Education Minister Adrian Piccoli last year pledged students with disabilities would not be worse off under TAFE reforms that start this month. The changes increase fees for students and force TAFE institutes to compete with private colleges for government funding.
But confusion over how exemptions are applied by cash-strapped institutes has raised concerns the disabled are being priced out of the new system and training that leads to jobs.
Assurance: NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli pledged students with disabilities would not be worse off under TAFE reforms that start this month. Photo: James Alcock
Stephanie Poleson, 44, was issued a letter before Christmas saying she must pay $2200 to complete the final year of her graphic design diploma at the Sydney Institute’s Enmore Design Centre. Living off the Disability Support Pension, the fee was unaffordable, she said.
When Ms Poleson rang a hotline, she was told by TAFE’s Sydney Institute that fee exemptions for the disabled “were gone” for diploma courses, and would only be offered for cheaper certificates.
Ms Poleson said the higher-level diploma was the qualification she needed to get a job. She is retraining on the advice of the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service, after being medically retired from Australia Post after a spinal fusion, and hopes to work from home in her new career.
“People on the DSP don’t want to sit around. They want to be engaged. This is unbelievable. It locks people out of opportunity,” she said.
The president of People With Disability, Craig Wallace, said the government should be offering education incentives to get people off the Disability Support Pension, not pricing those with disabilities out of training.
“This is a very bad message to be sending at the moment, when the federal Coalition is saying they want to cut the national welfare bill and encourage people into work,” Mr Wallace said.
People with disabilities often needed higher qualifications to find work, because many were unable to perform blue-collar jobs, he said.
After The Sun-Herald raised the case with Mr Piccoli’s office, Ms Poleson received a phone call from the Sydney Institute apologising, and saying it had been directed to waive the fee because there had been a mistake.
An education department spokesman said Ms Poleson had been given incorrect information, and students with disabilities were entitled to a fee exemption for one course a year.
“The institute is urgently reviewing its communication materials and procedures to ensure this situation does not occur again,” the spokesman said.
Ms Poleson said TAFE was “in chaos”.
The Deaf Society of NSW, meanwhile, says it has lost NSW government funding to provide Auslan training courses in 2015, under the reforms.
This is despite a shortage of Auslan interpreters, needed to assist the deaf to participate in classes.
“It seems a shame. On one side, they want people off the Disability Support Pension, but then no one is supporting them to study,” the society’s NSW chief executive, Sharon Everson, said.
The education department spokesman said some extra funding would be provided to Auslan training providers later this month.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s department has released an issues paper on vocational training that questions the future of TAFE in so-called “contestable markets” and the institutes’ ability to compete with private providers.
It found significant problems with equity, because of rising upfront fees for disadvantaged students, and cuts in government funding to TAFE.