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Wednesday, 8 May 1985
Page: 1538

Senator PUPLICK(4.04) —At Question Time today Senator Ryan, the Minister for Education, was kind enough to welcome me back to this chamber. She reminded me, in I suppose one has to say a maternal fashion, that certain things had changed in the last three years in the operation and funding of schools in Australia. What has not changed in the last three years is the lack of intellectual honesty on the part of the Minister and her propensity to misrepresent, deliberately and malevolently, the views expressed by the Opposition, to impute to the Opposition and to Senator Peter Baume in particular views that he does not hold, as if the principle of repeating the untruths often enough and shrilly enough will somehow substitute for confronting the arguments which the Opposition and its spokesman, Senator Peter Baume, have put critically of the Minister's administration of the education portfolio.

I give three examples from today's comments by Senator Ryan in response to Senator Baume's speech which indicate what I mean. The first concerns the accusation that Senator Baume, or the Opposition in general, is in the process of trying to undermine the public education system. Compared with Senator Ryan, I suppose Senator Baume and I suffer from a considerable handicap and disadvantage. We both attended state schools. The commitment we have, and the commitment I have in particular, to the maintenance of the highest standards and the highest degree of quality of education in the state school system cannot be reflected upon by Senator Ryan in any fashion other than a totally dishonest one.

The second accusation made by the Minister was that the Opposition and its spokesmen were somehow not concerned with the question of Aboriginal education. If there is one thing that can be clearly said around the Aboriginal communities in Australia at the moment it is that, given their choice between the Liberal administration of Aboriginal affairs and the administration of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs being practised by this Government, there is little doubt as to the choice they would seek to make. If anybody has the record of taking this matter seriously, of dealing with issues on their merits and of making promises it has every intention of honouring rather than of dishonouring, it is this side of the chamber in relation to Aboriginal affairs policy, including Aboriginal education policies.

The third comment she made was that the Opposition seeks to polarise the debate between government and non-government, between Protestant and Catholic, between rich and poor, between advantaged and disadvantaged, or whatever terminology the Minister likes to drag up from her ideological depths. I will not comment by simply rejecting that as a statement of my own view, but rather will refer to an article in the Bulletin on 9 April 1985 under the heading 'Alarm grows at Ryan's funding policies'. I quote the article:

Federal Education Minister Senator Susan Ryan presides over an education system which almost half the country appears not to want.

The policies she is implementing would appear to discriminate between students and their families on grounds of race and religion.

Furthermore, she has elevated feminism to the level of national policy-despite the dubious argument for lumping half of humankind into a category of social victims along with blacks, migrants and the physically disabled.

That article says towards its conclusion in terms of the cost of schools and schooling to parents:

Since non-Catholic schools generally cost more than Catholic schools, the choice for a Catholic family between the public and the private system is easier than the choice for Protestant parents who would like their children to have a religious education.

Under current government policies, those schools will cost even more and be harder to get into.

If anybody is responsible for elevating sectarianism and for polarising the education debate in this country, it is none other than the Minister.

If I may remark briefly on one of the comments made by Senator Macklin, and it was a comment well made, he said that choice depends on a vast range of matters. That is absolutely true, but the Opposition objects to the way in which this Government, by largely covert methods, pursues its ideological commitment to control, to uniformity, to squeezing out the principles of free choice and to the elimination of diversity within the school system. Examples have been given in this chamber, and the implications of the recommendations of the Panel of Commonwealth Schools Commissioners have been referred to today as examples of restricting choice by restricting the potential growth and development of new schools. Reference was made to the constant bowing to pressure by the Australian Teachers' Federation and other organised groups within the education sector to maintain the system as an essentially closed system in which they have areas of privilege and disadvantage that they are not going to give up under any circumstances, regardless of the educational consequences of maintaining that closed system approach.

