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Thursday, 30 September 1999
Page: 9296

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (5:15 PM) —I endorse most of the comments that have been made in this chamber this afternoon in relation to the national significance of this issue. The debate before us is of vital importance to this nation. However, I cannot really begin my remarks without commenting on expressions such as `throwing money'. We must be very wary of such a catchcry in this debate because, with all due respect to Senator Tchen, I recall very clearly the budget of 1996—the first budget from this government—and subsequent budgets where there were massive cuts to education and training at all levels in this nation. In terms of higher education specifically, I think cuts totalled around $1.8 billion. I also remember the Abstudy cuts of $48 million executed by the then minister for higher education, Senator Amanda Vanstone.

So I think this is one area that we do not see money being thrown at, although I concur that it is not simply an issue of resourcing and funding; it is an issue of community support and national response and leadership. But I tell you, resources do help, especially when we know categorically—through studies that have been conducted not just in this decade but in preceding decades—that, if there is one thing that assists particularly disadvantaged groups and those people from lower socioeconomic groups to participate in higher education specifically—but also in other areas of education—it is student financial support. That is one area where we have seen the government preside over a number of financial cuts. There have been cuts to resources, and that is of great significance and concern in this debate.

It is well accepted—or at least I hope it is well accepted—that education is the key to opportunity. It leads to better employment opportunities and greater income possibilities and therefore to a better lifestyle and better health. Australia's indigenous people, who have been denied many of those opportunities for a long period of time—or, at least, since the arrival of non-indigenous people two centuries ago—deserve the same, if not greater, access to education as other Australians. I acknowledge that we may have to reconsider and be wary of the forecasts that we make in this debate, but I tell honourable senators that these statistics speak for themselves. They are a shameful record of the situation in terms of indigenous people's participation in all aspects of higher education, primary and secondary education, and vocational education and training in this country.

Sadly, recent studies verify that indigenous Australians do not have the same access to education and that they are constantly, it seems, under threat of having their limited access restricted further through proposed changes to Abstudy and the proposed restructuring of postgraduate higher education. We are yet to have this debate in any detail, but obviously, as we anticipate various papers from the government the next month, it is another key area that requires examination.

A discussion paper published by the Australia Institute and released yesterday paints a greatly disturbing picture of indigenous people's standard of living and the inefficacy and insufficiency of current levels of funding for indigenous income support, education and health. The position of indigenous people relative to other members of Australian society has long been a source of national shame. Yet, despite recent recognition of the need for greater indigenous control of indigenous affairs and for better targeting of resources, the situation has not improved. We know that Australia languishes far behind many other developed nations in the living standards of our indigenous people and when it comes to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

The discussion paper published by the Australia Institute, conducted by Max Neutze, Will Sanders and Giff Jones and titled `Public expenditure on services for indigenous people: education, employment, health and housing', debunks myths which have been perpetrated in recent times over the level of funding for the benefit of indigenous people. It reached a number of conclusions relating to funding for indigenous education. First, public expenditure on education for indigenous persons between the ages of three and 24 is 18 per cent higher per capita than for non-indigenous persons—partially due to higher per capita costs of providing education services in rural and remote locations—and lower than average incomes, leading to greater average needs for assistance to students. Second, equity considerations require that there be additional expenditure on the education of those who are the most disadvantaged in our community—and the most disadvantaged educationally. Third, against the background of significant disadvantage and pressing need, an additional 18 per cent expenditure per head on the education of indigenous people can be seen as a very modest contribution to reducing that disadvantage.

The report also concluded that, while indigenous people benefit more substantially than other Australians from specific programs—which is to be expected, as these programs are generally targeted—they benefit substantially less from many much larger general programs. Any advantages gained by indigenous people from public expenditure are small when compared to the disadvantages they suffer in each of these areas. Indigenous Australians, as Senator Lyn Allison pointed out in her remarks earlier, are less likely to attend school and more likely to be early school leavers, with lower rates of post-secondary education.

The study reveals some truly terrible statistics. In 1993, according to the national review of education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, only 33 per cent of indigenous children who were enrolled in year 7 actually completed their education compared with 76 per cent of non-indigenous children. The post-secondary education participation rates are even more woeful. Of those indigenous students enrolling in year 7, only 6.6 per cent went on to university compared with 23.6 per cent of non-indigenous Australians. Even in New South Wales, where there has been greater exposure of indigenous people to non-indigenous society than in most parts of Australia, retention rates from year 7 to year 10 in 1996 were 77 per cent for indigenous student and 94 per cent for non-indigenous students.

According to the 1996 census, only two per cent of the indigenous population had bachelors degrees or above, and only 13.6 per cent had some post-school qualification. So it is clear that there are significant barriers to indigenous participation in education and that many of these barriers have yet to be overcome. Much more needs to be done to provide indigenous people with greater access to education opportunities, and there must be no backsliding in this respect—certainly not of the kind perhaps envisaged by the proposed mainstreaming of Abstudy or the proposed alignment of Abstudy with youth allowance.

