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Tuesday, 2 December 1986
Page: 3192


Senator RYAN (Minister for Education)(8.50) —We have had quite an interesting debate tonight on the legislation before the Senate which will require higher education institutions to take an administration charge of $250 from some categories of students. It was quite an extraordinary debate because the Opposition parties made speeches, obviously well prepared or well lifted from various propaganda material that has been abroad in the community, which did not pertain to the actual decisions in the legislation before us. We had speeches which the poor Australian who might have been listening tonight might have thought meant that the Australian Government was embarking upon a policy of charging full fees to all tertiary students. We had speeches that suggested that there were not exemptions for disadvantaged groups and that there was no recognition--


Senator Peter Baume —No one said that.


Senator RYAN —Senator Peter Baume, by way of interjection, now seeks to regurgitate some of his previous ineffectual comments. He made great play of the fact that in 1981, when his crowd were in government, they tried to impose fees on post-, second and higher degree students and that we-in fact I-led the charge against this. He neglected to point out to the hapless listeners that the level of charge that they were seeking to apply back in 1981 was in the vicinity of $2,000, which is a very different kettle of fish from the $250 administration charge which this legislation will impose on some categories of students. Senator Peter Baume got upon his high horse and pretended that what the legislation was about was full tuition fees-the kind of thing that his colleague Peter Shack would certainly support and that he himself would probably be forced to support if ever the unfortunate event of a coalition government befell the Australian people. He made his speech accordingly, as if we were going to demand $12,000 or $14,000 from all tertiary students, and he ignored the realities of the legislation.

Senator Townley, in a quite unexpected defence of policies such as equity and participation, made a speech that was quite interesting to me since I was very familiar with its contents. Its contents happened to be the CALP submission to our Caucus education committee-that is, the very detailed and involved submission that the Council of Australian Labor Party students made to us voicing their complaints about the $250 charge to be imposed on some categories of students. Senator Townley, in a customary fashion I suppose, decided that someone else could do his work for him and he actually got up and made their speech for them. I suppose CALP might or might not be grateful that Senator Townley, Liberal Tasmania, repeated that speech. I suppose it is a matter of record that for the first time since I have been in this place-I have been here for a very long time-we have actually had a Liberal senator making a speech on behalf of ALP students. I am sure that they will deal with Senator Townley accordingly.

But, really and truly, the prize for grandstanding and irrelevance must go to the Australian Democrats, and I suppose that is not unusual. I am afraid that Senator Peter Baume has been outclassed in the categories of grandstanding and irrelevance not only by Senator Macklin but also by our novice Australian Democrat, Senator Powell, who got up and ranted and raved and carried on about women and participation and access. No doubt she was quoting from my speeches, which has also become a very popular activity in the Senate. She carried on and made the most outrageous and silly claims about the effects of this charge.

Let us get back to reality. This legislation requires some categories of students to pay $250 towards the cost of their higher education places. I say `some categories of students' because there is an extensive list of categories of students who will not be affected by the charge. Any student, for example, who is eligible for any education allowance-now called Austudy-will not pay the charge out of his or her own pocket. In case people think that it is a very strict family means testing on Austudy, I remind them that if they are in the circumstance of having two students in higher education, which even some of us in this place do or have in the past, the cutoff point for receipt of some degree of Austudy is a salary in the vicinity of $48,000.

Despite Senator Powell's efforts at grandstanding, I do not think even she would say that a family income of $48,000 a year was actually in dire poverty. In fact, as the Australian Democrats have recently discovered poverty, especially poverty amongst women, they probably know that poverty actually is a lot less than $48,000 annually. Yet families with two students in higher education who have a family income of up to $48,000 will not be affected by the charge because their student children will receive a payment through Austudy-not a large payment-and therefore will also receive the $250 to pay the charge.

So when we get all this ranting and raving about the most disadvantaged being hit, let us be realistic. Students from poor families will not be affected by this charge. In fact, students from middle class families will not be affected by the charge if a number of children in the family are in education. I think that needs to go on the record. Similarly, we heard a great deal about women from Senator Powell, who was trying to compete with Senator Peter Baume for the grandstanding award of the year. The honourable senator mentioned women who were supporting parents beneficiaries. Supporting parents beneficiaries are exempted from the charge. They will not be required at any point to pay the charge if they are in higher education. If they are in higher education they are probably there because they have benefited from a whole lot of other equity programs which have been funded under this Government.

