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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1536

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs)(12.12) —in reply-I rise to respond to the points made by honourable senators in debate on the three education funding Bills which are before us-the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Bill 1984, the States Grant (Tertiary Education Assistance) Bill 1984 and the States Grants (Education Assistance- Participation and Equity) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1984-and in doing so to make some comments on matters raised. Clearly, the Bills are supported. I thank the Opposition and the Australian Democrats for their support. However, a number of matters have been raised. Amendments have been moved to the motion for the second reading of two of the Bills and one Committee stage amendment has been foreshadowed. I will deal briefly with the matters that have been raised and then with the second reading amendments, which are not acceptable to the Government.

Senator Baume raised the question of Australian Labor Party policy which was formulated in July this year. He expressed the view that there was some conflict or insecurity because the legislation before us is not exactly in terms of the Labor Party platform. I simply point out to Senator Baume and to all people who are obviously not clear about this matter that it is the job of the ALP Federal Conference to formulate the principles on which our Government's programs will be based. Those principles have been formulated. The legislation that we now have before us is our Government's application of those principles in legislation, policies and programs. The main thrust of the Labor Party's education platform is twofold. The first is to set out very clearly the primary obligation of governments to government schools and the obligation on all governments to take whatever steps are available to them to ensure that the education provided at government schools, which is of course available to all comers, is of the highest possible standard. It will be clear from the different array of funding arrangements set out in the legislation that that principle has been implemented, and implemented very strongly.

The second thrust of the Federal platform concerns schools that operate outside the government school system-non-government schools. There is a clear commitment to assist those schools on the basis of need so that children attending those schools can have satisfactory educational standards. Again, the introduction of a new system of 12 funding categories whereby schools in the non-government sector will receive funds is an implementation of that principle. Any queries that might remain in the mind of Senator Baume or of any of the persons on whose behalf he was purporting to speak should be cleared up entirely by the legislation, which is our Government's expression of the principles contained in the Federal platform.

Senator Baume also expressed his opposition to any constraint whatsoever being placed on new schools developing outside the government sector. Indeed, one of the second reading amendments addresses that. I shall comment on both of those at this stage. I think it is really quite nonsensical for representatives of any political party to get up and maintain that there should be no restrictions of any kind on any initiative to establish a school in the non-government sector. Quite clearly such constraints do exist, and exist for very good reasons.

The first and major constraint of course is that schools must receive registration from the appropriate bodies, which in this country are the State departments of education or, in the case of the Australian Capital Territory, my Department in co-operation with Australian Capital Territory education bodies. Quite clearly it has never been the case under Liberal governments or any other kind of government in this country that a group of people could establish a school and receive public funding for that school without meeting certain educational criteria such as health standards and so forth. That is the first and most obvious way in which constraints are placed on any group desiring to set up a school.

Of course, the States themselves wish to improve the registration procedures for schools. Evidence of that can be seen in a recent report of the Australian Education Council, the council of education Ministers, which made a number of recommendations whereby States could take better steps to ensure that schools that receive registration, thereby becoming eligible for public funding, are indeed offering a proper standard of education to the children who attend those schools. I look forward to seeing a higher standard of registration implemented by State authorities throughout Australia.

It is, of course, also the case that no government could sensibly say that any school can be set up and be able to receive funds to the extent that it wants to receive them. Every portfolio has its budget restrictions and every area of public spending has huge demands made on it. In fact the thrust of the very few criticisms made in the course of this debate about the Government's education policies and the legislation is that we are not spending enough. I think that Senator Macklin's criticisms really amounted to that-that he would like to see more money spent on education, with more places and more programs and so forth. So would I. Every Minister in the Government would welcome the opportunity of having more funds and resources available to do more things. Clearly we are limited by budgetary constraints.

