicated, complex trade course, so the number of direct teaching hours is very important to us,’’ said Mr Dawson, who sits on a number of boards and panels aimed at upholding industry standards.
‘‘I’m not happy with the [Illawarra Institute] program. If they want to dilute the electrical trades course they can do it without our apprentices. They need pulling up.’’
Mr Dawson said apprentices would be expected to ‘‘read their books at home’’ in order to recoup lost classroom hours, which the Mercury understands have been cut for financial reasons.
He said NECA made the decision to place its apprentices in Gymea after learning the Illawarra Institute would cut electrotechnology training again in 2015, taking classroom time down to 24 weeks a year.
‘‘It’s not only a drop this year, it’s a big drop next year,’’ he said.
Approached late on Friday, TAFE Illawarra could not immediately respond to the Mercury’s questions regarding how apprentices affected by the cuts would make up their course work, or whether more cuts were planned.
However, in a statement this week, TAFE Illawarra said the course changes provided ‘‘significant improvements’’ that would offer apprentices ‘‘greater flexibility’’.
‘‘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 statement said.
NECA pays TAFE $360 a year to train each of its apprentices, whose training is also subsidised by the government.
According to the TAFE Teachers Association, TAFE Illawarra has made similar cuts to its refrigeration and air-conditioning, bricklaying, metal fabrication, and painting and decorating training.
NSW TAFE Teachers Association president Phillip Chadwick said the move by NECA would be seen as an indication from the industry that ‘‘quality matters’’.
Mr Chadwick said the cuts were unique to the Illawarra, and electrotechnology training remained a 36-weeks-a-year course at other TAFE institutes.
Shellharbour MP Anna Watson has called on TAFE Illawarra to reveal student enrolment numbers at Dapto campus amid speculation the site could be sold or leased.
The TAFE institute has repeatedly refused to say how many students attended the campus last year, doing nothing to ease the concerns of Ms Watson.
‘‘For TAFE Illawarra not to answer does not give a good impression,’’ Ms Watson said.
‘‘Why’s everything a big secret?’’
Figures provided by NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli’s office late last year showed enrolments at the Dapto campus fell from 658 in 2010 to 348 in 2012.
Despite repeated requests, neither the minister’s office nor TAFE Illawarra would provide enrolment figures for 2013.
A spokeswoman for TAFE’s Illawarra Institute told the Mercury this was because ‘‘final audited figures ... are not yet available’’.
The spokeswoman said courses were adjusted each semester in line with demand.
‘‘The review of course offerings for the introduction of Smart and Skilled in 2015 does not include the disposal or leasing of land or buildings at Dapto,’’ the spokeswoman said.
According to TAFE’s website, Dapto continues to offer eight courses in 2014, including retail operation, information technology and digital media.
A number of corporate service units are also located at Dapto in support of TAFE Illawarra’s 14 campuses.
Ms Watson raised concern about the Dapto campus’ future in Parliament last year after facilities including the library and canteen were closed.
Responding to Ms Watson’s question on whether there were any plans to sell or lease the buildings under the incoming Smart and Skilled reforms, Mr Piccoli replied: ‘‘No. TAFE Illawarra is reviewing and adjusting its course offerings to match the changing patterns of employment and demand for training in its region. This review does not include the disposal or leasing of buildings or land at Dapto Campus.’’
Asked if he would commit to retaining the buildings and land at the Dapto TAFE campus as an asset owned and managed by TAFE NSW, Mr Piccoli said facilities would be retained as a TAFE NSW asset ‘‘while they are required for the delivery of approved educational and training programs.’’
Mr Piccoli’s office confirmed his responses, made in late December, still stood.