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Minister for Education discusses tertiary education, immigration and the party leadership

PRU GOWARD: If you had to pick one Minister in the sights at the moment, it would be the Federal Education and Training Minister, John Dawkins. From the Prime Minister down, he's certainly got people objecting, specially academics. A recent survey, for example, shows that three-quarters of academics believe their university has slipped in its standards, and they are now threatening to vote Liberal. The Minister has also had his say on immigration, arguing that the recession means our intake ought to be halved, and when it comes to the leadership debate, well John Dawkins just says, watch this space. Well, the Minister joins me now and Minister, when you start adding up the issues, are you having a good time?

JOHN DAWKINS: I am having a wonderful time, Pru. But let me just correct something you said about the academics. Presumably you were going on that very flawed survey that was reported in the Australian. What that was, was a self responding survey, responded to by just 6 percent of the academics, and presumably, 6 percent who had strong grievances. So it's not surprising that a very high percentage of the ones who had grievances, actually reported that they had grievances. It would be a great mistake to conclude from that, that these 6 percent were necessarily representative, because they just selected themselves, in responding to those questions.

PRU GOWARD: Does that mean then, that as far as you are concerned, there is no need for any review of government tertiary education policies?

JOHN DAWKINS: Well, I mean, we have never said that there was no review. We are constantly looking at the policies because we have the Higher Education Council which reports to us regularly, on the implementation of the white paper process. But by and large, the process is going very well. You have got to remember that in the last ten years, we have accommodated an additional 150,000 students in the system. That's the equivalent of ten Sydney universities, so it's not surprising that there are some problems of overcrowding and sort of inadequate facilities, as we try and accommodate that huge increase in students.

PRU GOWARD: Well, in the struggle for funds that that inevitably means, do you think it might be that universities can charge fees to surplus students who still want a place, in the same way that overseas students can buy a place?

JOHN DAWKINS: No, we are absolutely opposed to that. We have a system whereby Australian students make a small contribution through the higher education contribution scheme, because we believe that it's appropriate for the Government or the taxpayers, to support university education to the tune of 80 percent of those costs, in order to ensure that there is equal access to the system. A fee regime would, of course, exclude a large number of students who simply haven't got the wherewithal to pay huge up-front fees. On the other hand, students from overseas deciding to go either to Australia or North America or Europe, where they would also charge fees, should be welcome to come here, and to charge fees if they wish to buy a place in one of our universities.

PRU GOWARD: Minister, now to immigration. You are reported as wanting a halving. Do you think there is much support for that in Cabinet?

JOHN DAWKINS: Well look, I am not going to delve into that issue, Pru. I made some observations which were particularly about the labour market, the current state of the labour market, and the likely shape of the labour market when we come out of this recession. I think that immigration is one of those questions which the Government is going to look at, in any event. We have the Population Advisory Council which will be reporting to Mr Hand later this year; we have the ESD process, the ecologically sustainable development process, which is also looking at what Australia's population should be. And I don't think we should be afraid to discuss the question of Australia's population or the role of immigration in setting that population target.

PRU GOWARD: What, you're anticipating that there will be changes to the quotas that we set and an inevitable reduction in numbers?

JOHN DAWKINS: Well, what I did last week was simply to flag the fact to the most senior decision making body in the party, the National Conference, the fact that the population debate was one which the Government would have to deal with soon, and it is a major issue for the '90s. That's basically what I was saying.

PRU GOWARD: And on the leadership, Minister, you've said, 'Just watch this space'. Now, when are you going to fill it?

JOHN DAWKINS: Well, hang on a sec. What I said was, in response to the question, was I in retreat on what I had said about the party's leadership, the role of the National Conference, was I in retreat, and I made those observations in response to that question. Because look, I am going to continue to make observations about important issues, as I have done in the past. It's not as if I have just sort of stumbled into the ideas market. I have been a participant in you know, the public debate, ever since I have been in politics and most particularly since I have been a Minister. So I am going to continue to make my contribution, of course.

PRU GOWARD: John Dawkins, thank you for joining me.