Senator Macklin will not have forgotten that when our Government took office just 18 months ago we had a huge national debt and a deficit of $9.5 billion. We had huge inescapable demands on public expenditure mainly caused by the dreadful crisis of unemployment. There were other inevitable and inescapable demands on public expenditure in the social security area and, indeed, in the education area and the public housing area. In order to go some way towards meeting all of those very urgent and legitimate demands on public expenditure and at the same time reduce the deficit, which was causing such a drain on public resources in debt servicing and so on, and in order to give to the overtaxed workers of Australia some modicum of tax reform and, as well, to keep the prices and incomes accord in place so that Australia would not be subjected to an inflationary round of wage increases, certain decisions had to be taken. As far as the education portfolio was concerned those decisions meant that less money was allocated than would have been allocated in the best of all possible worlds.

That is not to say that we have not increased very substantially and very effectively education expenditure in all of the crucial areas. In fact in every area and every level of education we have provided for substantial real increases in funding. The only area of education expenditure in which there will not be real increases is those non-government schools categorised as well above community standards and which, while retaining a minimum grant, will not receive any real increases over the funding period. I do not think anyone could argue that that was anything other than a fair and proper decision.

Senator Teague —I would argue that.

Senator RYAN —Senator Teague would argue that, but it is not an argument I am persuaded by. All other schools, both government and non-government, will receive real increases of a most substantial kind. The tertiary sector also has received real increases of a substantial kind. There will be many more places in the academic and general staffing area, not, of course, as Senator Macklin said, as many as the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission recommended or as many as the councils of the Commission set out as ideal, but certainly a substantial and overwhelming improvement on what happened in this country for seven years under the Fraser Government. Because there are these restrictions in terms of budgetary realities it is simply not possible to say that every school that starts must receive maximum funding, no matter what its circumstances. Therefore , there are new requirements for the development of new non-government schools insofar as their eligibility for Commonwealth assistance is concerned. I am pleased to see that most of those recommendations have been accepted by the Opposition.

Senator Baume and Senator Teague again raised the question of the phasing out of the special assistance to the university colleges and colleges of residence in some colleges of advanced education. I have explained publicly on many occasions and, indeed, in this chamber what the effect of that policy will be. It will be to free funds, $10m in fact, from a program that was not needs based- while it did give some benefit to some needy students it certainly excluded most needy students from any assistance at all-to a program aimed at giving accommodation assistance to all needy students.

Instead of only some halls of residence receiving accommodation assistance we will fund all institutions, including all CAEs. This is particularly crucial since the growth in tertiary numbers substantially will be in the CAE sector. We will give all CAEs and all universities access to that fund so that they can make emergency loans to students having difficulty in meeting their accommodation expenses. They may be students who are in halls of residence. I think Senator Teague wanted some reassurance on that point. I accept that there are some students living in halls of residence who find difficulty in meeting their accommodation expenses and who will continue to find difficulty. They will now be eligible for assistance. Furthermore, students not living in halls of residence but living in some other form of accommodation and who up to now have had no accommodation assistance at all will be eligible. I remind Senator Teague , who I know has a very deep concern in this matter, that the increases in the tertiary education assistance scheme allowance for those getting the maximum living away from home rate should more than cover any increases in fees at the halls of residence. However, I will not speak any further on that because I think the explanation is clear. I also remind Senator Teague that the guidelines for each institution's operation of its own funds are now being negotiated between CTEC and representatives of the institutions. Of course, as soon as those guidelines are available they will be made public.

Senator Baume also addressed attention to the fact that concern has been expressed in the tertiary sector, particularly by unions in that sector, to the effect that the level of funding provided may not be adequate. The answer to that is that we believe it is functional for institutions to be able to operate and take in extra students at the level that we have allocated. We also accept that it may be necessary to supplement some institutions and some faculties that operate in a more expensive way than others in the course of the triennium. However, before we make any decisions about supplementation we have asked the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission under the chairmanship of Hugh Hudson to report to us again on real student costs in a more definitive way than has happened to date and in a way that gives us some indication as to the variation in costs for students in tertiary institutions. Of course, those variations are very large. The cost of putting a student through a veterinary science course or medical course is perhaps twice or three times the cost of putting a student through a law degree or an arts degree. So when we are talking in terms of average per student cost we are talking in terms of a very crude average indeed.

