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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2344


Senator MARGETTS (6.51 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the document.

Mr Acting Deputy President, the Greens welcome the report of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, NBEET, and the Higher Education Council, HEC, which reviews the funding allocations set out in the ministerial statement `Higher education funding for the 1994-96 triennium'. The report by NBEET and the HEC make some salient observations about the trends in funding higher education places and makes some concerned comments about access to clinical training in health fields.

  The Greens concur with the criteria for the allocation of growth funds: they should be targeted to regions with high population growth and low tertiary education participation. We must make sure that there is access to student places in regions where participation needs to be increased. It is necessary that we take a more proactive role in socio-economically disadvantaged areas to balance the current majority middle class patronage of our tertiary institutions.

  If we are to encourage participation in disadvantaged regions, we must look at the problem holistically. The provision of places alone will not solve the problem but is one step towards it. We need to review the economic burdens accorded to these students that act as a barrier to taking up and finishing a tertiary education. Austudy is necessary to these students but it puts them below the poverty line. It is not even on a par with the dole and does not have a rent assistance component, which would assist students living in areas like Sydney and Melbourne where there is a high cost of living.

  The targeting of school leavers has its problems, which NBEET and the HEC have acknowledged. Their report quite rightly says:

School leavers are not the only group of students who enter higher education for the first time and targets for school leavers may disadvantage those other first timers, such as mature age entrants, many of whom are under 30 years of age.

The Greens concur with this proposition. We also add that many of these mature age entrants are women who are trying to get back into the work force and many are credit transfer students from other colleges and the TAFE system.

  In the government's efforts to make intakes favour school leavers, it has taken places away from other worthy students. This is part of the system that operates with the current budget process—giving to one group by taking away from another. In Western Australia last year, quotas for school leavers were higher than demand and universities had to let in students on lower tertiary entrance scores to fill the places. This worked to the disadvantage of mature age and credit transfer entrants who themselves deserve affirmative action.

  We should be investigating the quotas for mature age and credit transfer students as a percentage of the commencing undergraduate load. However, as the council rightly points out, quotas can set rigid targets for universities which may inappropriately affect the academic work of those institutions. Perhaps we could look at encouraging mature age and credit transfer students by setting up a national credit bank system and/or a recognition of prior learning pilot program to help mature age people with experience to get credits in courses.

  I was surprised to read in the statement on higher education for the 1994-96 triennium that the Commonwealth is approaching the limit of its capacity to expand publicly funded places in higher education. I was surprised because the defence portfolio underspent $500 million in the 1993-94 financial year and that money could have been transferred to social services. I must say that there were quick moves within the defence portfolio to spend that money.

  We must make sure that the government continues to maintain public funding to ensure the integrity of our tertiary institutions and to ensure that they do not become the lackeys of business when it comes to the quality of education and research they deliver. These days, the government is only providing 66 per cent of total university income. Students deserve a well-rounded education and not a solely technical one.

  Finally, looking at the criteria for shifting currently allocated student places, we should reprioritise the criteria to emphasise equity group progression and completion rates, quality of provision and graduate employment outcomes. We should allocate places not only on the basis of meeting school leaver targets but on the basis of equity of disadvantaged groups as well.