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Thursday, 3 May 1973
Page: 1688

Mr FISHER (Mallee) - The Australian Country Party supports in the broad the 3 Bills being debated today. The adequate provision of satisfactory library resources is a vital factor in promoting the development of our colleges of advanced education. The $5m provided as an unmatched grant in the States Grants (Advanced Education) Bill 1973 will be used in the current triennium to assist in the upgrading of many libraries to a satisfactory level. Further grants for libraries must be extended not only for advanced education facilities but also for many inadequate libraries at the secondary level. The Swan Hill High School in my electorate - this is an outstanding example - caters for up to 1,000 students, but it is severely restricted by a library area and a composition so inadequate that many schools one-quarter the size have better facilities. The glaring library needs at al) levels of education must therefore be corrected and given a high priority.

The provision of other grants in this Bill and in the States Grants (Universities) Bill (No. 2) will also help to mitigate the extreme shortage of social workers particularly for work in the field of education. This is to be commended. The pressures of 20th century living in complex city and urban areas will require a continuing and expanding number of qualified people prepared to work in this vital area of human responsibility. While realising that the demand and necessity for social workers is in the cities, the destitute and distressed exist in all of our communities and at all levels of our educational system in rural Australia, necessitating the provision of an adequate supply of professionally qualified social workers. The visit of a social worker to some of our schools or other areas of social security once or twice every year, as occurs in many country areas at present, is entirely unsatisfactory and for that reason also this grant is to be commended. 1 turn now to the States Grants (Universities) Bill 1973. I believe that the Federal Government assistance to all levels of our education system is desirable and has to be expanded. From the amount of $3m being made available the Australian National University will receive $69,000 and the balance will be made available to other State universities and some colleges of advanced education, lt is to be administered by respective universities and assistance will be given in the forms of grants or loans, depending on individual circumstances. These will help to pay fees, other allowances and approved educational expenses. While in agreement with the general concept of assistance proposed by this legislation, and taking into account the proposals by the Government for the abolition of all tertiary fees in 1974 - and this, of course, will be the subject of further discussion at another time - I wish to take this opportunity briefly to examine the relationship of Federal Government assistance in the future, as apart from any discussion on student fees.

I wish to look also at the administration of any such assistance and in particular from the viewpoint of my electorate and other rural electorates at the value of such aid in promoting an equality of opportunity for educational achievements as related to children living in rural areas. It is noteworthy that in this Bill not only students from low income families can expect aid, but also special circumstances such as death, injury or serious illness of breadwinners can also be used as qualifications for financial assistance. The dismantling of family income by exceptional misfortunes such as floods, droughts and/or bushfires is covered by clauses contained in the proposed legislation. I concur entirely with these provisions.

The financing of education will place huge stresses upon available funds in the years ahead and it will be vital that the best value be obtained for every dollar made available by the Federal Parliament. Whilst it is not appropriate now to discuss the overall financing of education, the importance of this Bill in relation to other aspects prompts me to mention some of those issues now. A vital question relates to the level of government support that this nation should and can devote to education, and what relationship it should have to private support and income obtained from student charges. The trend is, I feel, to show a growing reliance on public and government schools and a growing dependence by all schools on public funds.

I am aware that this Parliament realises that the ability and the willingness of the Australian people to embark on a program of increased public expenditure depends mainly on our economic growth, an acceptable tax level, and naturally upon other demands upon our resources. Personally, I believe that a total effort combining all sources of finance will be necessary in future and also a continuing diffusion of support to meet our educational needs will bring about a better balance of responsibility.

Student charges have increased considerably over the last decade. Whilst they are still an important part of financing our institutions, the gap between charges and costs is rapidly becoming greater. This is obviously caused by far greater enrolments in combination with the provision of better facilities and the continued rise in general costs, particularly in salaries of staff. Student charges are an emotional issue and full of complexities, but they are a vital part of the structure and the difficulty is in deciding how much students should be charged and how much is the Government or public responsible.