The Government has not found it helpful in making funding decisions to have available only crude indications of cost. We are seeking to get a more precise and comprehensive picture of the costs of educating students in different kinds of tertiary institutions and courses. On receipt of that report the Government will be in a position to consider possible supplementation throughout the rest of the triennium. What we have done in these Bills-this cannot be stressed too much-is to return to triennial funding so that all institutions will now know that they have a triennial commitment at a certain level of funding for the students they have now, and for the progress of those students through to the end of their degrees. I think that the institutions appreciate that form of security.

Similarly, a minimum triennial program is set out for capital funding, of which the details are known. Again, we hope to be in a position to make supplementations throughout the triennium, but at least there is a three-year building program which is most welcomed by institutions after the dearth of capital assistance they had to endure under the Fraser Government. I remind the Senate, too, that retrospective cost supplementation was introduced in our last Budget so that institutions, although they have difficulties and experience backlogs in capital and equipment, are in a much more stable and secure position than they have been since 1975. That security and stability will be built on as the economy permits.

I would like to direct attention to the amendments to the second reading motion . One amendment suggests that the Senate:

supports the principle of freedom of choice in education and the right of all parents to be supported in that choice; and deplores the restriction on the free development of non-Government schools as an expression of the will of parents.

That amendment is not acceptable. Clearly, the present Government has responsibly recognised the fact that parents make different kinds of choices with regard to their children's schooling. We have funded those choices very substantially indeed, as I have pointed out, with real increases in most of the non-government sector. But a completely open-handed, libertarian, no budget, no registration, no standards kind of statement such as that would not be regarded by the Government as a responsible statement that would be of any assistance to parents at all.

The second amendment to the second reading motion calls for a change in the Government's decision about the funding of halls of residence, and also suggests that the Senate:

believes that the ministerial directions of variation contained in this legislation should be not only laid before Parliament but also subject to parliamentary disallowance.

The two parts of that amendment are also unacceptable to the Government. The one concerning student residences is unacceptable for the reasons I have given. The second part of it is unacceptable for reasons I shall outline in detail in the Committee stage, because I understand there is another more detailed amendment to be dealt with then. For this reason the Government in this legislation relating to tertiary education is setting out a three-year program so that the minimum level of funds for each institution is determined for three years. What the institutions receive in this legislation is determined by student intakes and total enrolments. However, the Government needs some capacity to readjust the funding at the margin in cases where there are changes in these factors-for example, if there is a fall off in enrolments, or where an institution agrees to take in extra students and does not do so. For reasons such as changes in the operation of an institution, it may be necessary to transfer funding from that institution to another institution.

Senator Peter Baume —There is no argument.

Senator RYAN —I am pleased that Senator Baume says that there is no argument. When that decision is taken according to the legislation now before the Senate, it will be made public and will be laid before the Parliament. The decision will be taken only after advice from the Tertiary Education Commission and consultation with the relevant State authorities affected by the decision. For the transfer of the power to be effective, institutions must be able to react promptly and confidently to any transfer authorised by the Minister in the expectation that transference of funds will go ahead. If the Opposition amendment were to succeed, if a threat of disallowance were to hang over the heads of institutions for up to 45 sitting days-and of course the way it works out that period could stretch into months-we believe that the institutions could be seriously destabilised.

