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Thursday, 30 April 1987
Page: 2083

Senator POWELL(3.12) —I commend to the Senate the monitoring committee's report on the higher education administration charge. In so doing, having listened to the somewhat nauseating bleatings of the Opposition thus far and probably having to suffer further in the course of the debate on this report, I point out that the report vindicates the concerns which the Australian Democrats expressed at the time of the legislation about this fee, which only the Australian Democrats backed up by a vote. We opposed the charge outright but we were not supported, so we moved amendments to deal with the particular anomalies and inequities the existence of which this report has demonstrated, such as the level of the charge being the same for part time and external students as for full time students. We moved that part time and external students should pay half the amount paid by full time students. A reduction in the fee for these groups is now recommended in this report. We were not supported by Government, Liberal or National Party senators. However, since we moved those amendments in December, Liberal and National Party senators have been extraordinarily self-righteous in condemning this and other aspects of the charge. Why did not they support our amendments in December?

The big question is: If the Government goes ahead and expands this administration charge, which is quite possible, what will it do then? In December my colleague Senator Macklin pointed out in this place that about 45 per cent of student enrolment in higher education was part time and external. Senator Macklin predicted at that time that the charge would have an adverse effect on this aspect of higher education, and the report has certainly suggested that that is the case. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) replied to Senator Macklin's concern as follows:

The vast majority of part time and external students are in employment and earning wages, and that as yet we have no evidence that the requirement to pay $250 will present any real obstacles to them . . . As yet we have no evidence that the minority of students who are not in paid employment will find the $250 fee an obstacle or will not be able to borrow it from the loan funds.

We now see that the report before us has vindicated Senator Macklin's concern and that we now have fewer part time and external students.

The report has also brought out, as has already been mentioned, other areas where the fee has had a particular impact. It has reduced participation in higher education by disadvantaged groups, despite the Government's attempt to ensure that the needy would not suffer by the fee, and its protestations to that effect. The committee says in its report that it `considers that there are clear anomalies and needy groups within the community not covered by the current exemption arrangements'. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the financial gains from the charge would appear to have been lost to institutions because of the extra costs of implementing and collecting the fees. Fees are neither an equitable nor a financially efficient way of expanding higher education. Rather, public funding, and appropriate taxation of graduates during their years of employment so that they pay back the investment the community has made in their education, is the right course.

This report says that groups especially affected adversely by the charge are mature age students, female students and students with dependent children. Paragraphs 3.20 and 3.21 of the report make particular reference to the impact on mature age women students studying part time, in particular, married women who are not in paid employment and therefore dependent on their spouse's support to meet the costs of their education. Women students whose husbands are receiving unemployment benefits constitute another particularly disadvantaged group. The report also states that `educating Rita' is not seen as a significant priority in many households. Other identified groups include social security recipients not in the exempt categories, families with more than one higher education student, external rural students, students with disabilities and those who do not fall into the Austudy means test area. The Australian Democrats not only expressed those sorts of concerns verbally last year but actually voted in support of them. For the Opposition to continue to complain when what it proposes is that some students should be paying thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of dollars is equally as clumsy and inequitable as the Government's approach to this fee, which will probably continue since it does not have the right attitude to the way education should be funded.