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Wednesday, 19 November 1986
Page: 2461

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(11.08) —A miscellany of questions has been asked both of the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), who was representing the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), and now of me. I think the best thing for me to do is simply to seek leave to incorporate in Hansard some pieces of information which, I think, go to most of the points that have been raised. In the first instance I seek leave, in response to Senator Reid and Senator Vigor, to incorporate in Hansard a response on the question of the restoration of the Budget cuts to the English as a second language program. Secondly, in response to Senator Newman, I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a ministerial response on the subject of the higher education administration charge. It is a description of the Government's position on that. Thirdly, in response to Senator Macklin, I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a response on the subject of the funding of Commonwealth education centres, which I understand he raised. Fourthly, in response to Senator Newman again, I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a ministerial response on the subject of the payment of secondary allowances to students under Austudy. Given the bulk of the material involved and given my conspicuous lack of mastery of it, and also given the fact that I did not hear the questions in most instances, I think that would be the most appropriate way of proceeding.

Leave granted.

The documents read as follows-

In dealing with the existing difficult economic conditions, the Government has been obliged to pursue the most rigorous economies in all areas of public expenditure. Schools funding could not be an exception.

Nevertheless the Minister has undertaken to consider sympathetically any requests from school authorities for extra funding for ESL activities as part of the increases, amounting to some $38 million in Commonwealth general recurrent funding in 1987 under resource agreements.

Furthermore, the Minister directed that in allocating funds under the Participation and Equity Program, overall priority is to be given to disadvantaged students from non-English speaking backgrounds.

In addition to these measures, $4 million will be made available, from a reallocation of funds, to assist mainstream teachers address the English language needs of students who need additional help to become fluent in English.

We have also accelerated the finalisation of a national language policy which will be an important means of integrating, streamlining and upgrading all government education programs for migrants and ethnic communities.

In the case of NSW, an arrangement has been reached which should ensure that no ESL teachers are dismissed or redeployed, and no ESL programs are stopped. This will be achieved by giving an additional $4.8m of the extra General Recurrent funding for NSW government schools in 1987 to ESL. In addition to the extra $1.5m provided by the NSW Government, this will fully offset the $7.3m Budget cut for ESL in NSW government schools.

In an extremely difficult budgetary climate, the Government has had to carefully examine alternative funding strategies in order to maintain its policy of steady planned growth in the higher education sector.

The Government has consistently rejected the reintroduction of tertiary tuition fees, which are now openly advocated by the Liberal Party and no doubt supported by the National Party. The Government has not reintroduced tuition fees and will not introduce tuition fees.

Instead the Government has looked to the administrative side of institutions' expenditure and decided to introduce a charge of $250 per student per year as a contribution towards the administrative costs of institutional budgets.

The imposition of this charge was taken having regard to overall economic circumstances and the need to maintain enrolment growth in higher education. There will be an extra 2,700-3,300 intakes in 1987. This will bring to around 36,800 the growth in higher education places since we assumed office in 1983. A large proportion of these extra places are being taken up by young school leavers and disadvantaged groups in the community. In 1987 the participation rate in higher education of 17-19 year olds is expected to be at the highest level ever recorded in Australia-a remarkable turn around from the disastrous days of the former Government when the rates fell.

On equity grounds, the Government has ensured that certain categories of students will either be exempted from the charge or be compensated for it. These include institutions' own award holders, student assistance scheme beneficiaries, subsidised and full fee overseas students and certain pensioner and beneficiary students.

In all, it is estimated that some 127,000 higher education students will not be affected by the charge.

In addition, where the imposition of the charge could influence a student's decision to enrol, institutions will be able to assist students through the Special Assistance for Students program, established by this Government in 1985 to provide low interest loans and grants to needy students. By the time the administration charge is first implemented, the Government will have made available over $11 million for institutional funds under this scheme for loans and grants. The scope of the scheme will be extended to cover higher education students who do not at present have access to funds under the scheme.

The Government's decision, announced in the 1986-87 Budget, to reduce the level of funding in the Schools Commission's Education Centres Program has been made in response to the need to reduce overall expenditure within the public sector. Major reductions have occurred in many programs across most departments consistent with the Government's policy of restraint with equity.

In the Education Centres Program the Government chose to reduce the overall budget by some 30 per cent and yet at the same time maintain the maximum number of centres consistent with sustaining a viable education centre network serving both urban and rural areas. The Government decided to sustain a reduced number of centres rather than attempt to distribute a limited basket of resource among all thirty-two existing centres. As a consequence no more than one centre will in future be supported in each capital city and a small reduction has also been made in the number of rural centres receiving support in 1987.

It is open to all existing education centres to seek funding under appropriate national elements of other Commonwealth programs, such as the Projects of National Significance Program. I have already announced grants for 1987 to enable four centres, which otherwise would have received no Commonwealth funding, to build upon their particular areas of expertise. These are Bayside, Tableland and Warwick (Qld) and Port Pirie Education Centre (SA).

In its original consideration of administrative arrangements for the age-related scheme, the government thought it appropriate that payment of the secondary allowance should continue to be made to the parent. This decision was reflected in 1985-86 Budget announcements about the new scheme.

Such an arrangement already operates under the Secondary Allowances Scheme (SAS). It has the advantage of enabling parents on low incomes to use the allowance in accordance with priorities aimed at the general welfare of the family.

The question was reconsidered, however, in the light of the fact that AUSTUDY allowances would be taxable in the hands of the recipient. The decision to tax the allowance had been made, not to reduce net entitlements, but to achieve consistency with tertiary and adult secondary allowances, which are already taxable in 1986.

The Government was concerned that the value of the secondary allowance might be seriously eroded through the effects of taxation if paid to the parent. While the parent would have the option of re-directing payment to the student and so making it taxable in the latter's hands, it was feared that many parents might accept the allowance themselves without full awareness of the taxation consequences.

The revised decision to pay the AUSTUDY allowance to the student in all cases was designed therefore to minimise any loss through taxation. Very few secondary students receiving the allowance would have sufficient other income to cause them to pay tax.

The new arrangement is consistent with the one that has always operated with regard to payment of allowances to post-secondary students, even those in the 16-17 years age group.

Senator GARETH EVANS —There was a further question asked by Senator Vigor about the fees payable by overseas students. He raised the question as to whether or not it might be possible to provide for payment by instalment. On this subject I am able to say that all overseas students are aware before they come to Australia that they are required to pay the overseas student charge in full. There is no provision in the legislation for the charge to be waived or paid by instalment. Significant administrative resources would be involved were the Government to adopt such an approach. Nonetheless, there has been a request-certainly by overseas students themselves-that the Government further consider the possibility of students paying the fee by instalments. The Minister for Education has, in response to that, already asked her officials to analyse the costs and benefits of an instalment payment approach. Following receipt of this analysis a decision will be taken by her in consultation, of course, with her ministerial colleagues. So that particular matter has been taken on board.