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Tuesday, 6 December 1960

Mr HOWSON (Fawkner) .- The honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns) has spoken for 45 minutes, and it was a pity that, when speaking to a bill of the importance of the one before us, he devoted so much time to a discussion of what are really irrelevant matters such as the security problem confronting one university in New South Wales. It is a pity also that he should have spoken for so long about how one university was unable to obtain a copy of either the bill or the report to which reference has been made. I can only say that if that university had a capable member of Parliament looking after its interests it would have had a copy of the report as soon as it was tabled in this House. After speaking for 45 minutes, the honorable member did not even have time to summarize his points. As I understood it, the main point of his criticism was that not enough is being done. My feeling is that we should first congratulate the Government for what has been done over the last three years. Tt is certainly very much more than was done during the critical period between 1945 and 1949 when the matter was not treated as urgent by any means. A great deal has been done in the last three years and a great deal more is proposed for the next triennium. I feel that, if anything, we are proceeding too rapidly rather than too slowly, and that is a good fault.

Let us first examine the Government's proposals in relation to university activities overseas. The " Economist " of 26th November states that by 1970 it is hoped there will be a student population of 170,000 in the whole of the United Kingdom. I remind honorable members that the population of the United Kingdom is five times greater than that of Australia. It would seem that in order to have in Australia a ratio of student population equal to that proposed for the United Kingdom, the student population of Australia should be about 34,000. Of course, in the United Kingdom the normal course is three years whereas in Australia it is four years, and this could alter the proportion slightly; but the important point is that in Australia we are aiming at a student population of 95,000 by 1966. If the increase continues at the same rate as that which obtained over the last few years, our student population will be of the order of 120,000 by 1 970. Proportionately, this will be approximately three times as many students as is proposed in the United Kingdom.

What I want to be certain about is the justification for the great difference between the Australian target and that which an independent committee considered reasonable for the United Kingdom. T support the commission's report in connexion with the next triennium covering the period from 1961 to 1963, just as I support the bill under discussion; but I take issue with the commission in connexion with a number of points mentioned in the report about the period from 1964 to 1966. Many of the problems mentioned in the report indicate the great need for serious thought by all honorable members, but I think the main criticism must revolve round the actual numbers that will have to be accommodated bv the universities. Again, there is the problem of a true definition of a university. In Australia, we classify all people taking tertiary education as being our student population whereas in the United Kingdom the student population is divided into those attending universities and those attending technical colleges. If there were not that variation of definition, our proportion of student population would be so out of line with that of other countries that there would be great need to revise our thinking. 1 should like to ascertain the main basis of the assumption by the commission that there should be a student population of 95,000 in 1966. Is it based on demand, or is it based on supply? I do not think the commission has thought over that question. Why do we need to have 95,000 university students in training by 1966? Do we want them all in training in the universities, or could we manage if some were in training in universities and others were in training in technical colleges? I am not convinced that there is need in Australia for 95,000 university students, all of them taking full university graduate courses. I do not think there will be a demand for that number of university graduates by 1966.

Therefore, the next question is, " Why has the demand increased so rapidly over the last few years? " This is chiefly due to the greatly improved1 standard of living which has enabled parents to have their children educated for a longer period. Here, I think, a tribute is justly due to this Government. In its eleven years of office, not only have the salaries offered to university graduates become more attractive, but also the general standard of living has been raised to such a degree that many more parents are able to send their children to university. But even allowing for this, I feel that this estimate of 95,000 is excessive.

I am informed that the number of seventeen-year-olds in Australia in 1966 will be about 180,000. Assuming a wastage of 25 per cent, in universities after the first year, and assuming, generally, a fouryear course, it would appear that the intake of universities in 1966 will be about 30.000. This will mean that one in six of the population will go to universities in 1966. Will jobs be available for those people at the end of their course? It is significant, also, that there is a marked discrepancy between the estimates of the universtiies themselves as to how many students they will have enrolled and those of Mr. Davis, the expert who was called in to make an estimate. The predictions of Mr. Davis are much lower, in general, than those of the universities but the commission has accepted, in general, the estimates of the universities.

Having shown what a large proportion of the student population is estimated to go to universities, 1 feel that the figures given by Mr. Davis are probably more realistic than those of the universities. If this top figure for student numbers can be achieved easily, well and good. But we have to look at the price that we would have to pay to achieve this. The price in buildings alone would be considerable. The cost of university buildings and maintenance for the next three years, in order to raise the enrolment of 66,000 to 95,000, will be £103,000,000. In the following triennium the cost will be even larger. It means the cost of an extra university the size of Monash every two years.

