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Friday, 7 September 1984
Page: 658


Senator WATSON(12.20) —Let us be quite clear about the Australian National University Amendment Bill and the Canberra College of Advanced Education Bill. These Bills are not going to strike a terrific blow for student democracy or control of student affairs; rather they will return the student bodies at the Australian National University and the Canberra College of Advanced Education to the dark days of the mid-to-late 1970s when the bulk of students witnessed their student union fees being frivously wasted or expended on non-student-related activities and programs, or such things as overseas aid for Sandanista revolutionaries.

That this Government is so concerned with repealing section 29A of the Australian National University Act and section 23A of the Canberra College of Advanced Education Act is a sad reflection on its priorities. Of all the myriad of problems which are besetting our centres for higher education, this Government has decided that the repeal of those sections proposed by these Bills is of such fundamental and everlasting importance that it displaces everything else by its magnitude. Good Heavens! Is this Government so bereft of knowledge, compassion or common sense that it is unable to grasp and grapple with the enormity of the funding problems which is crucifying the life blood of academia in this country? What are these minor problems in our universities and CAEs which pale into insignificance beside the urgent need to repeal section 29A of the Australian National University Act?

I think it will prove more than a little enlightening to many Australians if we spelt out what some of these so-called problems are. Let us look at the cost pressures on universities and CAEs. For a supposedly reformist government which prides itself on educational issues, especially tertiary educational issues, this Government's image has been tarnished, to say the least. The tremendous funding crisis now facing tertiary educational institutions does not sit at all well with the idea of the Australian Labor Party as the friend of the universities. The pre-occupation of funding research in the various research schools within ANU has meant that funds are just not becoming available for other universities and colleges. We recognise it as principally and primarily a research university. As a result, we find that facilities tend towards obsolescence in other areas which, in turn, makes such universities, et cetera, appear increasingly as unattractive propositions as far as higher research degrees are concerned.

I will illustrate this point by just one example: The Budget allocation to the ANU in 1984-85 was $134.976m. The Budget allocation in 1983 was $125.788m. The Canberra College of Advanced Education in 1984-85 received only $23.788m and the year before it got $22.437m. Last year the funds allocated to the ANU were 5.6 times those allocated to the Canberra College of Advanced Education, yet this year it grew to a rate of 7.3 times the increase to the Canberra College of Advanced Education. What sort of priority is this Government giving to the important role of colleges of advanced education when we look at that sort of imbalance? The imbalance between the two is increasing at an extremely rapid rate and to the detriment of the colleges. The allocation of funds for universities and colleges is now so disproportionate that many of the smaller campuses are really being squeezed out of existence, even though their worth in many cases is as important as the larger institutions.

Universities and colleges are dependent on government funding, but when increased funding barely manages to keep pace with the inflation rate their ability to absorb rising costs is undermined if not permanently retarded. Funding per student has been further reduced. Universities and colleges are being asked to extend their courses and facilities, yet the funding required to implement such expansion is just not forthcoming. Although the States have received only preliminary funding figures-the final figures probably will not be available until later this month-there is little doubt that funding per tertiary student has been cut in real terms. While the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Senator Ryan, who is absent from this important debate, talks blandly of increasing tertiary enrolments next year by some magical amount, no real effort is being made to ensure that such increases are workable and able to be absorbed. We cannot increase the student population without a corresponding increase in staffing levels. An increase in staffing levels is now urgently needed at almost every tertiary institution in this country. It is no simple exaggeration to say that increased work loads on lecturers and other staff, primarily brought about by a lack of adequate funding, are affecting both the health and the performance of a good many of them in a very negative manner.

This Government has made much of its commitment to increase student numbers at the tertiary level. The Minister's rhetoric concerning her Government's guidelines for disadvantaged students has been eloquent and touching even if somewhat naive. But her eloquence has not produced its rewards in performance. Senator Ryan's guidelines stress the priorities that would be given to the young , to women, to Aboriginals and to those who live in the outer suburban areas of Melbourne and Sydney and in the remote areas of Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and my State of Tasmania. Elsewhere the Minister stressed the need for extra students in science and technology and in business courses. On the face of it there is nothing incompatible between these two aims. Indeed, if there were not such a general funding crisis they could be achieved with comparative ease.

The Government, in bringing in a greater number of disadvantaged students, creates a need for increased funding of universities and colleges because of the increased attention such persons require. This has been overlooked. Similarly, science and technology courses are expensive in comparison with the arts. But funding is to be increased only marginally and, therefore, will be effective principally on low cost courses. High cost courses and high cost students, which I am referring to, demand increased levels of funding. This Government has chosen to deny the funding necessary to put its rhetoric into practice in a number of key areas.

