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Tuesday, 11 September 1984
Page: 1048

Mr COLEMAN(11.30) —The first point to be made about these estimates of $854m for the Department of Education and Youth Affairs is almost too obvious to need being made. This item indicates the Government's hope of defusing certain issues in the field of education which might be damaging to the Government in the forthcoming rushed election. One of these issues is the standards in schools which the Government has suddenly made a big issue. For years parents and then teachers with a sense of professional standards have been complaining that the massive increases in spending of taxpayers' money on schools has not led to a rise in educational standards-let us for brevity call them the three Rs-but has been accompanied by a fall. Not only has this happened but also some of the statistical evidence of it was suppressed when, for example , the Minister for Education abolished the national testing program which reported on the standards of literacy and numeracy of school students and which consequently provided for national and international comparisons between schools . The Ministers did not want to know the results of the tests and certainly did not want the public to know.

Educationists-I say 'educationists', but it is often a label for people who are afraid of genuine education-in defence of their position, published libraries of gobbledegook to try to show what parents knew to be a fact was not a fact, to show indeed that standards were generally improving. The Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) was particularly scornful of the 'elitists' who talked about standards. They had class prejudices, she said. They lived in some cloud cuckoo land of the 1920s and so on. The Liberal and National parties adopted a policy of doing something real about standards in our schools and the public responded warmly. So now the Minister and the Government have done an about-turn and established a quality of education committee under the chairmanship of Professor Karmel to develop strategies so that the Commonwealth can direct its funds more effectively towards the raising of standards in schools. This is good news even if it is a sort of death bed repentance. We must wait to see whether the committee really confronts the problems, including those sections of the teachers' unions which regard a concern for standards as indicating elitism, racism or goodness knows what.

Another issue which the Minister and the Government have tried to defuse is that of aid to non-government schools. The Minister has made plain her hostility to non-government schools and last year made serious cuts in funding to 40 of them, including six in my electorate. The fault of the schools was that their funding from all sources was about equal to that of government schools in the Australian Capital Territory. The private schools, which are as good as government schools in the Australian Capital Territory, of course had to be hit. Now she says she has travelled the road to Damascus and is sponsoring what she calls a new deal for schools and a new commitment to supporting non-government schools. This is all to the good, although it is done with a view to a rushed election. The Government has acknowledged the strength of the case that has been put by non-government schools and the depth of feeling involved and has retreated. But it is a welcome retreat. Nevertheless, I do not believe it will put an end to what the Minister calls 'the divisiveness of the State aid issue', a divisiveness she has done something to promote. I do not believe that because of the strength and bitterness of the anti-non-government schools lobby in the Australian Labor Party. But at least for the moment that lobby has been frustrated.

Mr Robert Brown —You are getting worse.

Mr COLEMAN —I hope the honourable member will keep interjecting on this issue because every time he interjects he and his colleagues lose some further votes. I encourage the honourable member to keep interjecting so that he and his anti- government schools position will lead him to lose more votes. I urge him to keep it up. The anti-non-government schools lobby has not been entirely frustrated. The cuts made to the 40 non-government schools last year have not been and will not be restored. Further, total funding for non-government schools increased in real terms only by 1.8 per cent compared with an increase to government schools of 5.7 per cent, a huge gap of some 300 per cent.

But the real attack is on new independent schools, especially the new Christian schools, the number of which have expanded by about 50 per cent since 1978. They will now be required to give two years notice of establishment if they are to qualify for government funds. Capital grants will be available only to non- government schools in so-called developing areas. In other words, people in a so -called developed area who are dissatisfied with the local schools will not be assisted to establish a new school. Their freedom of choice will be restricted. A committee will supervise the development of new schools and apply the guidelines. Since the chairman of the committee was the information officer for the Australian Council of State School Organisations which opposes government funding of non-government schools, one must assume these new guidelines will be zealously and strictly applied and that parental freedom of choice will be narrowed as much as possible.

The final point I want to make concerns the Government's commitment to affirmative action. A number of programs within this estimate have been designed to improve the participation and performance of girls and women at the various levels of education. These are all to be welcomed although one cannot help noticing that, without any particular government program being responsible for it, we now have a higher percentage of girls completing the full school course- about 45 per cent-than boys, at 40 per cent. The Government has also supported the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission proposal that all tertiary institutions establish equal employment opportunity programs and three tertiary institutions-the Australian National University, Griffith University and the South Australian College of Advanced Education-are involved in the Government's voluntary pilot affirmative action program. These developments will be followed closely by all members of this House. It is unconscionable that a woman pursuing an academic career should be discriminated against purely on the ground of her sex. Obviously many people think that this happens, and this idea is plainly the basis of the various affirmative action programs in this education budget and outside it.

Nevertheless, the testimony is not all one way. Well known people such as Professor Kramer claim there is no discrimination of any significance against women academics and that if few women become professors-very few do-it is principally because they have made a free choice to pursue other interests. Dame Leonie Kramer has been quoted as saying:

Equality is meaningless if standards are eroded. Court-imposed quotas in America had disastrous results.

The Government assures us that we are not following the American way and that our affirmative action program will be voluntary and experimental. But there can be a fine line between legally imposed and enforced quotas and Government recommended 'voluntary' quotas which are perceived as being in effect compulsory in that if voluntary quotas do not work they will be made compulsory. Recently Professor Stove, of the Philosophy Department at Sydney University, wrote that unfair discrimination against women has simply not existed in the universities and, if it has, the number of cases has been 'vanishingly small'. In the case of his own profession, he says there has never been a case of an appointment in philosophy in which a man was preferred, because of his being a man, over a better woman candidate. But he says things are changing and that women are now being appointed because they are women, over better men candidates. This is happening in all our universities, at least in the humanistic faculties. He says :

Cases of unfair discrimination against men are occurring in universities almost every day and no-one says a word.

He sums up in this way:

The feminists have already made the quality of Australian university staff lower than it otherwise would have been. Since they are still gaining influence, this will no doubt in future make the quality of university staff worse still.

I cannot say whether this is correct or false although I know Professor Stove to be a perceptive and balanced observer. The point is that if unofficial as opposed to official affirmative action-one has to distinguish between the two because the officers administering these programs say one thing but do another in many cases-is proceeding in this direction, we are doing no good for the reputation of universities, the students or the staff and no good to the taxpayers who pay for it all. At last we have got governments to take seriously the problem of standards in our schools. I hope government policies do not help to create that same sort of problem in our universities.