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Monday, 8 October 1984
Page: 1365


Senator PETER BAUME —My question is directed to the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs. It relates to the Minister's espousal of means towards more equal outcomes of education. Has she seen the suggestion attributed to the Chairman of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission that the higher school certificate marks of certain disadvantaged students should be augmented artificially? That is a matter rather similar to the exercise carried out under her portfolio in 1983, when women students in the Australian Capital Territory had their marks augmented solely on the basis of their gender. Will she assure the Senate that whatever steps are taken to facilitate the entry of the disadvantaged, whether this be by mature age entry or other special entry, or enclave programs, et cetera, there will be no artificial non-academic adjustment of student marks obtained in an examination as important as the higher school certificate?


Senator RYAN —I do not know why Senator Peter Baume asks me to give those sorts of assurances, since he will be very well aware that it is not the role of the Commonwealth Minister for Education to undertake assessments of students for entry into colleges of advanced education or universities. As he knows very well , those institutions establish their own entry criteria, and it is not our Government's intention to change that situation-which does not alter the fact that public debate and discussion about who gets into university and who does not get into university, and whether the present arrangements are equitable and make the best use of our available talent, can go ahead. Of course those subjects can be discussed. There seems to be some fundamental opposition to any genuine discussion or debate about legitimate issues in education in this country on the part of the Opposition. I am not surprised, since in the present Opposition's period of office it showed absolutely no capacity for policy development or reform in any of the areas of great concern to the public.

The other very interesting thing about the stance that Senator Baume likes to adopt publicly when discussions about entrance criteria or assessment criteria enter the public domain is the stance that everything is absolutely fair and equal the way that it operates now. Senator Baume seems to think that there is an absolute, unavoidable, irresistible objectivity about the fact that one student might get a certain tertiary entrance score in the higher school certificate examination in New South Wales and another student might get another . He seems to think that there is total objectivity prevailing when one student from out in the western suburbs of Sydney from a disadvantaged background, perhaps from a non-English speaking family, scores 365 marks in the HSC and a student up on the North Shore of Sydney, where Senator Baume lives, who has been to one of the best resourced schools in the country and comes from a middle- class family with all the support and back-up that such families are able to provide, gets 365 marks. Senator Baume seems to think that the two outcomes are totally and absolutely equivalent. Those of us who have given a little more thought to the social circumstances in which education can flourish know that that is not the case. Those of us who have given thought to the current situation know that there are very serious distortions and imbalances in the way that students in this country become eligible for higher education.

It is not the intention of our Government to interfere with the way in which institutions decide to assess students. However, we believe that it is in the interests of improving equity and quality of education to accept, and indeed to facilitate, public debate. Of course, I was very interested in the remarks made by the Chairman of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, Mr Hudson. I am sure that honourable senators were also interested in them. Because they were printed only in very abbreviated form in the newspaper I would like to add some amplification to them which Mr Hudson has provided. He points out:

The conclusion that students from lower socio-economic groups perform marginally better at universities and colleges than those with equivalent entry scores from higher socio-economic groups is based on work published by Terence Dunn in the 'Journal of Education' in 1982. He did a sample survey of students at the University of Melbourne. His work confirms the fact that students from lower socio-economic groups normally have greater difficulty in studying at home and experience less supportive parental and peer group attitudes towards tertiary education. In addition, they normally attend schools which are less well-organised in preparing students for public examinations.

I have made it clear in any comment that public examination arrangements and admission practices are a matter for the States. However, it is worth noting that over the last dozen years or so substantial changes have taken place through higher education institutions allowing alternative methods of entry and through the introduction, or partial introduction, of school assessment. At all educational levels it is readily acknowledged that special arrangements must be made for Aboriginal students-the extreme of socio-economic disadvantage. The fundamental point is that the need for special arrangements does not stop there but should extend into those areas of socio-economic disadvantage within our community which, while not as serious as those experienced by Aboriginal students, are still significant.

It is quite clear that Mr Hugh Hudson, the Chairman of the Commission, was not seeking to usurp the authority of the States or of institutions in this matter. I believe he was absolutely proper in drawing to public attention the facts that are very well known to researchers in this area which are that students from poorer backgrounds have much more difficulty in achieving the necessary scores to get into higher education institutions and that that difficulty is not related to their ability or to their motivation. In fact, as the study that Mr Hudson referred to pointed out, such students actually do better than their marks indicate. The reason for that is quite clear. Because they have had to struggle and to overcome those difficulties they are obviously well able to deal with the challenges of higher education.

I think it would be a great relief and a very welcome change for the education community if Senator Baume, instead of nitpicking about peripheral issues, addressed himself to the real issues confronting people administering education and formulating education policy such as the issue of quality which we want to improve for all students and the issue of equity which, if not of great interest to the Liberal Party of Australia, is certainly of fundamental interest to our Party and to our Government.