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Tuesday, 6 December 1960

Mr FORBES (Barker) (12:45 PM) .Mr. Speaker,honorable members at this late hour, will be pleased to hear that I shall resist the temptation to canvass the many interesting points that were made by the honorable member for Fremantle (Mr. Beazley), with many of which I heartily agree. I will, however, mention the point which the honorable member made about the standard of teaching in universities. I agree entirely that not enough attention is given to this matter. In fact, the attitude of large numbers of staff at universities to the teaching aspect of their university work can be described, in my view, as little short of criminal in the circumstances in which we find ourselves in Australia to-day.

Apart from congratulating the Government on the readiness with which it has accepted the Universities Commission's recommendations for the next triennium at a time when there is very strong pressure to reduce governmental expenditure, I wish only to make one point: Although the Commonwealth Government will spend only £40,000,000 on the State universities in the next triennium, the State governments will spend £62,000,000 in that direction. Over £100,000,000 in all will be spent on university education. That is an enormous sum. I am quite sure that that expenditure is warranted. Perhaps even more money should be spent on university education. But probably 25 per cent, of that £100,000,000 will be wasted because the structure of university education in its present form is costly, inefficient, and very wasteful of the available resources for tertiary education. I do not think that anybody disputes this. The Murray committee itself mentioned this matter in its report. The Prime Minister (Mr. Menzies) mentioned it when he spoke on the bill.

I refer particularly to the very large proportion of people who will go to universities in the period under consideration but will not graduate. I believe that the money spent on people who go to universities and fail to graduate can be regarded as having been wasted. I notice that the Universities Commission has suggested that a part of this expenditure is worthwhile because it possibly provides one sure method of selecting people who are capable of benefiting from a university education. I do not agree with that view. The wastage of university resources results from the fact that over 30 per cent, of the students who undertake university training do not complete their courses and graduate.

Many suggestions have been made in an attempt to ensure graduation. It has been suggested that the staff-to-student ratio should be raised, better teaching facilities provided and that better preparation should be made by students themselves before entering universities. These proposals are designed to improve the situation within the existing education framework. I believe that that approach to this question is quite wrong. I think much can be done to improve matters by raising teaching standards, by providing better facilities, and by ensuring that people who enter universities are better prepared, but the people who will benefit from these measures are not the 30 per cent, who fail to graduate; they are the 20 and 30 per cent, of all students who fail to complete their courses i;i the minimum time. There is scope for improvement in facilities and teaching methods. I do not think that much impact cun be made on the 30 per cent., because most of those people are not capable of benefiting by improved teaching methods. In other words, they should never have gone to a university as we know the term in this country. I have made those remarks because I believe that our approach to this matter should be changed. In its report the commission said -

In Australia there seems always to have been a conviction that higher education should be open to all young people of ability, irrespective of wealth or class; that university education is a right rather than a privilege. 1 agree with that statement. I agree that that is the situation that should prevail in Australia. The commission chose its words very carefully. It placed emphasis on the words " higher education ". It did not refer to " university education " as we understand the term in Australia to-day. The commission also referred to people of ability. The level of ability at which people should be admitted to a university is a matter for argument. We should be thinking in terms of a different form of higher education. We should be thinking of a form of tertiary education better suited to the needs of the community and the people concerned. We should be thinking of additional forms of tertiary education which we can graft on to the present university system. I feel that we should establish something along the lines of the English polytechnic- - tertiary technical institutions. They are tertiary education institutions but they are not universities in the traditional sense. If we established such institutions in Australia and actively encouraged them, I think they would have a number of avantages which would help to overcome many of the problems that we face in tertiary education to-day with our present systems. To begin with, we could probably relieve the universities of the burden of 25 per cent, of the people who attend them at present. Tt must be borne in mind that under our present system people will attend our universities in everincreasing numbers during the next five or six years.

The first reason why I think that the system I have suggested would be better than the present system is that it would involve a more economic use of the resources available for tertiary education. The second reason is that it would be better for the 30 per cent, of students who at present do not graduate from the universities. The third reason is that the suggested system would provide a better service to industry than the present university system does. In the fourth place the suggested system would provide room for certain departments which are now in universities but which should never have been there. It would provide a more economic use of our total resources available for tertiary education.

I will deal briefly with the reasons why the system would provide a more economic use of the total resources available because I do not wish to detain the House any longer than necessary at this hour. In the first place, it would provide a more economic use of resources because the staff in such institutions would not need to be as highly paid as the staff in existing universities. It must be remembered that staff salaries represent a high proportion of the recurrent budget of the universities. A person teaching in an institution such as I have referred to would not need to have the same qualifications as a person teaching in a university. Such institutions would not require the expensive research equipment which represents such a large proportion of the expenditure in the average university. They would be better for the students who fail to graduate from universities at present. Those students would not be wasting two or three years of a university course and then finding themselves without any qualifications at all. In institutions of this type students would find courses suited to their needs and to their abilities. Such courses would provide them with qualifications that would be useful to them and to the community. Those institutions would provide a better service to industry. The needs of industry to-day are being increasingly met by what some people call sandwiched courses. That is, the student spends part of his time in the training institution, goes back to industry and works for a while and then returns to the university or training institution. The courses in the institutions to which I have referred would be specifically tailored and administered to suit the needs of industry. In charge of such institutions would be persons in close liaison with industry.

Such institutions would provide natural resting places for many departments that now exist in universities but which should not be there. I am thinking of faculties such as physical education, pharmacy - some people will disagree with me in this regard - music and drama. The University of New South Wales is a classic example of a university containing departments many of which should be in an institution of the type to which I have referred. However, because there is nowhere else to house them, those departments are housed in the University of New South Wales and their staffs enjoy salaries and conditions equal to those enjoyed by the staff of the university. An institution of the type I have referred to would be a natural resting place for such departments. That would leave the universities free to give the best possible training to the best possible brains, without being frustrated, as they are at present, by a dead weight of numbers. As many other speakers in this debate have done, I wish to emphasize the great importance to a country like Australia of cultivating and developing our best brains. The destiny and the greatness of this country will depend on the trained brains of very few people, even taking into account the numbers who actually attend universities. We should so cut our cloth that those people who rise out of the ruck will receive the best possible training and will be encouraged to make the best possible contribution to the future of this country.

Probably it will be said that my suggestion involves a process of selection - something on which the commission's report rather frowns. I have no objection to a process of selection provided some form of tertiary education is made available to everybody who has the ability to benefit by it. Then I think we would be fulfilling our responsibilities to the Australian community. The States should be consulted before any process of selection is put into effect. If a mistake is found to have been made in the selection process it should be possible for a student to change from the university to the technical training institution, or vice versa, at the end of the first year or even at the end of the second year. I support the bill.

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