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Wednesday, 10 April 1957


Mr CAIRNS (Yarra) .- This bill, which was introduced by the Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) on 3rd April, provides for the Commonwealth's contribution towards the finances of the Australian universities. The amount to be provided by the Commonwealth in the next two years will meet about one-half of the total administrative costs of the universities in the various States. The remainder of the necessary funds is provided, of course, by direct contributions from the State governments and by fees and other charges paid by students. The Prime Minister said, in his secondreading speech, that the form of this measure was familiar to all honorable members, and, as he pointed out, it contains no new principle. Similar measures have been enacted annually since 1951. Prior to that year, the Commonwealth's contribution to the financing of the Australian universities took the form of contributions through the post-war Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme under which payment for various courses and services were provided by the universities. In passing, we note that the provision of finance by means of grants in aid is an important principle in itself. It is one of the few ways in which the Commonwealth assists in financing the conduct of activities over which it has no direct constitutional power. In this measure, the Commonwealth is reinforcing a most useful and important precedent in providing finance in the form of grants in aid in a field in which it has no direct constitutional power.

Although this measure embodies no new principle, several of its features should be noted. For the first time, the Commonwealth is providing finance for the universities for a two-year period. Previously the Commonwealth has made provision for only one year at a time. This is an important advance, and the Government deserves credit for having initiated it. Secondly, we should note the amount of the financial assistance that the universities will receive. This will be £2,300,000 in each of the next two financial years. In the 1951 act, which was the first measure under which a grant of this kind was made, an amount of £1,103.000 was provided.

The increase from that sum to £2,300.000 a year in five years seems, on the face of it, to be significant, but I want to point out to the House that, in the intervening time, two things have occurred to make the increase less significant than it appears at first glance. First, costs and prices have increased. The index of prices in 1951 stood at 1906, whereas it is approximately 2800 to-day. Therefore, if the financial assistance given to the universities by the Commonwealth were to do no more than keep pace with the increase of prices, the Commonwealth would have to provide approximately £1,700,000 to-day. Allowing for this inflationary factor, the net increase of the Commonwealth's financial assistance to the universities is no more than £600,000 a year. The second thing that has occurred is that the number of courses provided by the universities has increased greatly as a natural consequence of their greater enrolments of students and their growth and development. When these factors are taken into account, the increase from £1,103,000 a year to £2,300,000 a year is not as significant as it appears.

On this point, it is necessary to note that the amount to be contributed by the Commonwealth is clearly intended to be a minimum for the next two years. This also is something new. In previous years, the amount provided for the twelve months was absolute and unchanging. But on this occasion the Government has made it clear that the amount provided for is a minimum sum. The reason for this is :hat. in the last few months, a very important step has been taken in the development of the Australian universities. The Prime Minister stated, in his second-reading speech, that a special committee of inquiry has been appointed to investigate the future structure, organization and functions of the universities in Australia. As the right honorable gentleman pointed out, the committee is a very strong one. I agree with him in that. The committee is very capable and is well qualified to make this investigation. Last June, when a similar measure was before the Parliament, I suggested that the appointment of a committee such as this was a most necessary step, because, up to that stage, the development of the universities had been very much a piece-meal process from year to year. No long view had been possible. At that time suggestions were made for the establish? ment of a body such as the Universities Commission in the United Kingdom or of a committee of the kind that has now been appointed. I believe that in the appointment of this committee, for which credit is due to the Government, we have taken a progressive step in the development of the Australian universities.

As I have said, the grant is to be a minimum amount because the committee will inquire into the matters that I have mentioned, and it is expected that, in the next twelve months - certainly within the next two years - reports made by the committee may suggest an increased contribution by the Commonwealth. I hope that, if that is so, the Commonwealth will not hesitate to provide more money for the universities. I think that the terms of reference of the committee are certainly wide enough for it to do the job required of it. Broadly, as the Prime Minister indicated, they require it to investigate the future structure, organization and functions of the universities.

At the outset of the committee's work, I want to emphasize that the Australian universities are starved of funds. Despite the increase in the provision of Commonwealth funds which I have- mentioned, the fact is that the provision of Commonwealth funds to the universities has fallen continuously since 1946-47. Under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme this finance amounted to some 80 per cent, or 85 per cent, of the total cost of the operation of universities in this country. The last figure that I have available is that for 1953-54. The Commonwealth provision, under legislation similar to this, then amounted to only 56 per cent, of the cost of operating the universities. The increased grants under this bdi will amount to little more than 50 per cent, of the total cost of operations this year..

