A threat to shut down the 15-year-old outdoor education course at Blue Mountains TAFE, as part of sweeping State Government cuts to education, was a short-sighted decision say angry Mountains adventure tourism operators.
The move, leaked on a College Alumni Facebook wall last week, was met with resounding disbelief by the tourism industry and current and former students.
“The quality of the course is exceptional. This doesn’t make sense. It is the Harvard equivalent of outdoor education courses.”
Mr Jones said tourists came to the region because of the huge drawcard of adventurous activities offered by companies like his.
“If you’re going to pick between Blue Mountains and the Hunter as a destination you would pick here because you can have this flagship experience (in canyoning, abseiling and rock climbing). Imagine if they stopped teaching hospitality at Blue Mountains TAFE what the implications of that would be?”
Aidan McGarry, owner of High and Wild which has been operating in Katoomba for 22 years, agreed, saying 10-15,000 people came to the Mountains annually for these types of experiences and he was “appalled” that the decision could be made without consultation.
“There’s a flow-on effect to the wider community. It’s where we get our employees from, it’s a really specialised industry. We’re not going to have any guides. I’ve got to talk to national parks to see whether they can cancel the (necessary guides) licence.”
Twelve years ago, Ben Griggs, now 37 and living in Queensland, completed the 12-month course at a subsidised price of $180 and says it changed his life.
“To me they’re trying to save money and I appreciate that, but I just don’t think they understand the value of that leadership training,” Mr Griggs said.
“I was not a particularly useful member of society and it helped me to step up.”
The course enabled him to work for more than a decade and he still supplements his current small business income as a video operator with adventure work.
“It’s not a course you can run anywhere. I know they run outdoor rec in other places but this one is made for the Blue Mountains. The tourism industry really does use those people.”
A course teacher Adam Darragh placed the original post on the Facebook site, a site he said was set up by a former teacher. He said he understood core TAFE funding would be cut to the course “because it was one of the most expensive (due to excursions)”.
“A big question I’ve got for Roza Sage and Barry O’Farrell is do they value jobs because this course has a high vocational outcome? We have organisations asking for our graduates before they have finished.”
Current course participant Tim Williams who hoped to get his diploma next year is “shattered” by the move and worried for other students, some who have come as far as Western Australia, to do the course.
“It is the only college in Australia offering all the guiding skill areas I needed to gain employment here in the Mountains. It’s really shaken us up. The staff within Blue Mountains TAFE’s Outdoor Recreation department are the most ethical and inspiring teachers and the wider community benefits as TAFE runs free and low cost guided tours for youth at risk groups and schools.”
Tourism operators told the Gazette that other courses were available at Lithgow and Sydney but none covered the final Certificate Four advanced requirements in abseiling, canyoning and rock climbing — skills the guides need.
“Ninety per cent of staff up and down Katoomba Street working in abseiling, rockclimbing and canyoning have done this course and were trained at the (western Sydney) Institute (based at Wentworth Falls),” Mr Jones, who is also a board member of the NSW Outdoor Recreation Industry Council and a director of Blue Mountains Lithgow Oberon Tourism, said.
“Outdoor recreation state-wide is an expanding industry and qualified staff are already being sought from interstate and overseas to fill the gaps.”
TAFE spokesman Craig McCallum said TAFE had made no decision on the course but he did not confirm whether it would run next year.
He said they were looking at the best ways to respond to the education cuts.
“We are in the process of consulting with our staff as to the best ways the Institute can respond to reform changes announced by the Minister for Education on September 11. TAFE NSW - WSI is also awaiting the final recommendations from the Smart and Skilled skills reform . . . to meet the current and future jobs and skills needs in western Sydney and NSW.
“The Facebook page to which you refer is not an official page of TAFE NSW -WSI and is not administered by the Institute.”
Randall Walker, Chairman of Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon Tourism estimated guided, active adventure and tour experiences contributed about $25m of the $500m annual tourism industry but added he “had no reason to believe the department was closing”.
Blue Mountains MP Roza Sage responded to criticisms by saying she had “sent through to the minister’s office concerns from the community that have been raised with me”.
“Any changes will be introduced after a period of engagement and consultation with relevant staff and other stakeholders . . . the advice that I have received is that all courses are being reviewed, and at this stage there is no decision made.”
Mr Darragh said he was “excited if the decision hasn’t been finalised”.