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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1523

Mr SAWFORD(12.10 p.m.) —-I rise today to speak in relation to the education component in this year's Budget. This is the ninth Budget handed down by this Labor Government and it continues to build on the solid foundation already laid down in previous budgets. Under this Government, education funding has been constantly increased--a fact that the honourable member for McPherson (Mr Bradford), who has shown an admirable interest in education, would not deny--and this year it is expected to grow in real terms by 7.1 per cent. This represents the increasing emphasis on the importance of education for our nation.

Education is the single most important factor in determining an individual's future success, and collectively will determine this nation's success. Education is a long term investment and, as such, cannot satisfactorily be statistically measured as in inflation, unemployment, balance of payments and so on. Outcomes are long term. Therefore we need a coordinated long term strategy. We do not need some of the half-baked ideas of the Opposition on this matter.

Because of this Government, we are now starting to see some very positive signs in education. Because this Government has placed greater emphasis on education policy, the community perception is also much higher and people are now much more aware than ever of the opportunities it creates for future employment. Indeed, one of the most disadvantaged schools in my electorate, the Parks High School, expects that next year year 11 and 12 together will make up two-thirds of its total enrolments. This, of course, includes a large number of adult students returning to further their education.

Without this positive encouragement from the Government and the financial assistance from schemes such as Austudy and Abstudy, many people would not even get a first, let alone a second, chance to complete their secondary education.

Austudy is a billion-dollar-plus program. In the Budget papers real outlays on Austudy are estimated to increase in 1991-91 by 18.3 per cent, reflecting the continuing effect of growth in the numbers of recipients. The major reasons for this are the large increases in school retention rates, additional funded tertiary places and over-enrolments in the higher education system.

Last year 40 per cent of full time tertiary students received Austudy. This figure is expected to increase to 48 per cent in 1992. In secondary education the percentage of students receiving Austudy for the corresponding period is expected to increase from 33 per cent to 41 per cent. They are admirable improvements given the current economic situation.

These increases reflect the Government's commitment to give working class kids the chance to reach their academic potential, something that has been denied to these kids for years and years under conservative governments. Unfortunately, Austudy has historically been awkward and cumbersome in its delivery. Recently, with other members of this House--including the honourable member for McPherson--I participated in the report of the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training entitled Student Financial Assistance. I am pleased that several of the Committee's recommendations were implemented or partially implemented in this Budget.

In 1992 all allowances, in addition to the parental-spouse income test, will be indexed in line with the consumer price index to maintain their real value. The minimum annual allowance of Austudy payable will be increased from $50 to $250. A flat reduction for each dependant will replace the sibling concession. This will financially benefit families on lower incomes with two or three dependant children.

The sibling concession enabled some families in the past on relatively high salaries to receive some assistance under Austudy. For instance, a family of five children with a family income of $112,000 could receive Austudy assistance before the allowance ceased. Many of these students receiving small payments because of the sibling concession will find that from next year they will no longer be entitled to Austudy.

I believe that this change will have no impact on their decision to continue studies in these situations but will ensure that the bulk of the assistance is targeted to those at the lower end of the scale. It also makes the increase in the number of recipients expected to receive Austudy even more impressive from a fairness aspect.

In addition to the changes regarding levels of income support, the Government has made some fundamental changes to the rules applying to educational requirements. From 1992 the existing minimum time rule for tertiary students will be modified to give students an extra half year or full year above the minimum length of their course. A full year will be added if the student is undertaking a course in which progress is calculated on the basis of a year's work or if at least one subject is a year long subject.

A half semester will be added if the student's subjects are all semester subjects. These changes will give students more security in the knowledge that if for some reason they fail to complete successfully a part of their course they will continue to receive income maintenance while they do so.

Adult secondary students will generally be treated in the same way as other secondary students. This will mean that the rule regarding adult secondary students repeating a year will be abolished. This will be very good news for those students who may have missed their educational chances in their adolescence. As you would know, Mr Deputy Chairman, studying as an adult can be rather difficult at times, considering the greater pressures which may occur such as financial commitments and family. An extra year may just take away some of those pressures.

Education should be universal for all Australians regardless of age, family background or financial ability to pay. That is why the Opposition's proposal to replace existing funding arrangements to educational institutions with a voucher system will be perceived by the community as totally unacceptable.

A voucher system which does not differentiate between the needs of individual students would discriminate quite severely against the less well-off families. It would create a large differential in the quality of education. It would benefit students attending the colleges of the Establishment to the detriment of public education. I suppose one comes to expect this sort of thing from the Opposition.

I would like to know, for example, how the Opposition intends to sell this policy, or does it intend to sneak it through the back door to avoid public outcry? How do we tell a parent of a child with learning difficulties that there is no funding differential for these students? Do kids with physical and mental disabilities, who obviously have special needs, get the same amount of attention as is given in a normal classroom situation?

Kids, regardless of their background and limitations, need to thrive in a school environment. They will thrive only if they are given the resources to create a situation of education excellence and, indeed, equality. Both State and Federal governments provide varying levels of programs aimed towards creating greater equality in education.

Austudy, for example, continues to play a growing part in bringing up the overall education standards in Australia. Indeed, I believe that in Victoria retention rates for year 11 are now around 95 per cent. If a voucher system were introduced, it would not only mean creating a financial free kick to wealthy parents but it would also reduce the financial resources available to lower and middle income families. It would take education back decades where working class people were denied educational opportunities because the costs were prohibitive. In many cases, people accepted that their future would be in unskilled or semi-skilled employment and thought it normal because none of their friends continued in education past secondary level. Thankfully, that is no longer the situation today.

What would happen under the coalition's education policy to our aspirations to be a `clever country'? They would go straight down the gurgler, along with the school retention rates. The 1986 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures are proof of what happened in those times and this is what the conservatives would like to reintroduce. It is interesting to note that 23 per cent and 18 per cent respectively of the populations of the wealthy electorates of Kooyong in Victoria and Boothby in South Australia have attained tertiary education compared with 4.7 per cent in my electorate of Port Adelaide. I am hoping that, after this year's census information is collated, that gap has been considerably reduced.

In contrast to the Opposition, the Government does care about education. Between the Government's 1988 White Paper on higher education and 1993, nearly 75,000 new places will have been created for Australian students.

The Government also has a commitment to substantial real increases in per capita general recurrent grants to both government and non-government schools, in addition to providing financial assistance to eligible students in year 11 and onwards. Unfortunately, the funding set aside in this Budget for early intervention strategies in child literacy went fairly unnoticed by the education community and the media.

This program, combined with the good schools strategy announced earlier this year by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), could be the foundation for the introduction of preventative approaches to education--something which has been sadly lacking in Australian education in the past. We have in the past spent too much money too late on education. In the long term, preventative approaches to education are much cheaper. I am pleased that with this initiative the Government has recognised the importance of early intervention. (Time expired)