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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2728


Mrs SULLIVAN(5.36) —I can only hope that in private the advocacy of the honourable member for Lilley (Mrs Darling) is a bit more effective than in public. Whilst I do not for one minute suggest that she is not sincere in what she said, she was not entirely factual and she also omitted some rather important points. For example, I would have expected a little more of an exposition on the subject of Austudy. I will come to that point in a moment. In relation to my own experience as a member of parliament of the sort of problems my constituents are having, I am sure they are problems that would be experienced by all members, including the honourable member for Lilley. I am surprised that such easy words were spoken about Austudy by the honourable member when there are such difficulties with the program particularly for secondary school students.

I was also more than a little surprised when she said that the inequalities between the sexes have been addressed by the Hawke Government, and have been redressed. Reference to some very basic documents on the subject of retention rates shows that what she said is not supported in fact. I seek leave to have incorporated in Hansard a table from a Commonwealth Schools Commission document entitled `In the National Interest-Secondary Education and Youth Policy in Australia'.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

Table 8.1

APPARENT RETENTION RATES, AUSTRALIA, 1975-1986

Year

Apparent retention rates to

final year, all schools

(per cent)

Males

Females

Persons

1975...

34.6

33.6

34.1

1976...

34.6

35.3

34.9

1977...

34.0

36.6

35.3

1978...

33.1

37.3

35.1

1979...

32.4

37.2

34.7

1980...

31.9

37.3

34.5

1981...

32.0

37.8

34.8

1982...

32.9

39.9

36.3

1983...

37.5

43.9

40.6

1984...

42.1

48.0

45.0

1985...

43.5

49.5

46.4

1986...

45.6

52.1

48.7

Source: Commonwealth Department of Education


Mrs SULLIVAN —That table shows that the participation rate for females in school education passed the rate for males in 1976 and that since then it has stayed well ahead. In fact, the gap grew from 1976 to 1983. There was a very substantial improvement in female retention rates throughout the Fraser years. The male retention rates, of course, have fluctuated to some extent. They declined, and then started to rise again in 1983, which is to be welcomed. I think there are probably a number of reasons for that. It could not be suggested that all credit is due to the Hawke Government for the improved retention rates between males and females, because in 1983, the year in which this Government came to office, the difference was 6.4 per cent. That difference has been substantially maintained. So increases in retention rates have not been greater for females than for males under the Hawke Government. Nevertheless, I would be one of the first to welcome any increases in retention rates in our education system and that increase has been steady.

I also wonder how many more wearying words will have to be said in this place about fictitious policies. The honourable member for Lilley referred to a Liberal policy document that was leaked and which contained some reference to expenditure in education. Time and time again the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) has indicated that that document had absolutely no status as a policy document; in fact, it cannot be called Liberal Party policy. It should also be pointed out that since the Hawke Government came to power, items of expenditure in the annual Budget, education has fallen from third to fifth highest ranking. So in comparative expenditure terms the education budget has not done as well as it was doing under the Fraser Government.

I would also like to say a few words about the participation and equity program. I say to the honourable member for Lilley that if the Hawke Government believes that PEP is so good, why did it decide two years ago to reduce funding and to spread the funding for 1986 over 1986 and 1987? That was a matter that came in for quite some criticism at the time. I would agree with the honourable member that PEP funding is good. Of course, a number of programs of the Fraser Government came under the umbrella of PEP. The program is good, as far as we can observe from its operation in our own electorates. PEP is operating in some very needy areas in my own electorate. I welcome the fact that it is being directed towards students in the Beenleigh area in particular, who are very disadvantaged young people not only in terms of income but also in terms of family background and life experience. PEP gives those young people a chance of some achievement in the education system. Also, in the case to which I have just referred, it takes young people who are right off the track educationally and makes a worthwhile effort to put them back on the track, giving them some chance of living a far better life than they appeared to be heading for. A thorough-going review of PEP is under way at the moment and we all look forward to the assessments that will come out of that.

I cannot stress strongly enough how important I believe education to be in Australia. My life prior to coming into parliament, apart from my pre-school years, was essentially spent in education in one form or another. One of the things that I have welcomed in recent years has been a more informed and pointed debate on education in this Parliament. As a person interested in education in Australia, I have lamented the low retention rates in our education system and the apparent unawareness of Australians at large not only of how important education is to the individual but also of how critical it will be to the successful social and economic survival of individuals in the future.

There has been a belated recognition by Australians of the importance of education. In some ways that recognition has been not only belated but also quite painful. For many it has been thrust on them by the realities of modern life and the effects of the technological revolution. Those effects are manifested in many ways. People who understood the implications in terms of employment prospects spent years trying to persuade parents that it was worth the effort to encourage their children to gain more education. They tried for years to persuade people in the education system that it was worth their while to persist and to strive for better qualifications and to persuade everyone to recognise that current qualifications were not necessarily the meal ticket that they may have been in the past. All of us have to realise that education is something that we may have to be involved in more than once in a lifetime. The technological revolution has lifted the levels of education and training required for entry and re-entry to the work force. Comparatively higher youth wages in the last 15 years have also meant that employers have been looking for better educated and better skilled prospective young employees. The employer is not so prepared to pay comparatively higher wages now for the lesser skilled young person. Without a doubt, some of the problems with the youth employment situation arise because our young people are not leaving the education system with a level of education or skills that make them attractive to employers. In the past, young people could fairly easily get jobs of a low skilled or unskilled nature. Those jobs are now shrinking. They are being taken over by machines. Semi-skilled and higher skilled jobs demand a higher and higher level of education and skills.