I recognise that the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills recommended that the right of disallowance should be incorporated with regard to any such decisions. Quite regularly we accept the views of that Committee, but in this case I think that Committee has underestimated the administrative difficulties that institutions would experience if, on the one hand, they are told by the Minister that they are to receive an extra appropriation of funds and will be able to employ more staff at a time in the academic year that suits them, but on the other hand realise that they may suddenly lose those funds at any time in the next few months. I do not regard that as being in the interests of stability and the efficient use of resources by institutions. I would not think that either Senator Macklin or Senator Baume would have any interest in destabilising institutions. I doubt that there would be any capacity for the Minister, and certainly there would be no desire, to make other than a proper decision in a transfer of funds between institutions because the procedure is so public.

If any improper kind of transfer were suggested, it would be known publicly and institutions, unions and senators would make their views known. It seems to me that although the principle of parliamentary scrutiny and disallowance of regulations or decisions is not normally a matter on which we have any argument, in this case I ask the Opposition and Senator Macklin to consider the difficulties that will be caused to institutions which apparently expect to receive more funds but in fact may not. If the Opposition wishes to persist with this amendment in its present form in the Committee stage, I will explain in more detail the technical difficulties that will be created for the Government.

The Bills before the Senate today represent a major commitment by this Government to a number of new initiatives in education. Senator Macklin asked where were the radical changes and reforms one might expect of a Labor Government. I would point Senator Macklin to those new initiatives and reforms which are peculiarly those of a Labor Government. That can be observed by the fact that they are attracting a great deal of criticism. Our whole concept of improving participation and equity is one that non-Labor forces in this country have chosen to be very critical of. In particular, when the Government speaks of improving access by disadvantaged groups to complete their secondary education and to all forms of higher education, it is criticised by the extreme conservatives on the grounds that such increased access will cause a deterioration of standards and so on. I am sure that Senator Macklin is familiar with these tedious arguments that are trotted out every time the Government suggests that students from disadvantaged backgrounds should have a better chance than they have had previously.

I say to Senator Macklin when he asks where is the difference that perhaps the greatest difference is in the commitment of our Government not only to improve the number of places available in secondary and tertiary education but also to improve the quality that is available to students. The Government has done that not only through a number of programs, funds for which are provided in this legislation, but also in the special initiatives with regard to Aboriginal students, students from socio-economically disadvantaged areas and so forth, through programs such as the participation and equity program and the new basic learning program. This is also being done through the new inquiry to be undertaken by the Tertiary Education Commission into the use of new technologies to improve access and equity in higher education, and in TAFE. I do not think even Senator Macklin could claim that any of these things are initiatives that could have been expected from a conservative government. Indeed, the country had to wait seven years for a Labor Government for these initiatives to be developed , funded, set up and, as we now see, implemented.

Senator Teague —What about the new amount of $20m in all of that?

Senator RYAN —For what?

Senator Teague —For the PEP.

Senator RYAN —The PEP program has received additional funds. It is a triennial program. At this stage I would say that the funding is adequate because the machinery is still being developed. Because it is a participatory program, a decentralised program, which works mainly through representative State committees, which in turn work with designated schools to develop programs. It really is not the kind of development that can deliver the results in a few months. There have been some delays in some areas of the program but the money and the structure are there. I believe that the initiative and the creativity on the part of teachers and parents are there and that we will see the fruits of it . It may be a program that we will wish to supplement in the ongoing years. In conclusion, I thank the Opposition and the Australian Democrats for their support. The amendments moved by the Opposition are not acceptable. I commend the Bills to the Senate.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! I will now put the amendments which have been moved to the motion for the second reading of this legislation.

Senator Macklin —Mr Deputy President, I do not see how the questions relating to both of these amendments, which relate to separate Bills, can be put together because we wish to support one and not the other. It will be very difficult for us.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Peter Baume had leave to move them both together, which was not denied by the Australian Democrats. To avoid confusion, I will put the questions separately on each paragraph of the amendment.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be added by paragraph (a) (Senator Peter Baume's amendment) be added.

Amendment negatived.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be added by paragraph (b) (Senator Peter Baume's amendment) be added.

Amendment agreed to.

Original question, as amended, resolved in the affirmative.

Bills read a second time.