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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2731

Mr BRUMBY(5.56) —It is my pleasure to support strongly the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill, the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill and the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Amendment Bill, and I am pleased that the Opposition is also endorsing these Bills. I am pleased to support the Bills because more Australians are now involved in full time education than at any other time in our history. There has been quite a dramatic growth in the numbers of Australians in full time education during the period of this Hawke Government. Indeed, between 1983 and 1986 the number of 15-year-olds to 19-year-olds undertaking full time education has increased from 605,000 to 712,000. As has been said time and again in this House, particularly by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), new higher education places in the tertiary sector have been increased by almost 37,000 since this Government came to office. When we compare that record with the record of the previous Government, we see that it is a very good one indeed.

I just want to make the point-it is self-evident-that the expansion that has occurred in our education system at the secondary and tertiary levels is essential for this nation. It is essential for the development of individuals and it is also essential for our future economic growth. The expansion that is occurring is backed by stable and secure funding from this Government. In the school sector we are responsible for having introduced an eight-year funding program and we have annually negotiated resource agreements for schools which exist in both the government and the non-government sector. I am particularly pleased about that eight-year agreement because it puts funding on a stable, secure long term basis. We have also provided funding for special purpose programs and disadvantaged students. We have promoted fairer access to education and, we believe, better educational outcomes and, of course, we have also actively promoted a higher quality of education following the report of the Quality of Education Review Committee. (Quorum formed)

Before I was so rudely interrupted I was saying that under this Government more young people are involved in higher education than at any other time in Australia's history. That is an achievement of some note. I want to compare that with what occurred during the period of the Fraser Government because I heard the honourable member for Moncrieff (Mrs Sullivan) make some claims about the period of the Fraser Government. When we look at what it achieved in higher education we see that when those opposite came to office in 1976, 10.2 per cent of 17 to 19-year-olds were participating in higher education. By the time those opposite left government at the end of 1982 that figure had dropped to 8.6 per cent. In other words, they screwed down the higher education system over eight years when they were in government. It is nonsense for Opposition speakers to say that they have a genuine and unending commitment to tertiary education. During that period the real value of the tertiary education assistance scheme was allowed to fall substantially. We have now subsumed that scheme under the Austudy program. I will say a little more about Austudy in a moment.

But it was not just TEAS that those opposite wound down in real terms. The number of students eligible to receive TEAS fell from more than a half to around one-third so not only did they wind TEAS down in terms of its real value but the number of students eligible also became smaller and smaller. We saw one of the most pronounced impacts of the Fraser Government's education spending in higher education in the capital sector-the building sector-where in real terms again they wound down funding from a level of around $250m in 1976 to, in equivalent terms, $118m when they left government in 1982. In those cuts those opposite more than halved the amount of real funding. Of course, the same occurred in recurrent expenditure.

My good friend and colleague the honourable member for Jagajaga (Mr Staples) has come into the House. He knows well the performance of this Government in higher education compared with that of the previous Government. This Government has created 36,000 new tertiary places compared with only around 8,000 under the previous Government. In other words, we have created almost five times as many new tertiary places in four years under this Government as those opposite did in the last triennium of their government.

Mr Martin —How many are there in Wollongong?

Mr BRUMBY —I do not know how many there are in Wollongong but I refer the House to what these figures mean. The higher education institution in my electorate of Bendigo shows that the runs are really on the board. When we came to government in 1983 there were the equivalent of 1,400 effective full time students at the Bendigo College of Advanced Education. Most honourable members in this House would not put money on the sort of increase we have had because it has been absolutely dramatic. We now have more than 2,200 effective full time students at the Bendigo College of Advanced Education and we had 1,400 four years ago when we came to government. That is an increase in student numbers in a mere four years of more than 50 per cent. It means that there are 800 people throughout the central Victorian region who have opportunities for higher education under this Government that they would never have got under the previous Fraser Government and which they will certainly never get from this shambles of an Opposition if it ever gets to government in the future.

But that is just the enrolment side. We have built a new teaching centre there at a cost of $2 1/2m. We have built new student residences at Bendigo valued at nearly $1m. This is the first to be built-I say quite proudly as the local member-anywhere in Australia since the demise of the Whitlam Government in 1975. But that is not the only aspect of higher education. In the TAFE sector we are providing new facilities. There is construction going on of a new $9m building in Bendigo which will increase dramatically the capacity for enrolments. Some of the grants we have made this year are to assist needy Catholic schools provide a better education to their students-and I strongly support that. All those things have happened in my electorate under this Government. They simply would not have occurred had the Fraser Government remained in office after 1983 because its policy was to wind down education.