This decline in the provision of funds by the Commonwealth is undesirable, lt has taken place as a consequence of the horse trading that goes on at the Premiers Conference, in this chamber, and in the State parliaments. In this Parliament the sole concern of those who support the position taken by the Government is to blame the States for inadequately financing our universities - and everything else for which they are partly responsible. On the other hand, the sole concern of those who defend the record of State governments is to blame the Commonwealth. The end result has been that the Commonwealth has been getting away with it.

In this field, as in most others, the Commonwealth contribution has been declining over the last four or five years. I am not so worried about the increased burdens that might be placed on the State governments as a consequence. I think, broadly speaking, that they are quite capable of carrying those burdens. What I am concerned about is the increased load that is being placed upon the students. While all this has been going on, and as a consequence of it, there has been an almost continuous increase in student fees. This is justified in the minds of many people, who say, " Yes, but it does not matter because so many students now receive assistance ". It is true that the proportion of students who receive assistance has increased, but the higher fees place a considerable burden upon at least one-third of the students, and especially those who are doing courses part-time, and prevent many from reaching the university at all. They have little opportunity to receive assistance, which is almost exclusively the province of the full-time student who can be supported by parents. Therefore, the consequence of the decline in Commonwealth assistance to universities has, very largely, been the unloading of the higher cost of university education on to many of the students themselves and to prevent others becoming students at all.

Though the development of Australian universities over the last fifteen years has been vastly more rapid than in any other similar period in Australian history, compared with universities in a number of other countries we are still relatively badly off. In order to illustrate this I shall quote recent amounts spent upon students attending i.io hading British provincial universities, and compare them with expenditure in Australian State universities. I shall leave out of consideration altogether universities like Oxford and Cambridge, because I feel that it is no longer safe to mention the word " Oxford " in this Parliament. The figures are as follows: - Birmingham, £452 per student per annum; Bristol, £480; Leeds. £438; Manchester, £402; Nottingham, £325; Sheffield, £451; and Edinburgh, £343. The average for all those universities is £422 per student per annum. When we turn to the Australian situation, we find that we are very much below that standard. For the same year, the figures were: Sydney, £257 per student per annum; Melbourne, £259; Adelaide, £264; Queensland, £274; Western Australia, £355; and Tasmania, £456. The Australian average of £284 is considerably below the average of £422 for the British provincial universities.

That situation is further revealed in the direct experience of those who are in some way responsible, or feel themselves responsible, for creating a higher standard in this country. I want to quote now from a report submitted last year by the Federal Council of the University Staff Associations of Australia, in conjunction with the National Union of Australian University Students. University staff associations have developed in Australia in the course of the last six or seven years, and have become extremely important in the life and activities of Australian universities. The following appears in the report: -

The Federal Council of University Staff Associations of Australia and the National Union of Australian University Students are deeply concerned at the inadequacy of the financial resources available to Australian universities. University expansion, essential to the future well-being of Australia, is being severely restricted by financial considerations.

We recognize thai university finance is considered to be primarily a State not Commonwealth responsibility. Nevertheless, in recent years use Commonwealth Government has seen the necessity of making substantial university grants. We feel that many of the present difficulties of the university can be resolved only oy greater Commonwealth participation in university finance.

That conclusion shows agreement between staff and students that university finance is at present inadequate, and that the present position can be satisfactorily solved only by increased contributions from the Commonwealth. If we look at the position in detail, we find in every Australian university, with possibly the exception of the Australian National University, accumulating evidence that this is so. To illustrate, 1 want to quote again, this time from a special statement in relation to the University of Sydney. In 1954, that university prepared a detailed statement of its needs for the next decade. Department by department, the survey revealed appalling deficiencies. For instance, the psychology laboratory accommodation is described as being so far below standard that it is a disgrace that students should be expected tq work under such conditions. The professors of English reported that 1,000 students, with a staff of eight, was still most unsatisfactory, and that a true university education could not be given under such conditions. That kind of staffstudent ratio is common throughout Australian universities. It is the main problem for most faculties. The other problem, of course, is accommodation and facilities. The situation revealed in Sydney is generally the same as that throughout other universities in Australia.