A greater price will have to be paid in order to overcome the shortage of staff. To my mind, there is a great danger that if we try to accommodate this large number of students there will be a reduction in teaching standards. It is vital that the standards of our universities be maintained and teachers must be allowed plenty of time for research and for developing their own standards of training. If we are to adopt some of the recommendations of this commission I fear greatly that there will be a reduction in the standard of teaching. I think that we should aim to maintain the quality of university students rather than aim at quantity production - pushing them through, almost as sausages through a machine.

To this end, therefore, are the proposals of the commission really effective? The first thing to which the commission refers is the high failure rate which has already been mentioned by the honorable member for Yarra (Mr. Cairns). As he said, this is one of the most disturbing aspects of university education in Australia. The " Report of the Universities Commission on Australian Universities 1958-1963 " states-

It is difficult to exaggerate the cost in time, effort and money to students, universities and the nation of this low rate of graduation.

Again, at page 30 of the report, it is stated -

There appears to be general agreement among educationalists that students come to the university in Australia for the most part at the age of seventeen years, which is twelve or eighteen months younger than entrants in the United Kingdom and many European countries. The Murray Committee pointed out (paragraph 116) that Australian students "lack the experience given for instance in the Sixth Form of English schools . . ."

The report also states -

A most unsatisfactory feature of student performance in Australia at present is the relatively low percentage of students who graduate in the minimum time.

At page 70 the following comment appears: -

The poor academic performance of a large proportion of students is a challenge to teachers in Australian universities. Although there are signs of improvements recently the average performance still falls far below what seems possible in Great Britain. The consequent waste in funds provided for recurrent purposes is too great to be ignored.

All this information shows that we are incurring a tremendous wastage of funds by allowing the high failure rate to continue. It is on this point that I want to spend some time. The commission, in effect, had two bob each way. First, the commission objected to any form of selection but to my mind the cost of this tremendous wastage in the first year of university education cannot be afforded by the nation. I believe that we shall have to adopt some process of selection for entrance to universities.

Secondly, although the commission disagrees with the need for improving at the present time the standard of education in the sixth form in schools, I am certain that it would be a great advantage eventually for the age at which children go to university to be raised from 17 years to 18 years, and a greater amount of education being carried out in the sixth form in schools. At present, it is obvious that that cannot be done because the schools have not sufficient teachers to make it possible. I am assured that at present it is probably cheaper to teach a student in his first year at a university than to keep him at school and teach him there for an extra year at the same age.

Thirdly, there are problems, generally, of the first year student, which are only made more difficult by the shortage of staff.

The commission has one or two proposals to improve this situation. I entirely agree with the commission's proposal which appears on page 29 of its report that there should be a move, as soon as possible, to get all non-graduate courses off the campus of a university. The commission has quoted the Murray committee as stating that -

Universities should certainly seek to avoid responsibility for groups of students who have not reached matriculation level.

Too often, at the moment, the universities are being asked to do things which are not really their responsibility.

Mr Curtin - Such as?

Mr HOWSON - As you will see on page 29 of the commission's report, the universities are carrying 2,700 students who are classified in the miscellaneous group. I do not think that, at this late hour, members of the Opposition would want me to quote any further in this respect.

I believe that the main line on which this problem can generally be tackled should be the creation of more institutes of technology and the separation, as has been recommended, of pass and honour graduates. I wonder whether the committee has really thought out its proposals and the recommendations that will be necessary to bring these proposals into effect. f would sum up by saying that the universities must maintain their historical role of training the best brains of the country to the highest possible level. They must ensure that the teachers are given time for thought and research, because research and teaching should be inseparable. A teacher cannot be really effective unless he is himself always experimenting and discovering new knowledge and imparting that experimentation and sense of discovery to his students.

If the recommendations of this commission to try to push through 95,000 students by 1966 are to be achieved, I believe there is a great danger of the standards being reduced, chiefly for the reason that there will not be enough teachers available to carry out the job. Of all the things that are referred to in this report the shortage of teachers is, to my mind, the most important.

Until the number of teachers can be increased, we should not attempt to increase the number of students; but there should be a setting up of technical colleges to deal with the vast requirements of that type of graduate for which there will be so many jobs in the next decade. If, therefore, we can see technical colleges set up at an earlier date than is advocated at present, we shall see a very much better answer to the situation than is indicated at the commission's level at present. Unless that is done, there will be a great danger of the university standard being reduced and that, to me, would be completely unacceptable. With these remarks, I commend the bill because it will take the scheme that was started years ago another historical step forward and its impact will be felt by the community as a whole.

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