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Tuesday, 2 December 1986
Page: 3190


Senator POWELL(8.33) —I rise to speak in the debate on the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1986, the Australian National University Amendment Bill 1986, the Canberra College of Advanced Education Amendment Bill 1986 and the Maritime College Amendment Bill 1986 largely because of my key concern, which is also a concern of the Government, to see participation and equity in education, particularly in higher education. I have a strong sense of unreality in this debate, particularly following the contribution of Senator Townley. There is no question that the impact of the imposition of the so-called $250 administration charge on the ability of individuals to participate in any equitable fashion in higher education will be quite severe. I do not say that just from my own point of view. I say it having talked to students and to prospective students, and to people of all ages and from all sectors of the community.

It is of particular concern to me that the group of people in this community likely to be most affected by the imposition of this fee and what will doubtless be further impositions over time, whether under a Labor Government or under a coalition government, is women. Currently the coalition parties confess that they do not have a policy on tertiary education fees. When the three political parties were confronted just a few weeks ago by students in my State at Deakin University and asked these very questions it was admitted by the local member, a member of the Liberal Party of Australia, that there was no policy. However, in spite of the protestations-albeit so gently put by Senator Townley-there is no question that the Opposition's lack of action on the amendments the Australian Democrats will propose, in all fairness, to the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill demonstrates the truth of what that local member said: There is no policy and, therefore, there is no action.

I have a particular concern for one group in this context, and that is women. Since genuinely free tertiary education became a fact, oddly enough under the previous Labor Government, in 1974, post-secondary education in its various forms has become more accessible to women. In 1975, 40.7 per cent of students at colleges of advanced education were women. In 1984 the figure was 46.8 per cent. In universities the figure has risen from 37.9 to 48 per cent. Since we first had figures, in 1982, the figure for technical and further education institutions has risen from 48 to 53 per cent. There has been, demonstrably, a substantial impact on access and, therefore, equity, for women students under the system in which no form of tertiary fees applied.

It is therefore ironic that Senator Townley should have concluded his remarks by expressing concern about the position of women under this legislation. It is a simple fact that if the Opposition's protestations were genuine, it could join us and oppose the legislation. It is important that people should appreciate that what is being done here is a reduction of access. When I speak of those numbers of women, it is very important to me, in particular, as a woman who comes from a rural environment, that we should recognise that there is a double disadvantage for some groups of women, and among them are rural women. It has already been recognised in the debate that when there are extra impositions on families, such as problems with extra payments, sometimes a set of priorities will have to exist. In the case of many families, rural families and families of migrant background, it is most often the case that it is the female children who have to take second rank. In this context, although to many people $250 might not seem a very large amount, when a family has several children to educate, at different levels over many years, the question of $250 is the one which could very well decide the fate of many female children in such families. When honourable senators vote on this legislation they should bear that fact very clearly in their minds.

I also draw attention to the fact that the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission has expressed concern about the impact of this legislation. It has called for close monitoring-and so, too, do the Australian Democrats. The Commission has pointed out that the $11m special assistance student payment next year will be at risk because of those anomalies which have already been referred to in the debate, which will make a heavy impact into that special assistance payment area. We should be considering that when looking at this legislation. It is not a concern felt by the Democrats alone but one which the Tertiary Education Commission has highlighted. As the Commission said:

Despite the provision of the range of exemptions the administration charge is likely to have an impact on both participation and equity in higher education. The most severe impact may be seen among part-time and external enrolments . . .

Those are the very areas of anomaly which the Democrats' amendments will be addressing. The Tertiary Education Commission went on to say:

It can also be expected that certain course areas will be affected disproportionately by the charge; for example, those areas such as teacher education and nurse education which cater for large numbers and which have cut-off scores for entry that are typically lower than for most other discipline areas.

I remind the Senate, which I should not need to do, that those are areas of high participation by women. It is in those areas that the impact on women is particularly great.

In my conversations with students who are currently in tertiary education and who feel that they are at risk, apart from those areas of high participation by women about which I have spoken, I have found a considerably large number of people who, having found themselves out of employment, have gone into post-secondary education of one kind or another to retrain themselves, in the absence of any official or supported government retraining schemes. It is those people who are studying part time. Many of them are men, family breadwinners, who have found themselves unemployed-as the statistics show, this is happening for increasingly long periods and to increasing numbers-and who have chosen not to throw themselves on the mercy of the public system but to get into the education system. They are most markedly affected by the imposition of a $250 fee, especially when they have to pay that at the beginning of the year when all the other enrolment charges also apply. That is another anomaly which we would have liked to have had addressed.