There is also a change in the employment patterns of married women, compounded very much by the rising rate of divorce in this country. Not only are more married women wanting to enter or re-enter the work force after marriage; more need to enter the work force as they find themselves unexpectedly the breadwinners responsible for rearing children. All too often those women find that the skills which made them employable when they left school are no longer relevant and will no longer enable them to earn a satisfactory income, and have to resort to social security. These women get into a vicious circle. The re-entry to the work force of those women and the re-entry to the work force of people whose skills have become redundant are urgent social issues. The extension of access to education is, therefore, greatly to be desired.

Unfortunately, there is a limit to what the public purse can pay. Those of us who would like to sit down and write a manifesto of the ideal educational situation in terms of availability of education, and the support that is given to it, know only too well that this country cannot support that ideal from the public purse. Of course, this is a lesson that the Government learnt long ago. Coinciding with the need to put a ceiling on education funding is the belated recognition by Australians of the need for higher levels of education. Also coinciding with that need is a bulge in the number of people involved in education. It is absolutely tragic that education is not available to young people who want to gain education as well as older people who need to better their education. This country will not survive unless it can move with the technological revolution and create structures which give access to education.

There are limited prospects for real expansions in public funding of tertiary education. It is therefore incomprehensible to many why the Labor Party is so manic in its opposition to the Liberal Party's tertiary education policy. It is doubly incomprehensible when we look at the policies that the Government has pursued in relation to new enrolments by overseas students. The Government quite properly has given overseas students the opportunity to come here to purchase education. Only today in the newspaper I read a statement by the Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins), who represents the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) in this place, about how much money this arrangement has earned for the country. Of course, some of that money is in the form of what students spend while supporting themselves in this country. However, he included a substantial component for fees.

Growth in the tertiary education structure is undoubtedly partly due to the additional numbers of students who are coming from overseas. It is incomprehensible why the Government, whilst recognising that students from overseas can be accommodated as fee paying students in our tertiary institutions, will not recognise that there is at least an equal demand for education from Australian students who would be prepared to pay for their education. The institutions can certainly cope. In fact, I believe that the institutions would welcome the addition of fee paying students to the numbers of publicly funded students that they already have. It is sheer political and dogmatic bloody-mindedness which stops this move and which leads the Labor Party to criticise this part of the tertiary education policy which the Liberal Party has announced for universities and colleges.

During the debate there has also been some comment on the effect of the administration charge on students and there has been some reference to a report entitled `Higher Education Administration Charge Monitoring Committee Report' dated April 1987 from which I, too, wish to quote. Time is limited for me so I shall quote but briefly, but some of my comments will link into what I have just said about overseas students, because, to my knowledge, the effect on overseas students has not been referred to in this debate and I think it ought to be. It has been pointed out that this report shows that there has been an increase in the number of full time students in higher education institutions in Australia this year but a decline in the number of part time and external students. The quick conclusion to be drawn is that the administration charge has made full time education available to more students. It has created additional places but it has reduced the real access of part time and external students because of the cost burden, and that thesis is borne out by the report. The increase in full time students, though, surely is due in some part to the fact that there are now a number of full fee paying students in our tertiary institutions-that is, of course, overseas students. However, the rise in the number of Australian students indicates that the demand is there and there are those who will take the opportunity if they can. One study quoted in this report relating to the effect of the administration fee on part time students found:

. . . that about 7% of these students did not continue in 1987, citing the administration charge as the reason.

Another study relating to Western Australia found:

. . . of those individuals who had rejected a first round offer, those whose preferred mode of study was part-time or external viewed the charge as a much more significant factor in their decision than did those whose preferred mode of study was full-time.

I say again that I have made numerous representations on behalf of the sorts of people that this report points to, who consider themselves to be disadvantaged by the fee and who have not been able to continue with their studies. In particular, I highlight the position of a married woman who is a fully dependent spouse, dependent on her husband to pay the fee. The imposition of this fee has been a major disincentive. The report lists other categories of students who have been discouraged from continuing their studies and those have been referred to particularly by the honourable member for Tangney (Mr Shack).

In the couple of minutes that are left to me I must make a reference to the subject of Austudy, because the difficulties, the problems, and its administration for high school students in my electorate, have been cruel to witness. Of course, in previous debates there has been reference to the fact that because the Government chose, for no reason that is comprehensible, to set a minimum age of 16, Queensland students have been particularly disadvantaged. A significant number of Queensland students in year 11 are 15-year-olds and difficulties have been created for them. However, the delays and confusion that have followed in Australia's administration for those who could have been eligible have been unbelievable. There have been substantial delays. There has been a reference in this House to recordings on telephone inquiry numbers and visitors' inquiry numbers for Austudy which have stated: `You will be all right in a couple of month's time.

Families just have not been able to maintain their youngsters at school so easily. This is a real shame when we consider that this Government is one that talks so much about the need to keep the financially disadvantaged student in education. That desire to support them is one that the Opposition endorses. Those very students who would be tempted to, and encouraged by their parents to leave school and to enter the work force have been treated the worst by the sheer incompetence of the administration of this new Austudy for secondary school students. The incompetence that has been encountered by advice being given to students-which turned out to be incorrect-that they would be eligible for a payment if they continued in education and who, finally, have been told that they were not, by which time they missed opportunities for apprenticeships and so on, has been just dreadful, and that is a reflection on the Minister. These things have been pointed out as matters of urgency time and again to the Department of Education and, in particular, to the Minister, and they have not been addressed. Unfortunately, judging from some of the contributions to this debate, it appears that they have been ignored. The Opposition is supporting these Bills but it believes that the Government is not addressing a number of very substantial and real issues in education in Australia today.