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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8419

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (15:36): I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research (Senator Evans) to a question without notice asked by Senator Wright today relating to the white paper, Australia in the Asian Century and education.

The Asian century is now—we are standing in it—and we need investment and action on improving knowledge of Asian language and literacy and on Australia's school funding system now. We hear much rhetoric and aspirational language from this government; but actions, in the end, speak louder than words. We now need to see a clear way forward—a plan—backed up by some serious funding. One of the first major steps towards strengthening our place in the Asia-Pacific region and better engaging with our Asian neighbours must be to properly value and resource our public education system. If we are truly to take our place in this Asian century, we must have a world-standard education system in which every single Australian child has the opportunity to reach their potential. We cannot afford to continue with a system which the Gonski review has shown to be too complex, lacking in coherence and essentially inequitable; a system where performance is too often dictated by advantage or disadvantage and not by inherent ability. In the Asian century, we cannot afford to squander our human potential; we must be educating our population to achieve their best. It is an investment in our future prosperity and well-being.

We know that Gonski has recommended an investment of $5 billion a year in schools—and predominantly in public schools, because public schools educate the majority of Australian students with high needs. We understand that the figure is now more likely to be closer to $6.5 billion a year; yet we still have no indication what amount the Commonwealth government is willing to pledge to get the implementation of Gonski underway and what, if any, arrangements have been entered into with the states to share the responsibility of educating Australia's children so that they can achieve their potential. We have now been waiting for a government response to the Gonski review since February this year. With only two weeks remaining in the parliamentary year, we are still in the dark about how the government will implement Gonski: the funding and the time frame. On the Asian century white paper, we now hear that the Prime Minister wants to see every Australian school student learning an Asian language. The reasoning is very good—helping to build cultural understanding and respect, enhancing our ability to communicate with our neighbours and strengthening our relationships in the Asian region. Language learning is good for individual students and for our nation; but aspiration is a poor substitute for action.

The reality belies the government's rhetoric. The fact is that the government actually cut funding for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program in the 2011 budget and has not provided any further funding since then for Asian language programs or teachers. We now have fewer year 12 students citing Indonesian then we had in 1972. We currently have about 18 per cent of students studying the four priority languages identified in the white paper, but the percentage decreases to less than six per cent by year 12. We clearly need a serious plan and serious funding if we are to reverse this trend; words are not enough. The Asia Education Foundation has estimated that, to set about achieving the laudable aims of the white paper, we need to see a minimum commitment of $100 million a year over eight years. Any funding for the ambitious scenario set out in the Asian century white paper must be on top of the significant funding that is required to achieve the Gonski recommendations just to give our school education system up to scratch.

Teaching Asian languages in schools will enable Australia to contribute to the future international community in this Asian century. Asia literacy is essential to Australia's future economic prosperity and social cohesion. We know that it will benefit our children and our nation alike. But fine talk does not achieve results. Cultural change in Australia will come from a shared vision about our place in Asia—but only if it is underpinned by a serious investment by the government in education and culture.

Question agreed to.