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Wednesday, 13 May 1987
Page: 3061


Mr FREE(11.09) —The Government rejects the amendment moved by the honourable member for Mackellar (Mr Carlton) and seconded by the honourable member for Parkes (Mr Cobb). It is ludicrous for the Opposition to castigate the Government for its alleged failure to correct weaknesses in the Australian economy when we all know that this Government has taken the difficult decisions, the correct decisions, and is getting on with the hard work of getting Australia through a very difficult economic period. Clearly, the results are becoming apparent. The Opposition, when it speaks in its amendment of significant and genuine reductions required in government spending, is being too clever by half when it knows that those reductions will be delivered this evening, and when it knows that the members of its parties, after tonight's expenditure statement, will go out and pander to those interest groups affected by those expenditure cuts. The Opposition is being too clever by half when it knows that its parties have failed to specify the areas in which they would cut if they gained government. The honourable member for Mackellar had an opportunity again this morning in the course of his remarks to specify those areas for expenditure cuts and he failed to do so.

On the question of expenditure cuts, the Opposition has a credibility gap as wide as Sydney Heads-from there to the southern border of the honourable member's electorate. Equally, it has an enormous credibility gap on the question of taxation. The Liberal Party has been asked in this place day after day to specify the details of its taxation policy and it has failed to do so. The Liberal Party has a Scarlet Pimpernel taxation policy: We seek it here; we seek it there; and we fail to find it. I think it was suggested only this morning that the delays in the production of the Liberal Party's taxation policy have been so great that there are good grounds for believing that it may be working on the policy as a bicentennial project.

However, here is at least a hint in the amendment of some things which the Liberal Party intends to do. The amendment calls for the abolition of the fringe benefits tax and the capital gains tax. There is no doubt that were this country unfortunate enough to have the Opposition parties returned to government, we would return to a taxation system where the poor get poorer and where the rich, once again, will have the opportunity to walk around the taxation system and avoid their responsibilities. The honourable member for Mackellar may have done his homework but he has not yet handed it in for marking. When it is handed in for marking, it will score a very large fail from the Australian people.

In this morning's debate on the Supply Bills I take the opportunity to make some comments about the Government's fine record in the tertiary education sector. It is particularly appropriate to do so given the multitude of people camped on the lawn at the front of Parliament House this week. The Government has had an excellent record in the tertiary education sector during its period of office. I remind the House that in our first four years we provided 36,000 new tertiary places, compared with 8,100 under the last five years of the Liberals. Equally, our record in providing improved student assistance has been unparalleled. In the last four years of Liberal government student assistance fell by 18 per cent. In our first four years it rose by 47.4 per cent.

There has been some criticism of the Government's performance in tertiary education, culminating in this national week of protest, the evidence of which we see, as I said earlier, on the front lawn. The criticism centres on unmet demand, the higher education administration charge and the administration of Austudy. I turn, first, to the question of unmet demand. It was claimed earlier this year that 30,000 qualified prospective students were unable to get places in tertiary institutions in 1987. That claim, supported by the Opposition, is quite incorrect. While there is some unmet demand, the 30,000 claim is a nonsense. The same claim was made last year. It was examined by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and the directors and principals of colleges of advanced education. They carried out a research study that showed that, far from 30,000 students unable to gain places, the estimated number was 9,000 to 14,000. This arose because of multiple counting, prospective students applying for places at a number of institutions. Of course, the unmet demand is too high, but the estimate of 30,000 is quite out of court.

Whichever figure one accepts on the record, I think we are entitled to ask the question: Which Party has made positive steps to meet the demand for those places? Quite clearly, on the figures that I quote-36,000 under our first four years in office compared to 8,000 under the last four years of the Liberals-quite clearly it is only under a Labor government that that demand will be met.

Equally, we might look at what the Liberals propose to do in tertiary education should they be elected to government. One of the things that the shadow Minister for Education has told us is that under a Liberal government there will be no new government-funded places in tertiary education. The Leader of the Opposition (Mr Howard) went further than that. On 5 March he was quoted in the Press as saying:

A Howard government would need to take into account economic circumstances when deciding whether to maintain the existing number of free places.

