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Wednesday, 6 May 1987
Page: 2718


Mr SHACK(4.35) —Prior to the luncheon suspension I was beginning to conclude my contribution to the second reading debate on the States Grants (Tertiary Education Assistance) Amendment Bill, the States Grants (Schools Assistance) Amendment Bill and the States Grants (Education Assistance-Participation and Equity) Amendment Bill by finishing with the latter Bill. The recent Commonwealth Schools Commission report on secondary education entitled `In the National Interest' documents the mismanagement and poor design by the Government of the participation and equity program. The Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) has long claimed that PEP has been responsible for the significant increase over the last few years in the number of students completing year 12-the measure commonly known as the secondary retention rate. The Schools Commission concluded:

It is difficult to establish a direct causal relationship between the activities which PEP has fostered and the rising levels of retention in secondary schools.

This is especially true when we recall that the most dramatic rise in retention rates-from 36.3 per cent in 1982 to 45 per cent in 1984-preceded the real commencement of PEP. The program notionally commenced in January 1984 but, as documented by the Schools Commission, the vague design of PEP led to `initial uncertainty in schools about how to translate the program into activity'. Project funds did not start to flow in most cases until the second half of 1984, and the Commission said:

. . . it was not until 1985 that most schools felt that they could move with confidence from their planning to action.

Of course, in May 1985 the Government decided to spread the 1986 funds over two years, into 1987, which effectively cut the annual programs in half. The Commission noted:

Many schools perceived the reduction . . . as a loss of commitment by the Commonwealth to the goals of the program just at the time when the program was beginning to gain momentum.

What, therefore, have been the tangible benefits of PEP? There have been some beneficial developments in increasing parental and community involvement in schools, in fostering co-operative links between schools and colleges of technical and further education, and in limited curriculum areas where there has been some worthwhile innovation. These developments, of course, have been prompted by wider factors than PEP and probably would have happened even without the planning time provided by PEP funds. They would also seem to be very marginal benefits for a scheme which has cost some $250m overall.

Some may remember the Government's moralising rhetoric back in 1983 about participation and equity being `twin objectives' and about ensuring more `equitable outcomes' of education. Well, what did the Commission say about PEP's achievements in the equity area after three years? It gave PEP a fail in equity-a flat, uncompromising `F' for fail. It said most schools found difficulty in translating the specific equity objectives of PEP into projects, and concluded:

PEP has not provided a clear strategy for action in this area.

In other words, PEP failed in equity, and cannot be passed in participation either. I do not wish to be uncharitable at the conclusion of my remarks but if we look at results such as that we would not have to be Einstein to conclude that it was Senator Ryan who was the responsible Minister. Senator Ryan bungled the PEP scheme-that is what the Schools Commission said. She bungled it. If one looks at other programs in her portfolio, one will find that students are going hungry and hiding from the landlord while Senator Ryan fiddles around with the Austudy computer. There has been up to a four-month delay for that first Austudy cheque. Then there is the administration charge which has reduced, for the first time since the early 1970s, participation in higher education. This charge is driving potential students away in their thousands.

It is important to note that Senator Ryan has given us the lowest transition rates for year 12 students since the mid-1960s. This Government has turned the clock back 20 years, which exposes the rhetoric of Priority One's goal of widening educational opportunities for young people. Responsible estimates suggest that 30,000 qualified students have had the doors of higher education shut in their faces. We could go on endlessly. We could look at the bungled administration of the assistance for isolated students scheme this year-the information booklets were about three months late and Senator Ryan had to extend the application period until the end of June. The confusion and inconsistency in this Minister's approach to non-government schools and other areas could itself be the subject for a PhD thesis. It is hard to find one area of the Education portfolio which has been handled well by the responsible Minister.

Senator Ryan should be moved by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). Perhaps she should be moved into the portfolio of the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett), who is at the table. The Prime Minister should reshuffle her into a portfolio where her mistakes would do less damage to Australia's long term future and to the educational needs of our young people.

I have repeatedly stressed that the future into the twenty-first century in Australia will belong to the highly educated, highly skilled, highly trained and highly motivated societies. These nations will reap the benefits of advanced technology and leave others for dead. Australia cannot afford to be a loser. We cannot afford to be complacent about the future, and we must ensure that our education system does its job effectively in terms of numbers and, most importantly, in terms of quality. A new vision and blueprint is urgently needed, for the sake of the entire nation. If we short-change education today, if the Government continues to be a negative and restrictive force in schools and tertiary education, we will simply step closer to full and permanent membership of the banana republic club.