That is the position at present. Another strong reason why the universities will require increased finance is that the number of students will increase remarkably during the next few years. This is alone the result of the demographic factor and of the remarkably rapid rate of births in the latter part of the war and in the immediate post-war years. It is not a result of a higher proportion of students going to universities. We hope and anticipate that the proportion will increase, but the increase of the number of students so far is simply a result of the change in the population factor. From 1954 to 1959. there will be an average increase of about 25 per cent, in the student population in universities compared with the five 'years from 1949 to 1954. In the live years from 1959 to 1964, there will be a further average increase of 25 per cent, on the preceding five years. By 1964. the simple result of the population chances we anticipate will be an increase of more than 50 per cent, in the number of students in Australian universities.

For these reasons, the Commonwealth must face up to the fact that a call will be made upon it to increase grants fo universities in the next ten years and there will be no excuse if it does not answer thai call. This ignores altogether the need for further development inside the universities themselves. Developments will take place in all the arts faculties. Let us hope they occur in the arts faculties just as rapidly as they occur in the scientific and technical faculties. I say that because nowadays in the limes of a cold war and associated conditions, governments are much more willing to provide finance for scientific and technical faculties than for any other sections of universities. All honorable members are familiar with the argument that so many more scientists are turned out each year in the Soviet Union than in the United States, and that so many more in pronation to population are turned out in the United States than in this country. If the existence of the cold war encourages an increase in the number of scientists and techno.logists in Australia, that will be about the only good thing that has come from the cold war. If it has that result, then I think we can approve of that influence. lt seems to me that the need for increased finance, for the various reasons that I have mentioned, must at this stage be closely connected with the operation of the special committee of inquiry to which I referred some time ago. The committee is taking and will continue to take evidence in quite a number of places. The Government should seriously consider submitting to the inquiry without delay evidence that it would be prepared to back a national plan for the development of higher education to the extent of. say. at least £5.non 000 a year between 19S7 and 1960 - 1 think that is a conservative figure - and a< least £10.000 000 a year between I960 and 1965. Those figures must be compared with the average of £2.300.000 for the next two years provided by this legislation. We know very well that there is a heavy demand for finance for practically every kind of activity that is considered by this Parliament from the beginning to the end of a session. But 1 suggest that the figures I have given as approximately the requirements of an effective national plan for higher education - £5;000.000 for the next three years and £10.000.000 for the following five years - are not out of proportion to the priority and urgency of developments in this direction.

I suggest, further, that evidence should be submitted by or on behalf of the Commonwealth Government which would allow the inquiry to look ahead for the development not only of scientific and technical education in a manner which may be planned and anticipated, but also for the development at an equal rate of other faculties in universities. In my view, and 1 am sure that there is fairly general agreement about this, developments in these two main types of education should proceed in universities as closely together as possible. Something can be said in some places for the development of higher education separately, but it seems to me desirable to keep these two sections as closely together as possible. Some evidence should also be submitted to the committee on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, which would allow it to state some kind of plan for the decentralization of higher education into provincial centres as well as additional universities in the cities. Quite a number of provincial centres in Australia at the present time have sufficient population to supply students to a significant centre of higher education.

I suggest that this evidence should be submitted to the committee during the next few months by or on behalf of the Commonwealth Government, because definite evidence of this sort is necessary if the committee is to define a practical plan for the future. I feel that at the present time Australia has an opportunity for development which it has never had before. It would be a pity if this opportunity were not grasped. I suggest that one of the most necessary steps for the Commonwealth Government to take is to come as close as it can to this inquiry, and to give the inquiry definite undertakings for the future so that plans can be developed on the basis of what is really possible.

The Opposition supports the measure. We agree with the principle and have no great disagreement with what has been provided. We believe that more could have been provided and that the Commonwealth Government should give a definite undertaking to finance a practical plan for the future. But no indication has been given by or on behalf of the Goverment that it has considered giving such an undertaking. The position is a challenge to the Government, which should accept this opportunity and, before the debate on this bill ends, give an undertaking that it will consider some of the suggestions that I have made as a contribution towards a plan for the future development of university education in Australia.







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