So there it is. Liberal policy says that no new additional government-funded places will be provided, and the Leader of the Opposition says, in addition, that he cannot even offer a guarantee on the maintenance of the existing places.

We are told that members of the Opposition will encourage the development of private universities charging full fees to, as they put it, encourage students to invest in their own future. This, apparently, is incentivation in action. It is a policy that will fail if they ever get the opportunity to put it into action.

Private universities, clearly, are one way of meeting this unmet demand, but I do not believe that they are a terribly good way or that they would be a very effective way. For private universities to operate properly, we would need to have a guarantee that they would never, ever, apply for government assistance. I do not think that they can offer that guarantee, and I think that the danger is that they would, in due course, apply for government assistance.

I prefer the policy of this Government-that is, to expand opportunities in tertiary education through government-funded places. In this regard I congratulate the Government, particularly the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), on the successfully concluded negotiations which have led to decisions, announced late in March, on the establishment of a university in western Sydney. I have argued for over 14 months that a university should be established in the western Sydney region; that it should commence as a college of an established university, preferably Sydney University; that it should be named after former Prime Minister Ben Chifley; and that it should be established in my electorate. I am very pleased to say that the final decisions met my needs in every single respect. On behalf of the people of my electorate and of the western Sydney region, I want to say `thank you' to the Minister for Education and to this Government.

Chifley University College, as it is now known, and Chifley University, as it will become, is very strongly supported throughout the western region of Sydney. On 24 April, last month, there was a meeting of representatives of local government and others from the region-from Auburn in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west, and from Hawkesbury in the north to Campbelltown in the south. That meeting decided to form a foundation, hopefully to be called the Friends of Chifley, to assist in the development of this, Australia's newest tertiary institution. I look forward very much to future developments confident in the knowledge that, under this Government, Chifley University College has a very exciting future indeed.

I will turn briefly to the higher education administration charge. Honourable members would be aware that quite a campaign has been waged around the introduction of this charge. We would all have received letters, reports and submissions from individuals and interested groups. There was the very unfortunate incident of the occupation of the Department of Education offices in Sydney some time ago, and more recently offices of the same Department in Brisbane were subjected to some disruption, and this campaign has culminated in a week of protest this week. I accept, as I am sure most people do in this place, that reducing a benefit, by however small an amount, is always an unpopular and painful process.

But I believe that given the current economic difficulties which the nation faces, given the need to share the burden of sacrifice, given that last year pensioners were asked to accept a delay of six weeks in their increases due to indexation, it is not unreasonable to ask those students who are better off to make a contribution which amounts to $5 a week towards places in tertiary education costing, on average, $8,500 and paid for by the taxpayer; and remembering, as opponents of the charge hardly ever seem to do, that it does not apply to Austudy recipients or to disadvantaged groups.

I think one ought to draw a distinction between Austudy recipients and disadvantaged groups. Let us look at the income limits for part Austudy benefit, remembering that the tertiary administration charge does not apply to those receiving part Austudy. A family with one student at home receives part Austudy up to an income of a little over $27,000. If that student lives away from home, the income limit rises to $32,324. For two students living at home, the income limit for Austudy is $38,294, and for two students living away from home, it is $48,714. All those figures are well above average family income.

Last week I received, as other honourable members would have received, a report on this subject from the West Australian Post Secondary Students Organisation-WAPSSO. It makes reference to the administration charge and makes a number of interesting points. I will quote from page 2 of the report:

The most common fallacy heard about education is the notion of `Free Education'.

I happen to agree, although not in the same terms as the West Australian Post Secondary Students Organisation. Free education, quite clearly, is a meaningless concept-unless academics are now working for nothing. The provision of education is, in fact, quite an expensive business. The point is that it is paid for at present by the taxpayer. What the proponents of free tertiary education really mean is that it should be paid for by someone other than the beneficiary. There may be a case for that, but that case ought to be argued on those grounds and not on some emotional call to a concept of free education. The report from the Post Secondary Students Organisation argues that, in many cases, there is no benefit from tertiary education. It makes the following point on page 3 of the report:

Proponents of the re-introduction of tertiary fees argue that graduates from institutions have significantly increased earning potential over others in the community. Therefore any cost incurred in gaining qualifications is a worthwhile investment towards future increases in income. This view in many cases in incorrect.