A great deal of concern was expressed about part time and external students. Of course, there is a legitimate concern in this area, and it is a concern that I and the Government acknowledge and will monitor. However let me say a couple of things about part time and external students before we all faint or cut our wrists at the horror that some of them might be required to pay $250 towards their $8,000 or $10,000 place in higher education. I think it is time the Democrats listened to the odd fact. I know that facts are very confusing and distressing things for the Democrats to have to deal with, but I ask them to listen to this: How many enrolled part time male students do the Democrats think are not in paid employment? Less than 5 per cent are not in employment. I would like Senator Powell and Senator Macklin, and even Senator Peter Baume, if he is competing with the Australian Democrats, to explain to me why there is an inequity in requiring people such as public servants, school teachers and the like who are in employment and who do part time studies-we encourage and endorse that-to pay $250 towards the cost of their higher education. I think Senator Peter Baume would find great difficulty in saying that there is an inequity in that.


Senator Peter Baume —They are trying to pay their rent and buy food.


Senator RYAN —If people are in employment, let us say, they are better off than people who are not in employment. Surely agreement can be reached in the Senate on that simple statement. Only about 5 per cent of male part time students are not in paid employment.


Senator Macklin —What about female?


Senator RYAN —The situation is different for female students. Of course, Senator Macklin, teaching his grandmother to suck eggs, has pointed out that the situation for female students is different. Indeed it is. Of female part time students, 23 per cent are not in paid employment. So we do have to consider their circumstances. Some proportion of that 23 per cent will be on the supporting parents benefit and they will be exempted. Some others-we do not know the number yet-will have spouses who are medium or high income earners. Everyone who has spent any time on a campus knows that that is the case.


Senator Powell —And you know they won't give them the money.


Senator RYAN —I suppose it is up to the Government to leap into the marriage situation and force rich husbands to hand over $250 to their spouses. I suppose that is a proper course of action that governments should take! Of course, the Democrats would say that it is.


Senator Peter Baume —What are the enrolment figures for next year?


Senator RYAN —Senator Peter Baume has made a more rational interjection and said: `Let us look at the enrolment figures next year'. Indeed, we are going to do that. We have already decided to fund a very comprehensive national research project which will be carried out at Flinders University whereby we will examine the effect of the charge on part time and external students in particular, and on other categories of students. There are all kinds of predictions about what the effects will be. I predict that the effects will be slighter than the kinds of claims being made by Senator Powell, the born-again concerned person about women in higher education. In any event, we will have data available to us. That data will be monitored carefully by a committee, established by me, consisting of representatives of higher education, of students themselves-and the students are very happy to participate in this-and our Caucus education committee. So we will look at the effects generally, but particularly on the 5 per cent of male part time students who actually do not earn a wage and the 23 per cent of female students who do not earn a wage, and we will see whether there is any loss in equity or participation. But until we do, all of these melodramatic claims that are being made here tonight I think really should be regarded as just that. Other things need to be said too. There is the fact that we have now provided $11m to institutions throughout Australia in loan funds--


Senator Powell —It will not be enough, according to the Tertiary Education Commission.


Senator RYAN —Senator Powell has just discovered the existence of the Tertiary Education Commission. I recommend to her that she pay a little more attention to what the Commission has said and to the extent to which the Tertiary Education Commission has welcomed the greatly increased funding of higher education from our Government, the creation of 38,000 new higher education places, the extent to which we have supported equity programs, the extent to which we have supported increases in special centres for research and teaching and so forth. If Senator Powell wants to discover what the Tertiary Education Commission thinks about our Government's policy, I recommend to her a closer study, because she will find that the reports of the Tertiary Education Commission have documented, in a very thorough way, the dramatic improvements in higher education in terms of access and participation and in terms of quality and outcomes that have been characteristic of our period of government.

We do have loan funds available for those students who may, I and the Government admit, fall through the various stools of exempt categories, and those funds will be available, we hope-and we have asked institutions to ensure this-in a very flexible fashion. Similarly, we have asked, in a formal way, the institutions to be flexible and reasonable in their application of the charge. For example, there is no need to require the charge from students who have already established their eligibility for Austudy before they receive the $250 from us in their first Austudy cheque. Similarly, there ought to be sensitivity to the needs of rural students who have had to come into cities or regional centres to study and who have to face boarding costs and the like. We have asked the institutions to be specially sensitive to the needs of those students. Again, we will have the co-operation of students in monitoring the performance of institutions in regard to their administration of those funds and their observance of the policy guidelines laid down by the Government.