In May this year the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University conducted an analysis of the effect on indigenous students of the proposed changes to Abstudy for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commis sion. I heard the remarks in the chamber earlier by Senator McLucas when she referred to this particular study. The findings of this report should give the government—certainly the ministers, be it Dr Kemp or Dr Herron—and other people involved in this debate some cause to reconsider some of these changes. The key findings of the analysis include the following. The changes will advantage significantly indigenous TAFE and university students who are under 21 and independent and single, and those 21 years and older living at home.

Combined, the group of indigenous students to be advantaged numbers a mere 895 students. However, the changes will significantly disadvantage indigenous TAFE and university students who are 21 and older, independent, single or with a partner, with or without children, and those in receipt of a parenting payment, a disability support pension or who are studying as part-time pensioner students. This group numbers 14,760 students. In other words, only the young and single stand to reap any benefit from the proposed changes. Mature age indigenous students, who comprise almost 80 per cent of TAFE indigenous students, are most likely to suffer under the changes. These changes will place further barriers to indigenous participation in education. Unlike many non-indigenous students, many indigenous people return to study rather than pursue a continuous education pathway. These changes will make this return to study far less accessible.

The government's pursuit of equity targets for groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education has had mixed success in recent years. The equity in higher education figures for 1998 reveal that, while progress has been made in increasing the participation of women and those people from non-English speaking backgrounds, similar gains have not been made for people from low socioeconomic backgrounds or indigenous people. I wonder if increasing fees and charges is something that we can attribute that lack of success rate to. It is a significant failure. Again, the aligning of Abstudy with youth allowance and the discrimination against or disadvantaging of those large numbers I referred to earlier is likely to be exacerbated by these proposed changes.

A report released last week by Bob Birrell, Ian Dobson and T. Fred Smith of Monash of University into access to youth allowance revealed that too many students and young unemployed people from low socioeconomic backgrounds are being denied income support due to the overly harsh eligibility criteria for the youth allowance. That is no surprise to many of us in the chamber who know perfectly well that while the concept of creating a mainstreamed allowance—that is, streamlining benefits that previously existed for young people or young unemployed people or young people involved in education and training—was a good opportunity, it was a lost opportunity for this government, because the government simply used it to create the lowest common denominator payment rate in some respects. In doing so they certainly alienated or marginalised those people under the age of 18. Therefore, 16- and 17-year-olds who are not involved in some form of education, employment or training are thus in most cases not eligible for benefits. I wonder what will happen to those young people. I dread some of the analyses and assessments that we have yet to see of how they and their families are coping. The results of that report are not that surprising.

This study clearly shows that the youth allowance is failing non-indigenous students. They have a higher rate of participation than do indigenous students, so why the government expects aligning Abstudy with the youth allowance will increase participation rates and opportunities for indigenous students is completely beyond me. It is absolutely illogical. I suggest that the government may once again be using those changes to income support for students—in this case indigenous students—as a revenue raising measure.

In relation to higher education, again the statistics are of grave concern. When it comes to participation rates—and this is according to the higher education report for the 1999-2001 triennium, so they are government figures—indigenous students are underrepresented in bachelor degree and post-graduate courses. They are more likely than other students to be enrolled in sub-degree courses or enabling courses. The number of indigenous students in higher education may have increased—and we acknowledge that—from 4.4 per cent from 7,461 in 1997 to 7,789 in 1998, but this total represents 1.2 per cent of all higher education students. So, despite that increase in enrolments, indigenous people are still blatantly underrepresented in higher education, as they comprised 1.7 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 years at the 1996 census.

I believe, as does my party—and, I hope, many other people in this chamber—that education is the key to many opportunities in life. It is the key to a democratic and enlightened society. It is also a passionate belief that we share that education should be available to all. It should be publicly funded and it should be accessible. Putting fees, charges and other obstacles or barriers in the way of entry to and participation in education institutions not only disadvantages the whole community but in particular those people who traditionally are underrepresented or unrepresented or from low socioeconomic backgrounds, non-English-speaking backgrounds or indigenous backgrounds, people with disabilities, and women until recently, given the figures. So why this government would seek to reduce or change one component that we know does assist people to enter education and participate successfully—that is, student assistance and financial support—I do not know.

I strongly urge the government members to consider the proposed changes and to review the state of indigenous education in Australia today. I urge the government not to backslide in any way that would see a reduction in the amount of funding and resources that are allocated to such an area. I commend the general business topic for debate today. The Democrats support the motion before us. We condemn, as it says in the motion, the gap between rates of retention for non-indigenous students and those for indigenous students and the fact that that has not only increased but is expected to worsen. I hope that is a situation we do not have to confront, but that relies not only on the goodwill of the government but also its leadership and guts so as to ensure that it does not.