Enrolments are ‘vital’

CENTRAL Gippsland Institute of TAFE’s uncertain future lies at the mercy of next year’s student enrolments, its chief executive has admitted, amid concerns State Government cuts have sent the institute spiralling into financial disarray.

While GippsTAFE chief executive Peter Whitley dismissed suggestions its share of $300 million in State Government budget cuts would send the institution into the red, he said the “unprecedented” nature of resulting course fee markups clouded its financial outlook.

“Going into 2013 we are in very much uncharted waters; there is no benchmark anywhere in Australia for what students might do in this particular environment when faced with mark ups like this,” Dr Whitley said.

With the scrapping of concessional course fees earlier this year, and some course costs tipped to skyrocket in 2013 – a Diploma of Nursing is set to rise in excess of $8000 in 2013, from $1500 in 2011 – there are widespread fears enrolment rates will slide, putting further pressure on the institution’s bottom line.

While Dr Whitley acknowledged the tens of millions of dollars spent on infrastructure upgrades in recent years to Leongatha, Chadstone and Traralgon campuses had cut significantly into cash reserves, he said there were still reserves available to action transition plans.

Dr Whitley’s comments came in response to an internal GippsTAFE source’s suggestion last week the institute would struggle to afford the amount of staff redundancy packages required to keep the institute financially viable.

“We have deliberately gone down the path of indicating to all of our staff and board that the redundancy program is not going to be a wholesale operation; it will be a staged process, which will be made in reaction to the education market and enrolments as they occur.”

With only three months until the beginning of 2013 classes, the curriculum format and class offerings were still subject to enrolments, he said, with the severity of a potential third stage of redundancies becoming clear in early January.

“All of our evaluations and planning takes in as many variables right across the board as we can, but right now is about testing the market place – if we are not getting the take-up we need for our transitioned plan, we will have to go back and recast our plan to go forward.”

Dr Whitley was speaking to The Express last week as 20 individual teaching staff across Gippsland campuses were being told their positions had been terminated, in a second round of redundancies since the announcement of the government’s budget cuts in May, lifting the running total of redundancies to more than 50.

In a change of tone to previous comments made to The Express slamming the budget cuts, Dr Whitley said he “respected the reality the government needed and wanted to bring about change”. 

“As much as I have had dissatisfaction with the (State Government’s) decision, now is the time to move onto GippsTAFE’s next phase,” he said. 

“The negative media we’ve been having has not been conducive to attracting students to the institute, and we need to refocus the media machine and message so the students see the institute as a viable option moving forward.

“What this is about though is changing the focus of the media discussion so we can elevate the TAFE brand and course again.” 

He said the development of a GippsTAFE transition plan by the institute, which outlined its vision of how the institute would operate with the new budgeting reality, had been completed and delivered to the government’s TAFE transition taskforce.

Dr Whitley was told to expect a government response to the plan by the end of this week, however he would not divulge any of the plan’s finalised proposals due to a guarantee to government of confidentiality.

In September, leaked cabinet-in-confidence documents outlined transition plans by Victorian TAFEs in light of the state budget cuts, including job redundancies, course fee increases and proposed mergers between institutions, sparking outrage across the state and in the Latrobe Valley.

Dr Whitley acknowledged assertions by some GippsTAFE teaching staff they had been “left in the dark” for months over the ongoing changes. 

“We’ve been providing the information as best we possibly can, but when we are still trying to ascertain the state of play ourselves, it is difficult,” he said. 

“In any organisation that is facing change, people are wanting to know what people are saying all the time, but the reality is there has been no new information.”