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Thursday, 14 October 1999
Page: 9730

Senator TCHEN —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Senator Ellison. Will the minister advise the Senate of the Howard government's strong commitment to indigenous education and of Abstudy take-up rates, which indicate the level of participation of indigenous Australians in education.

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —I thank Senator Tchen for this question because it is a very important area. The opposition might laugh, but certainly the government do not treat this as any laughing matter. I reported earlier to the Senate an increase in the Abstudy take-up rates for the first quarter of this year. I am pleased to tell the Senate that, in relation to the June quarter, there has been an even greater take-up: some 18,254 tertiary students. That is an increase on the previous quarter by just under 2,000 students. That is a very good result indeed. But the government realise that, whilst we are proud of our achievements, there is still much to be done.

Abstudy income assistance is just one of the many ways that this government supports the achievements of educational quality for indigenous peoples. It is well known that there are lower take-up rates in relation to education in the indigenous sector than in mainstream Australia, and this has to be addressed. We have revised Abstudy to improve the targeting of assistance to those students in most need and to open up more opportunities for indigenous students to access a wider range of assistance to attain improved educational outcomes. Applications, I might point out, for 1998 rose to 57,985—just under 58,000—compared to 56,692 the previous year. So we can see a consistent increase in the take-up rate.

As well as Abstudy, this government has in place a number of other schemes to help indigenous students. We have the Higher Education Support Program, the VET sector funding arrangements, the Indigenous Education Direct Assistance Program and the Indigenous Education and Strategic Initiatives Program. These involve funding of $388 million during this financial year alone. Recently there was some criticism of our Abstudy scheme. The claim that the government was abandoning equity targets for tertiary education is incorrect. The government is committed to achieving equitable and appropriate outcomes for indigenous students. We remain strongly committed to outcomes in the indigenous sector.

The latest figures available in 1998 show the number of indigenous people enrolled in the VET sector had almost doubled over recent years. There are now some 44,000 indigenous people enrolled in VET courses, representing almost one in five adults. That is indeed a step in the right direction, but of course we are committed to doing better than that. There is also in our budget of this year a commitment for an additional $16.3 million in the next financial year for indigenous education initiatives and $1.1 billion over the next five years. Added to that, we have a number of initiatives aimed at literacy in the indigenous sector. We believe that literacy should be a target in not only the primary but also the secondary areas because this will lead to higher take-up rates of indigenous students in the primary and secondary sectors and also in the tertiary sector. We have done much in the indigenous education sector. We realise there is much to be done, but we are committed to doing that.

Senator TCHEN —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, we understand that former Senator Bob Collins is carrying out a review for the Northern Territory government. Can you inform the Senate whether there is any information in respect of that review?

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —I have stated previously that Bob Collins, a former Labor senator—and Senator Crossin might want to hear this, coming from the Northern Territory—took a great interest in indigenous education. As a result of his research he said that government measures we were taking `were absolutely on the mark'. I think that that is a ringing endorsement.