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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1439

Senator VANSTONE —I refer the Minister for Education to her assertion that, despite computer difficulties, some of the delay in the processing of Austudy applications is due to students inadequately or inaccurately filling in the Austudy application form. Accepting the Minister's assertion that she is not blaming the students, I ask: Who designed the form? Why is it not user friendly? Has the Minister sought advice as to the particular sections of the application form which are creating difficulty? Will the Minister use any such advice or report to ensure that the application form used next year will not be of such a poor design as to result in persons qualified for tertiary education being unable to fill it in properly?

Senator RYAN —The Austudy form was designed within the Department of Education and it was, I think, a design which considerably improved the process from the year before. It is the case that the forms are not always accurately filled in and, as I said before, I do not particularly want to assign blame regarding that. The fact is that if Commonwealth education officers do not get adequate information they are not able to complete the assessment of a student's claim for Austudy. Certainly the questions of the suitability of the application form, the methods of assessment, the time taken for assessment and the range of information that must be checked by assessors within the Commonwealth Department are all being considered.

I remind Senator Vanstone that it is clearly in the Government's interest, as well as in the interests of students, that Austudy payments are made as quickly as possible. It is certainly no joy to me to know that some students are experiencing difficulty while they are awaiting assessment of their form. We are certainly reviewing the whole procedure in the hope that we will find ways in which the procedure can be streamlined for next year. In any event, I believe that next year's processing will be much more efficient because there will be better knowledge of the new criteria and so forth. It is clearly in everybody's interest that the forms be processed as quickly as possible.

As Senator Vanstone has raised the matter of delays, I remind her and all honourable senators that there is a system for speedy manual assessment for students who are experiencing extreme hardship. From time to time the media likes to interview students who are experiencing extreme hardship. Perhaps it would be more constructive of the media if it were to ask students whether they had told the Commonwealth officer who was handling their case that they were in extreme hardship and asked to have their case handled manually. There is such a procedure. I think the numbers of students who have had their forms accelerated in this way is now in the vicinity of 5,000 and Commonwealth education officers are very willing to do this in cases of extreme hardship.

I would also like to say, because there have been some suggestions from time to time-not today in Senator Vanstone's question particularly-that Commonwealth education officers are not as sympathetic as they might be for students' circumstances. From my discussions and meetings with officers who really are at the coal face in this matter, I have found a great deal of sympathy and support for students. For example, I visited the Goulburn Street office on Thursday to thank the officers who had had to deal for many hours with an extremely difficult situation-the offices were occupied by hundreds of students. I was very impressed with the totally sympathetic attitude towards students which they had retained despite the enormous difficulties and stress they had been through. I assure Senator Vanstone that every effort is being made right now to process the applications as quickly as possible and every attempt will be made by officers in my Department and by me to ensure that any improvements we can make in the system, while protecting the public purse, will be made.