A number of things have been said about the charge, and I suppose the thing that our opponents like to say most, because they regard it as the most politically damaging, is that it is the thin end of the wedge and it is the beginning of tuition fees. It clearly is not. As every honourable senator in this place knows, the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Acts prohibit the charging of tuition fees and those Acts which have passed through this place recently have not lifted that prohibition. So technically and legally it is still the case that tuition fees are not charged and will not be charged. The administration charge was presented by some of our more naive, or professedly naive, senators as being the first compulsory charge levied on any higher education student since 1974-again clearly wildly wrong. As we all know, every institution in Australia has levied compulsory charges of various characters to do with union fees, sports union fees and so on not only since 1974 but, I think, since time immemorial-certainly since my time as an undergraduate; and there are probably people in this place who were undergraduates even earlier than I was.

The fact is that institutions have always levied compulsory charges for services. Students were not able to participate in the academic life of the institutions without paying those charges, and yet while those charges were being levied, and certainly between 1974 and 1985, it was never said that we did not have an open and accessible higher education system. The addition of $250, paid not by all students but by better off students, does not alter that fact. If we are talking about thin ends of wedges and the like, I would remind the Democrats, because I suppose they intend to persist with their gratuitous and useless amendments, that this legislation applies only for next year, so talk about sunset clauses and the like is quite gratuitous. I also remind them that we have indicated formally that when making triennial funding arrangements for the next triennium, 1988 to 1990, which we will bring in next year, we will again require institutions to charge $250, plus cost indexation, for some categories of students and that will be all. The thin end of the wedge argument, though attractive to our opponents, is a dead end rather than a thin end and will have no life after next year's Budget.

I remind honourable senators of the facts of higher education funding. Funding has been greatly increased by our Government, in contrast to the decline it experienced during the seven years of the Fraser Government. There have been 38,000 new higher education places, greatly increased capital grants, research centres, equity programs and so forth. I remind members of the Australian public who may be listening to this debate tonight that the cost of a higher education place is probably at its lowest about $6,000 a year, and once we get into very expensive areas such as medicine, from which Senator Peter Baume benefited, or agricultural science, we are up to perhaps $18,000 a year depending on the capital backlog in the institution. Every higher education student has at least $6,000 of government revenue spent on him or her, and probably in many cases double or even triple that sum. We are maintaining essentially a free tuition higher education system, a genuinely public higher education system where admission is on the basis of merit, and one which is performing well and will perform better as a result of our policies. The fact that because of budgetary stringency the Government has had to ask some categories of better off students to make a mere $250 contribution to the administration costs of that tremendous benefit which they receive should not have provoked the fairly outlandish claims and accusations that we have had to endure this evening.

I remind Liberal critics of this Bill that the Liberal Party has on several occasions demonstrated that its policy is full tuition fees. The Australian Democrats have demonstrated again this week, with a further split in their ranks, that they will never ever be in a situation to determine any policies, education or otherwise, and students should not be misled by their libertarian and manipulative response to any suggestion that comes their way. I commend the Bills. I understand that there will not be opposition from the coalition parties. The Democrats wish to move some amendments, which of course the Government will not accept.

Question put:

That the Bills be now read a second time.

(The President-Senator the Hon. Douglas McClelland

Ayes ... 56

Noes ... 6

Majority ... 50

AYES

Archer, B. R.

Jones, G. N.

Aulich, T.

Kilgariff, B. F.

Baume, Michael

Knowles, S. C.

Baume, Peter

Lewis, A. W. R.

Bjelke-Petersen, F. I.

McClelland, Douglas

Boswell, R. L. D.

MacGibbon, D. J.

Brownhill, D. G. C.

McIntosh, G. D.

Carrick, Sir John

Maguire, G. R.

Childs, B. K.

Morris, J.

Coates, J.

Newman, J. M.

Coleman, R. N.

Parer, W. R.

Collard, S. J.

Puplick, C. J. G.

Colston, M. A.

Ray, Robert

Cook, P. F. S.

Reid, M. E.

Cooney, B.

Reynolds, M.

Crichton-Browne, N. A.

Richardson, G. F.

Crowley, R. A.

Robertson, E. A. (Teller)

Devlin, R.

Ryan, S. M.

Durack, P. D.

Sheil, G.

Elstob, R. C.

Short, J. R.

Evans, Gareth

Sibraa, K. W.

Foreman, D. J.

Tate, M. C.

Gietzelt, A. T.

Townley, M.

Giles, P. J.

Vanstone, A. E.

Grimes, D. J.

Walsh, P. A.

Guilfoyle, Dame Margaret

Walters, M. S.

Hamer, D. J.

Watson, J. O. W.

Jessop, D. S.

Zakharov, A. O.

NOES

Haines, J.

Powell, J. F.

Harradine, B.

Sanders, N. K.

Macklin, M. J. (Teller)

Vigor, D. B.

Question so resolved in the affirmative.

Bills read a second time.