As the Tertiary Education Commission noted, there is a range of exemptions. At the Committee stage the Australian Democrats will raise specifically a number of areas which appear to us not to be exempted but which we believe cover a very great number of people who are involved in post-secondary education and whose access will be limited by the imposition of this fee. These include age pensioners, people receiving a sheltered employment allowance, people receiving a rehabilitation allowance and people on a wives pension-that is, the wife of an aged or invalid pensioner or rehabilitation employee who was previously eligible for an invalid pension. We also are concerned about some people on widow's pensions, of course the people receiving unemployment benefit, which is a gigantic area, and people on sickness benefits and special benefits. There is a number of people in those areas in relation to which we believe clarification is needed.

Many people have involved themselves in post-secondary education in an attempt to improve their lifestyles and in an attempt to get to the stage at which they do not have to be dependent upon government payouts. As we know, in our society in the 1980s and moving into the next decade, if one thing can get people to become independent individuals it is success in education. They cannot have that if access is denied. A couple of other areas about which we are concerned are people on disability pensions and allowances and categories of service pensions. It seems to us that there is a very marked tendency in this society at the moment to punish and blame people who are not in full time employment, people who are often called `dole bludgers'. It is very easy for us to suggest that people should work for the dole. As one who has worked for several years of my life as a student in post-secondary education, it seems to me that that is a good option. Is that what we are offering to people who have, on their own initiative, taken the opportunity to engage in post-secondary education? We are now saying to them that we are making it that much more expensive. We are making it that much more expensive at the beginning of the year when all the other expenses have to be met.

I go back to the point that I made about people living in country areas who, for post-secondary education, must move to a major urban area, who have to pay relocation expenses, who have to find themselves somewhere to live, who have to pay the travel costs to get there and who then have to meet all the initial expenses that other students have to meet. Those are additional imposts which necessarily will make a very difficult time for people living outside the metropolitan areas even more difficult.

As I have said, I have talked with people in post-secondary education and people contemplating post-secondary education. Five thousand young Victorians marched through the streets of Melbourne in September, and I joined them. They were quite clear about how they felt on this issue. I spoke with them. They asked me to bring a message to this Parliament, which I have have done and which I repeat: They will not accept what is happening here. What they see and hear are the protestations of an opposition and the impositions of a government which they cannot see as being just in any way. They know, as the Australian Democrats know, that if this country is to move successfully into the next century it will be only through education and training that we will surmount the difficulties facing us. We will face them together and we will be successful. While we limit access to education we will not achieve the goals that we should all be looking towards. Those young people are saying: `We have had enough. We don't believe that these people have our best interests, or even the best interests of our country, at heart'. It will not be enough for the Government to ensure that the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) is there to cheer when Allan Border avoids the follow-on or indeed for the Opposition's Peter `Madonna' Shack to name drop in speeches and say: `That means we care for young people'. Five thousand young people concerned about access to tertiary education said to me on the steps of Parliament House: `We don't think that is good enough'. As the polls are showing both the Opposition and the Government it is not good enough.

Today has not been a good day for the people who care about the future of Australia. The Australian Financial Review actually identified the grand coalition and we are seeing the grand coalition in action today, 2 December 1986. The grand coalition supports Australia being part of the world nuclear global strategy; the grand coalition supports Australia's decision that if we are to have an educated future, individuals will pay for it or they will not have it. This is absolutely not good enough and this is what the young people are saying to both the Government and the Opposition. It will take more than window dressing for the Government and the Opposition to win back the votes of these young people. I am extraordinarily heartened by the fact that the young people are not opting out. They are saying: `We can see when people stand by their principles and say what should happen in the best interests of the future of Australia'. The Government's attitude is a very penny-pinching sort of attitude.

I feel extraordinarily sorry for the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) if indeed she was rolled in Cabinet. I can think of better places for that sort of action to occur and I can think of better causes for which it might occur. It is not in the interests of the future of Australia for this sort of penny pinching to go on and for the Government to have provided the thin end of the wedge for the alternative government should it ever come into office. It will make it just that much easier for it to move on this matter on which it says it does not have a policy, although we all know that underneath it does. It really wants all students to pay for the education they get. I am very glad that some of us here stand by what we believe in and do not just put up protestations and join the grand coalition in imposing an extra $250 on students at the beginning of the year when they can least afford it. It is iniquitous most of all for part time and external students who in fact will have a double, triple or quadruple whammy, depending on how long it takes them to do their course. I stand here in support of access and participation in education. I thought that was what the Government stood for. That is what a lot of students and prospective students thought the Government stood for. I am certainly very disappointed that the Opposition, for all its protestations, will not support the very sensible amendments which we propose to move at the Committee stage.