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Wednesday, 19 November 1986
Page: 2458

Senator NEWMAN(10.52) —I wish to comment briefly on three matters which relate to the estimates of the Department of Education. The first relates to the decision to pay the secondary allowance to students rather than to their parents. I recognise that for financial reasons, namely taxation ones, it makes good sense to do that. I am concerned at what the social impact may be on paying these funds to comparatively young people. I recognise the fact that the Macquarie University is undertaking a study for the Government on the impact of this scheme. I flag that I have a considerable interest-as I am sure do many parents-in what the social impact will be of this fortnightly handout of a sizable amount of money to young people who have never had funds in their hands before. I hope that it has no divisive impact on families and that it has a very good impact on the retention rate of young people in schools because, as a nation, I think our first priority must be to keep people in school in meaningful education and not as a baby-sitting exercise. Too many young people are leaving school for the option of having money in their hands and we will all be the poorer if this practice continues much longer. Nevertheless, we must be very aware of the fact that this allowance could have undesirable or unintended consequences, which is the `in' expression. I draw this to the attention of honourable senators as something that should be watched.

Another matter which came out during our consideration of the Education Department estimates which is of concern to me is one that Senator Vigor referred to last night as a general problem throughout the Public Service. In questioning officers of the Department of Education on the higher duties allowance we were told that 43 per cent of a sample at the central office had been found to be on higher duties allowance. I think this is a totally unacceptable figure. There may be higher figures in other departments, nevertheless I think we cannot look at this in a kindly light. The explanation I think is fairly clear: So many people need to be recruited to fill vacancies and the delay in filling a vacancy in this Department is 18 weeks. I think that in itself is unacceptable. I recognise that the Government is taking measures to try to streamline the Public Service, and we shall all be better off if it succeeds-I sincerely hope it can.

There is a great disincentive in the system where a vacancy is automatically assumed to be desirable to be filled by people on higher duties allowance. We then end up with a string of people on higher duties allowance right through the Department and somewhere, perhaps down the bottom of the pile, there will be a job that is not done. I suggest there might be more incentive to the Department to fill a vacancy if the job at the top of the pile were left vacant. Then there might be more of a hurry to fill that vacancy and streamline the procedures. But while everybody has a vested interest in getting higher duties allowance there is little likelihood that the position will be filled as speedily as it perhaps might otherwise be filled. The recruitment times are clearly too long. I recognise that the Government is trying to do something, but this is something which I personally shall be keeping a close eye upon because throughout the Public Service this is a most unacceptable state of affairs.

Lastly, I wish to move to the question of the administration charge and to draw attention to the fact that the figures that were given to us in the estimates were based on a projected student number. From answers to questions, I think we find that there was no account taken of the discouraging effect of this fee, and this concerns me a lot. I asked whether the Department had projected less growth than it would normally have done, taking into account that the $250 levy must have some sort of discouraging effect in some areas, I asked:

Has no allowance been made for that?

The answer was:

No. The estimates are based on the student body as in 1986 with the factors that we know about in terms of growth for 1987.

I observed that the Department would surely also know about the claims by the tertiary institutions that they would in fact lose numbers from part time students as they are liable to the levy; and especially when they are doing single subjects. That apparently was not taken into account. Clearly it should have been. Anybody who was thinking clearly about this matter would have realised that there has to be a disincentive in this. I think we will have much more to say on this in time to come, so I will not elaborate on it and go into too much detail.

I am particularly concerned about the number of women who are supporting families, who may not in fact be on the supporting parent's benefit but who, nevertheless, had insufficient education in their youth and wish to become self-supporting, perhaps independent of their former spouses, and to raise their children by means of a good standard of living achieved through their own endeavours. To do that, further education is vital. With family responsibilities, and perhaps also a part time job, their chances of getting that further education are very slim unless they do it subject by subject each year. A $250 levy on each of those subjects is cruel. An incompetent government would allow this to happen-or possibly a very devious government. I say that deliberately. The number of people who are trying to get into our tertiary institutions has been variously estimated from about 9,000 to about 13,000. All these people are trying unsuccessfully to get into the tertiary institutions of our country. A large number of places in our institutions are taken up with mature students doing part time, single subjects courses. One has to wonder whether this is an attempt to release the Go-vernment from its embarrassment and deliberately to cause full time places to be made. I shall be looking at that matter to see just what happens.

Most honourable senators will have heard from institutions and student bodies on this. Sadly, so often the individual is going to be very disadvantaged by this arrangement. I am particularly concerned about the people who are trying to get through their education gradually. One wonders just why the Department's officers come to the Estimates Committee hearings and say that no allowance has been made for the discouraging effect of this $250 levy. Surely if the Department were at all competent it would have made such an assessment. I believe it must have. Certainly the Government must have made that assessment and decided that the end justified the means.