As Senator Baume previously indicated to the Senate I would do, I now turn to comment on the diversity and choice in Australian tertiary education in the future arising from the adaptation and use of new technology. Indeed, there is no reason that it should be confined for ever to tertiary education. In December 1974 the then Commonwealth Government received the final report of the Committee on Open University which was made to the Universities Commission under the chairmanship of Professor Peter Karmel. This initiative, which was taken largely at the instigation of the Hon. Kim Beazley Senior, resulted in a very lengthy study of the question of the Open University along the lines developed by the British Open University at Milton Keynes. The recommendations that the Karmel Committee put forward included the following:

Nevertheless, significant barriers to access to tertiary education still exist in a number of areas. These relate to entry, accessibility, range of courses, modes of learning, diversity of institutions, transferability between institutions and courses, the flow of information and student finance. These barriers are most difficult to surmount for those groups in the community who are educationally disadvantaged through their cultural, social or economic backgrounds. In many cases, however, the educational disadvantages occur well before the point of entry to tertiary education. For such groups the lowering of educational barriers can only be a long term task and will involve measures many of which may be outside the sphere of tertiary education and even of education as a whole.

The Committee went on to say that it believed that tertiary courses should be available to all Australians who had reasonable prospects of coping with them, wherever they lived and in whatever circumstances they were placed, and it recommended that a National Institute of Open Tertiary Education should be established as a statutory body with a general objective of expanding opportunities in tertiary education for all sections of the community. Much to the regret of then Minister for Education, the Hon. Kim Beazley Senior, who I know was very much committed to the development of the Open University, the Whitlam Government shelved that report and declined specifically to take any action on it. Had action been taken on the Open University recommendations at that time, I believe that we would have been in a position, with the development of a communications satellite and the imminent launch of our own Aussat arrangements, to put into place an Open University system which would have been in a position to be a world leader. We would have had the technology available by now. We would have had the opportunity to learn from the experience of not only the Open University in the United Kingdom but particularly the Open University in Paris at Vincennes where a very large number of courses are available and where the sophisticated French electronics and communications industry has made a major contribution towards the expansion of educational opportunity.

When we faced the electorate at the last Federal election, the policy of the Liberal and the National parties on education made a specific commitment on the question of the Open University. We said in our policy:

The Coalition believes that any serious attempt to increase participation in, and access to, higher education requires further development of off-campus educational opportunities. This requires maximum use of advanced educational and communications technology. We believe that a shift in emphasis from formal and concrete institutional structures to less formal, more flexible and responsive institutions and processes is inevitable.

We envisage the development of a Commonwealth institution offering recognised undergraduate degree courses via print and electronic media in conjunction with advanced satellite technology.

The production of intellectually sound and stimulating teaching material will be contracted out to existing higher education institutions. We will utilise institutions already offering external studies for such resources. Existing institutions will be thus intimately linked with the 'Open University'. We will ask them to contribute in developing vital and innovative ways to transmitting knowledge.

Our commitments to equality of educational opportunity and greater participation in higher education naturally coalesce in an 'Open University' initiative.

We went on to indicate how this would be integrated with an open technical and further education college policy with potential development beyond the purely tertiary sector. We were looking to use the resources of universities and institutions which are already well developed in the process of outreach in education. One thinks of the programs at Deakin University, the University of Queensland and Griffith University, where these could have been integrated. One would have thought that under this Administration, with the imminence of the satellite, some thought would have been given to this. During the investigations of the supplementary estimates of the Department of Education by Estimates Committee D Senator Baume and I had the opportunity to ask some questions about how far the Government had gone in this matter. We referred to some Press releases and discussions by the Australian Education Council. Senator Baume asked:

Has the task force submission to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal on behalf of the AEC yet been made?

The Department told us that it had. We then indicated that a Press release from the Council said:

The Commonwealth Minister for Education, in consultation with the Chairperson of the Task Force, will discuss with the Commonwealth Minister for Communications how education may exploit the opportunities provided by tele-communications technologies and facilities . . .

We then asked:

Has such consultation taken place?

Senator Ryan answered:

It has not taken place yet . . .

This Government has had the time and the resources to deal with this matter. It has had a couple of years in office. It knew the launch date for Aussat. It knew that the development of educational programs related to the satellite needed to be put in place. What do we get? We get as a response in April 1985 that the Commonwealth Minister, Senator Ryan, has not even opened negotiations and discussions with her own federal ministerial colleague on the question of the effective use of satellite communications for advancing choice and diversity in education. That illustrates once again just how uncommitted this Government really is to the maintenance of choice and diversity in education. As a result of its positive ideological commitment to regulation, restriction and control, it will be responsible for the gradual and inevitable lowering of educational standards in Australia.