This Government can be proud that we have more young people in education today than at any other time in our history. We have lifted the retention rate from around 36 per cent to just under 50 per cent and we have no doubts that by 1990 this Government, which will then be the third Hawke Government, will have increased that participation rate to around 60 per cent. I have, unfortunately, been asked to speak for only ten minutes but I just want to say a few words about Austudy and the tertiary administration charge. I will start with the tertiary administration charge. In relation to full time students, only those students who, on the basis of their income or their parents' income, have better than average incomes are required to pay any administration charge. For instance, if we look at the cut-off point for Austudy for tertiary higher education students we see that for parents with one child living at home the cut-off figure is a little over $27,000 per year. For a student living away from home the cut-off figure is a little over $32,000 a year.

I just point out for the benefit of the House that average weekly earnings in Australia are considerably below both those figures. So it is not true to say, as do some people in student organisations and on the opposite side of the House, that needy full time students have been required to pay the $250 administration charge. In general those people paying it are better off in income terms than the average Australian. A family with three children, for instance, in tertiary education and living away from home would have to have an income of above $65,000 before the children were not eligible for Austudy. No one can say that that is not a generous income limit, even with three children.

I want to refer to part time students because there is a genuine case for modifying the regulations-the guidelines for the administration charge-for part time students. There is no doubt that in my electorate of Bendigo part time students have been affected in some way by the administration charge. I would like to see modifications made, if they can be in that area, particularly in relation to the level of charge which should be paid by a part time student and also in relation to the income of some part time students because, unquestionably, some have found it extremely difficult to pay the charge. As part of a government which is always prepared to review and modify policies I hope that we can put those things in place for the 1988 academic year.

The last point I want to make concerns the payment and administration of Austudy. There have been difficulties with that program but I hope that they do not detract from the enormous changes we have made to Austudy. We have widened eligibility, increased in real terms the income levels and provided for the first time ever realistic levels of income support to needy secondary students so that the temptations of old-the old disincentives-for young people not to stay on but to leave school early and basically pick up a junior rate unemployment benefit have been removed. So we have done a great deal in that area. We have done an enormous amount in improving the eligibility for and rates of payment under Austudy. However, this year there has been an administration problem. There have been delays and, as a Government member, I do not deny that some of those delays have been quite excessive. One of the reasons for those delays is the fact that the new arrangements for Austudy are so much more generous than those that applied previously. Therefore there are so many more applicants and more students must be dealt with by the Austudy section of the Education Department.

I suggest to the House and to the Government that we give serious consideration to changing the whole nature of the way in which Austudy payments are administered. There are very good grounds for looking seriously at paying future Austudy benefits through regional offices of the Department of Social Security. At the moment Austudy is operated very much as a mail order type of business. Applicants fill in forms and send them to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane or wherever. The forms are processed there on a central computer and sent back to the students. There are more than 200 regional offices of the Department of Social Security around Australia and I believe that it would be in the interests of taxpayers and students if Austudy could be administered through regional offices of the Department. Last year I served as a member of the Joint Committee on an Australia Card. During our deliberations on the Australia Card we brought before the Committee representatives of the Department of Education to question them about the administration of Austudy. As a result of those investigations our Committee last year unanimously recommended that the responsibility for processing applications and payments under Austudy should be transferred from the Department of Education to the Department of Social Security. We also felt-again unanimously-that the Department of Education should control policy matters, but that the regional offices of the Department of Social Security should administer the scheme.

I see enormous benefits in that, particularly in regional and provincial seats. Applicants for Austudy could turn up in person at the local DSS offices. They could fill in forms at those offices where there would be greater ability to check for audit procedures to reduce fraud, which exists to a small degree in the payment of Austudy benefits. I see overall benefits in an improvement in efficiency for both students and taxpayers. I sincerely hope that the Government will look at that suggestion seriously because there are probably savings to be made in that area. At a time when we are trying to cut spending by the order of $2 billion in the May financial statement, such a proposition should be investigated fully. If it could be achieved and implemented in time for the 1988 student year there would be enormous benefits to students and taxpayers alike.

I conclude by saying that all members on this side of the House are proud of what this Government has achieved in education at all levels at a time of great fiscal difficulty. We came to Government with a budget deficit of $9.6 billion in prospect. We have wound that down to around $3.5 billion and, at the same time, we have provided programs in the education area which have assisted young people to participate, to stay in education for a longer period in order to improve their education and skills level. That is good for the individuals concerned and it is good for Australia. I have pleasure in supporting these Bills.