There are probably 2 ways to look at higher or tertiary education. The first is that it is a social necessity and therefore requires the maximum social expenditure. The second is that tertiary education is a personal investment, an individual desire for more lucrative employment opportunities or a desire simply to broaden intellectual and academic capabilities. Therefore it is regarded by many as being largely the responsibility of the individual. Having briefly mentioned those thoughts, in an attempt to highlight the alternatives for the future financing of education, I return to the Bill and to government assistance. I am far from convinced, for instance, that our scholarship system is serving our young people satisfactorily, and I am not convinced that such a system will remain free from political interference or manipulation. I am concerned that many of our students are being channelled into occupations simply because present assistance by scholarship or studentship is available in some areas - for example, teaching or nursing - while alternative areas of study, particularly in engineering, veterinary, medical and dental courses are virtually unobtainable without private financial backing.

I am also concerned not only that many of our students, and particularly rural children, have limited opportunities to make use of our scholarship system, but also that the knowledge of any available assistance provided for in the Bill is not freely available to secondary headmasters far enough in advance of an academic year. Secondary students apply in August for entry to universities and colleges of advanced education. It should therefore follow that students should know of any financial assistance available and whether an application within the needs category is worthwhile. From an administrative point of view, I think it would be preferable to involve high school principals in the decision of need because, firstly, they have generally known students and their families for up to 6 years in an educational relationship. Secondly, they have sometimes already awarded help such as by requisites, maintenance or relief grants.

The 283 students from this year's enrolment of 2,980 at Monash University in Melbourne who have been granted deferment of their courses mainly for lack of finance will, as will others in similar circumstances, no doubt derive real benefit from this Bill as they should, but concern lies with those students who could not see their way clear even to consider enrolment in the first place. On the surface, some dangers exist in large institutions such as the University of Melbourne - which has about 17,000 students - having to administer this assistance. I hope that the Minister will have established satisfactory arrangements for the distribution to real areas of need. I believe that the honourable member for Chisholm (Mr Staley) dealt with the matter quite adequately and in depth when he spoke earlier in the debate.

Even with the abolition of tertiary fees, country students in particular will need con tinuing assistance from government sources. The provision of more tertiary opportunities in country areas, the provision of hostels for students travelling excessive distances and a scheme of guidance into educational and vocational opportunities, which are of so much more value to a country child than to a city child who has a variety of facilities close at hand, will all help to alleviate these difficulties. I realise that this Bill is only a stop gap measure, but I believe that it is a worthwhile contribution to the advancement of educational equality. Such measures always display to me the need for a reorganisation of our assistance program so that all needy students have not only availability of finance but also are able to undertake courses of their choice at any institution of tertiary education.

I believe that many degrees today are being allowed to be lost in a sea of meaningless ones. Universities are being flooded with students who are unable to enter the commercial world. Teachers are having to multiply their jobs without in many instances expanding their teaching. This Bill specifically refers to students desiring or entering tertiary education. In view of the tendencies towards a rush of students into these educational areas, due consideration must urgently be given to assistance to all young people wishing to enter all forms of education. I feel that the need for such a Bill as this displays the inadequate state of our assistance to all needy students. Perhaps now is the time to consider alternative means of government support so that every student is able to enter into any course available with the maximum of opportunity and initiative. 1 suggest that a system of interest free student loans should be made available. This also would have a number of practical and political advantages. Loans could be made available to all needy students irrespective of their level of ability, a condition which restricts the scholarship system. Loans are also of a temporary and repayable nature and of a recurring benefit to students and governments alike; outright grants are not. Most importantly, loans give students the desire and incentive to advance by their initiative and ability without financial difficulty.

The Bill will do much to give support to many students through the provision of an extra $3m. But it must not be forgotten in future planning for education in Australia that opportunity and equality go together. The opportunity for education is a little like the right to vote - it may not always be exercised but it must always be available. I and the Australian Country Party support the Bills being discussed together today and I wish to congratulate the Minister for Education for introducing these vital Bills so promptly. I feel that some consideration should be given to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Chisholm as it perhaps will do much to facilitate future planning.

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