Tens of thousands of young people may have missed out on the chance to go to university or TAFE this year after their Student Payment claims were "auto-rejected" by Centrelink, insiders claim.
Federal government sources say hundreds of thousands of claims were processed in panicked haste in recent months as Centrelink bosses scrambled to pick up the pieces of another tech failure compounded by a shortage of staff to do the job properly.
But Centrelink says the applications were handled properly and continues to blame the debacle around this year's Student Payments on unforseen high demand.
Send your confidential tips to firstname.lastname@example.org
The massive delays in processing this year's student payment claims have caused widespread hardship to would-be students across Australia.
Many have missed out on the chance to study as they waited up to four months to be told if they were eligible for Student Payments, a process that is supposed to take four weeks.
The backlog for payment claims is now at about 27,500, according to Centrelink, after it peaked at about 90,000 in March several weeks into the first term of the academic year.
Centrelink has appointed a special national manager to manage the student payment crisis through a command centre – a similar reaction to that in the Brisbane floods emergency in 2011 – and drafted in at least 650 extra staff, Fairfax Media understands, to try to cope with what is being described as the agency's worst ever customer service crisis.
Centrelink and its political boss, Minister for Human Services Alan Tudge, have repeatedly said the delays were caused by "unprecedented" demand for Student Payments this year with nearly 250,000 young people lodging claims.
But departmental sources say that accurate forecasts of the demand were available and the delays were caused by the failure of the troubled "Customer First" software that was supposed to speed-up claims which was exacerbated by a shortage of public servants to process claims.
Many of the Centrelink workers drafted in to cope with the crisis are lightly trained casuals, known as (intermittent and irregular employees or IIEs) who "auto-rejected" claims, often without even checking them against the supporting documents or checking with the applicant.
As many as 30,000 applications may have been "auto-rejected".
It is also alleged the quality checking process was "turned off" to allow the backlog to be cleared quicker and insiders say young people whose claims have been rejected should appeal the decisions as soon as possible.
Fairfax Media has been told the Customer First software, which is vulnerable to crashes, takes about 50 minutes to deal with a simple Student Payment claim, a process that used to take 20 minutes.
Centrelink workers are only getting through three complex claims a day with many of those cases "failing" further along the system and having to be assessed again.
The department's communications manager Hank Jongen did not answer questions about IIE staff, the quality control system or the Customer First system.
But he did say claims were being processed on merit.
"The number of staff working on student claims has been increased fourfold," Mr Jongen said.
"There are now approximately 27,000 claims on hand, which is below the level at the same time last year.
"Trained staff are working hard to process claims as soon as possible and students can be assured that all claims are individually considered and examined on merits against the criteria.
"2016 has been consistent with previous years in that approximately 40 per cent of all student claims lodged are rejected due to not meeting the necessary criteria.
"In the future, our systems will evolve to use data from other institutions to assist in simplifying claim processing, for example, automatic matching with course data from universities."