On examining the elements of a great university a number of things really spring to mind. Firstly, it is a centre of excellence. Large numbers of post- graduate students, full research facilities for a wide range of disciplines and large numbers of overseas students ensure equality of opportunity but not necessarily of outcomes. This is where Senator Ryan is very exposed. All except the last-the outcomes-are dependent upon adequate funding without which none is really achievable.

All universities and colleges should be centres of excellence where equality of opportunity, not outcome, is promoted. That is something this Government seems unable to comprehend as it seeks to breed a generation which accepts mediocrity as not only necessary but also desirable in order to ensure an arbitrariness known as equality of outcome. What future will this country have if the Government adopts such an attitude? All these problems are besetting university life in Australia, so what does this Government do? Absolutely nothing, in a positive sense, in the educational area. Not one recipe for academic advancement has been proposed by Senator Ryan, the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women and sometimes Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. Twenty-five hundred years ago Isaiah wrote:

The voice of one crying in the wilderness.

In part, he may have foreseen the lone fight that the Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Barry Jones, has to wage in the party room of the Australian Labor Party in an attempt to shake his colleagues from their moribund state and awake in them the spark of knowledge and foresight that advanced research and development in this nation is in desperate need of government assistance. We would expect the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs at least to try to heed and acknowlege his cause. It must be said for poor Barry Jones that his cause so far has been a noble one but a losing one. Unfortunately it is likely to remain so. The Minister for Science and Technology has had to witness a funding erosion within his Department. To add to his woes he has had to witness also a funding erosion in science and technology courses at the tertiary level. The Minister has made much of his rhetoric concerning science and technology in the context of a national strategy for improving Australia's standing in this field. Funding at universities was to be the linchpin of this national strategy but yet again the rhetoric has not been supported by sufficient funding to enable it to become a reality.

The funding crisis at university level hits at not only areas of study but also those trying to graduate, where it has the biggest effect. University students, those leaders of the next generation, have not been given any support or encouragement to endure the years of study, pressure and low standard of living. The tertiary education assistance scheme is still nowhere near the level of the unemployment benefit. This is indicative of the misdirected priorities of this Government which are sinking this nation. When young people can gain greater government assistance for being unemployed-even though in the vast majority of cases such a state is not of their own making-rather than being actively and purposely engaged in study and research activity at universities, there is something decidedly wrong with this Government's priorities.

The subject of priorities of government leads me back to the Bill which we are debating. The people of Australia would be more than interested to know not only the content of the sections of the Act which it is proposed to repeal but also the reason for such a proposed repeal. In essence, some sections prevent a body of students-even if this body constitutes the elected Students Representative Council, it is elected by such a minority of the student population that it can quite justifiably be viewed as unrepresentative of the student body as a whole- from wasting the fees of those students. Section 29A (c) prevents the SRC of the Australian National University paying any funds to a national organisation of students, such as the Australian Union of Students. Moneys may be paid to such an organisation if it satisfies three reasonable criteria: Firstly, the encouragement of student sporting and recreational activities; secondly, the promotion of student interests in a particular educational, cultural or social field; and, thirdly, the promotion of the interests of post-graduate students. By no stretch of the imagination can these three criteria be said to be unreasonable in the students' interest. Similarly, by no stretch of the imagination can we claim that the existing national organisation-the Australian Union of Students-has as its principal objectives the achievement of those three goals. In actual fact, the AUS is under attack on all sides, with now only a small minority of universities and students belonging to this rather rabid organisation. The AUS has been savaged tremendously by the loss from its fold this year of Adelaide University and the University of Western Australia, and if the student body at Melbourne University had followed suit, AUS would undoubtedly have collapsed.

I was a member of the Government that implemented those sections in the relevant Acts which are planned to be repealed. I believed, and I still believe, that the amendments our Government introduced were then needed. I am firmly convinced that if these Bills pass through this chamber and effect a repeal of those amendments, we in this Parliament will have made a retrograde step.

The Australian Labor Party traditionally has an abhorrence of tertiary students paying for their education in any way. In effect it could be argued that the legislation before us today is a back-door method of compulsorily making students pay for some of their education. In other words, it is forcing a fee on students. It is imposing a levy, a tax, in an area where they have little ability to be able to be represented to say how their funds will be spent in the best and wisest manner. I recommend that these Bills be defeated for the sake of Australia's universities and the students who are enrolled at them.