To support this argument it refers readers to census statistics for Western Australia which show that there were more people in the highest income bracket of $26,000-plus with no qualifications than there were with tertiary education qualifications, thus supposedly proving its argument. In fact, the figures that it uses show exactly the opposite. They show that of those with higher degrees, 43.5 per cent earned over $26,000 while only 2.8 per cent of those with no qualifications earned over $26,000. The figures that it used to support the argument in fact prove the opposite. They prove that those with higher degrees are 15 times more likely to fall into that top income bracket. While I have some sympathy for the difficulties that students face, my support and sympathy is certainly not inspired by deceptive use of figures such as this.

Those who argue for free education tend to confuse means with ends. Free tertiary education was introduced as a means to an end, not and end in itself. The end was to improve access to tertiary education across the social spectrum. In the 1970s, when fees applied, tertiary institutions overwhelmingly were the preserve of the better off. The abolition of fees was seen as a means of introducing a better balance. After 10 years, the best that can be said is that the social mix has not changed much. There are arguments against that but the facts, nevertheless, are indisputable. I believe that the reason is that the children of families of lower socio-economic status have been failing to complete a full secondary education. To illustrate this point I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard a table giving the details of the Australian Council for Educational Research survey on participation in education.


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Keogh) —Provided the document accords with the guidelines set down by Madam Speaker, it may be incorporated.

Leave granted.

The table read as follows-

ACER survey results on year 12 completion

Attribute

Percentage

ever completed

Year 12

(by age 19

in 1984)

General

finding

Father's occupation

Professional...

66

Year 12

Managerial...

50

completion

White Collar...

42

rates differ

Skilled...

27

with social

Semi-skilled...

26

status

Unskilled...

24

Family wealth

Highest wealth quartile...

52

Year 12

Middle 50%...

37

completion

Lowest wealth quartile...

25

rates differ

with family

wealth

Rurality

First quartile (least rural)...

42

Year 12 completion

Second quartile...

35

rates differ some-

Third quartile...

37

what with rurality

Fourth quartile (most rural)...

34

Achievement (based on word knowledge, literacy and numeracy tests taken at age 10)

First quartile (highest achievement)...

63

Year 12

Second quartile...

38

completion

Third quartile...

30

rates differ

Fourth quartile (lowest achievement)...

14

with earlier

achievement

Ethnicity

Father born in Australia...

34

No evident

Father born in another English speaking nation...

33

disadvantage

regarding year 12

Father born in a Non-English speaking nation...

49

completion rates for persons from non-English speaking nation backgrounds included in the sample (mainly persons of Greek and Italian origin.)

Source: ACER, Participation in Education (Williams) 1986.


Mr FREE —I thank the House. The table sets out the details of a survey carried out by ACER in 1986, which examined the relationship between secondary school completion and five variables: The father's occupation, family wealth, rurality, achievement at age 10, and ethnicity. The survey shows that the single most powerful predictor for completion of secondary education to year 12 was the father's occupation. Sixty-six per cent of those whose father fell into the professional level completed year 12 compared with only 24 per cent of children of unskilled fathers. So clearly family background is still the single most important predictor of success at year 12 and, therefore, the single most important predictor of those who will overcome that hurdle to begin tertiary education.

The Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Government are correctly focusing on secondary retention rates. We have seen some quite spectacular improvements. The Government and the Minister for Education have adopted an objective of a 65 per cent retention rate by 1992. I add one caveat to that: Achievement at the primary level is also important. If one looks at the survey one will see that the second most important predictor of success at secondary school is achievement at age 10, in primary school, based on word knowledge, literacy and numeracy tests. So there may be a hurdle in the development of basic learning skills at the primary level. For that reason I commend the Government for its work in basic learning in primary schools and for other programs the Government has initiated. Obviously, they will be very important. I commend the Government on the measures taken to increase participation in education. The work that the Government has done is paying dividends now and will continue to pay dividends in the future.