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Tuesday, 12 October 1971
Page: 2174

Dr SOLOMON (Denison) - The honourable member for Fremantle (Mr Beazley) accuses us of having a tragic Government policy in this field. He speaks of our drifting. He talks of elitism although he did not elaborate on that. He mentions the case for the church schools in relation to the fact that their pupils are Australians as are those in State schools. He suggests that we have an open university at some expense, smaller classes and a number of other things. I think this is not the time to take him up on a number of these matters. But while once again, as I think I did last year, acknowledging the imperfections of our system, I think I should for a moment draw attention to one or two figures which the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser) put before us in his recent statement. The Commonwealth now expends something like 35 per cent of all capital educational expenditure, in comparison with 18 per cent 10 years ago. In this financial year the estimate of $345m total is 14 per cent up on the previous year and that in turn was an even greater increase on the year before. Commonwealth expenditure on universities is going up 20 per cent to $90m and expenditure on scholarships overall is going up by 14 per cent to $44m. I do not suggest that these things are perfect achievements but they are increases of a greater order than the increases in the populations in the institutions concerned, so at least we are moving in the right direction, to put it at its worst.

The honourable member for Fremantle has touched on a number of matters which I can not take up in detail, but I want to deal with one of them in particular, and that is an issue which is apparently crucial at the present time. 1 refer to the question of independent schools and what is now generally known as state aid. Mr Deputy Chairman, as you well know, there are 2 very decided opposing views on this issue, although the major political parties have now long since both championed the cause in one way or another of independent school aid. There have been from the other side of the House numerous uses of the word 'crisis' in relation to education in the 2 years that I have been here. I believe that on most occasions the use of the term was undeserved. But it does appear that on this occasion we are getting very close to what may be properly regarded as a crisis situation.

In selecting the State aid question, or the independent schools problem, as the prime issue in relation to these estimates, I think I do so on a basis of fact. I merely take one example which has had some publicity. I refer to the Tasmanian Catholic schools. They are, of course, only part of the independent sector, but I am led to believe on good authority that 20 out of 48 Catholic schools in Tasmania are in grave financial straits. This forms the background of the public denunciations by the Archbishop of Hobart in this matter. One could ask the question in relation to this: What about the relatively low fees that are being charged in Catholic schools as distinct from other Independent schools through the history of this independent school system? Well, the answer is that there is no question that there are generally lower parental incomes among the parents of Catholic children than those in the protestant sector. That has been so for some time. But more importantly I think for the moment, these schools to which I refer, or this system, have increased fees by 24 per cent for primary schools and by 12 per cent for secondary schools in 1971. So if one chooses to be critical of how much is put into the system as distinct from how much is asked for, I believe it shows very definite evidence of goodwill in the matter, of self help and of intent to do as much as people can within their own system.

There is also a situation which is common to the government schools as to the independent schools. The factor that lies behind the basic problem here is the increase in teachers' salaries and, in the case of Catholic schools, the increasing proportion of lay teachers among their total staff. Gone are the days when the great proportion of their staffs were people in orders who were paid at much lower rates, if at all, than those for lay teachers in the State system and elsewhere.

We might ask obviously what is needed in this situation. The simple answer is money. It appears from anything I can deduce, observe or analyse in this matter, and I have not heard any other suggestions - let us hope there are some - that the best solution to this problem is per capita grants for running costs, and that is not a new idea; and secondly the possible usefulness of some system whereby we might build into the cost structure of the education system a particular figure whereby increases could be guaranteed. So, for example, the allocations to independent schools might be a percentage of the cost of educating an average child in the State system.

As I said earlier, I am well aware that there are some people good and true who very much oppose the existence of State aid - they are very much opposed to assistance which is designated in that way. I understand their arguments but it is very hard, either from principle or from the pragmatic point of view, to suggest that we should now close the door on the independent system. I rather suspect, if I do not read it awrong, that the Labor Party is inclined ultimately to do that by introducing a means test principle. The ultimate outcome of that would in fact be the closure of independent schools of whatever denomination in due course. But I believe that we roust think in terms of the fact that matters of conscience are treated in a very indulgent way in the community these days and whatever the history of this matter, which is relevant, the religious schools in Australia were first in the field and the advent of the State system came later. With the advent of the State system we got to the position where everyone, not just some, paid and in some effect now pay twice.

I return to the question of conscience. It is the basis for religious education - whether it is conscience with a religious involvement or whether it is just sheer personal conscience. But we talk in terms of the ability or the freedom of people to follow their own dictates of conscience or inclination in the matter of education. Of course, we must qualify this allowance by saying that no-one should be allowed to do that unless the institutions are of an approved standard. That goes without saying. But I am saying it because there may be the suggestion that we are paying for second-rate education. That should not be so. If it is so, those standards should be applied rigorously enough to make sure the public is not paying for second-rate education in any system. But if we give fairly free rein to conscience in other respects, not least in the c?se of dissenters from national service and others, whether or not we prefer a secular basis for education, the freedom to choose the educational institution to which we might send our children seems to me to be a pretty fundamental one. On the other hand, if we take a pragmatic view, then here we have a system or systems of non-State schools which in fact are educating about a quarter of our children. If we were, by any negative financial means, to close down these schools, this would throw a very considerable burden onto the State. One can well put the positive argument that whatever governments do or do not do for independent schools, their existence does not necessarily imply more or less expenditure on education in the state sector and it certainly does imply more expenditure on education overall by the community at large.

The very existence of a second or third level stratum or alternative means of education certainly ensures that people will be putting more money in than is sometimes suggested. For example, I can take the case of a person who a year ago paid, say, $260 a term for 2 youngish children at a private school. In 1971 the figure had become $360. Let us say the person concerned is earning at a marginal rate of tax of 40c in the $1. If we calculate from that we find that this person would get tax relief of $240. For an outlay of $1,000 that person would still be paying $760 of it into an education system. So I think it goes without further proof that in fact there is a lot of money going into education through the existence of this system. Any thoughts of not keeping this system afloat need to be very, very well backed indeed by arguments other than any I have so far heard.

Finally, I believe that the Government has a lot to do yet in this field, but I think the increases to which I referred earlier indicate that its heart is in the right place and it is moving - not drifting - with a certain amount of concern in the right direction.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mr Cope) - Order! The honourable member's time has expired.

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