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Wednesday, 19 September 2001
Page: 31023


Mr LEE (5:18 PM) —The Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment Bill 2001 amends the Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Act 2000 to provide extra funding, as announced in the Australians Working Together package released on 2 April. The bill provides $8.6 million over three years for early intervention strategies involving communities, industry and education providers, in order to encourage indigenous students to complete year 12, to complete apprenticeships and to pursue job opportunities. It is estimated that around 1,600 students will be assisted between 2002 and 2004 through expenditure of $6 million to support development and implementation of a partnerships approach and customised service delivery. Another $2.6 million will be used to provide business support for vocational learning for indigenous secondary school students. I am advised that some 40 communities and several hundred students are expected to be involved. It is proposed that there will be a range of options available, such as entry level skills training, VET in schools programs, mentoring and individual case management, and that communities may use more than one of these approaches when deciding what their particular needs are—and we welcome that.

The bill also provides $2.86 million over three years to offset the impact on non-profit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations of changes to the Fringe Benefits Tax Assessment Act 1986. The changes came into force in April this year and restrict the eligibility of charities and other non-profit organisations to tax concessions on no more than $30,000 worth of benefit per employee. The funds from the Commonwealth through this bill are designed to help indigenous non-profit organisations continue to offer competitive salary packaging, which is necessary to attract appropriately qualified staff. I am advised that there are 145 non-profit indigenous organisations currently receiving funding under the Indigenous Education Strategic Initiatives Program. The estimate of the likely cost to these organisations of the changes to FBT legislation was based on a study commissioned by the Department of Health and Aged Care and by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. The study found that the FBT changes, if not offset by additional funding, were likely to bring about staff cuts and/or program restrictions. For that reason we support this particular portion of the legislation.

I cannot speak on a bill dealing with indigenous education without raising once again my concern about the recent decline in tertiary education participation by indigenous students—and I know that this is a concern shared by the honourable member for Banks. Progress in this area has been slow. In 1991 indigenous students made up 0.9 per cent of higher education students. By 1994 this had grown to 1.0 per cent. By 1998 it had reached 1.2 per cent. So growth was slow but steady. It is with alarm, then, that we note that the latest DETYA figures show that in the year 2000 the proportion of indigenous students in higher education fell back to 1.1 per cent. Participation of indigenous Australians in vocational education and training also fell in the year 2000—from 3.1 per cent in 1999 to 3.0 per cent. So we have seen an across-the-board fall in indigenous participation in post-secondary education and training, and that is a tragedy for those indigenous Australians who have missed out.

In response to a series of Senate estimates questions asked in June this year, DETYA advised that in 2000 the number of indigenous students enrolled in higher education was 7,350, or 651 fewer than in 1999. It also advised that the number of commencing students was 3,510, which was 630 fewer than in 1999. DETYA said in its written response, `We are unable to confirm the reason for the decline and are undertaking further research into the issue.' I would ask the minister what that further research has revealed and whether he can deny that his own punitive changes to Abstudy provide the only valid explanation for this significant reversal of a trend of increasing participation that extends back as far as records go.

In 1998 the minister announced changes to Abstudy that, he said, would `open up opportunities for indigenous students to access a wider range of assistance to achieve better education and employment outcomes'. He dismissed claims that the cuts in support to mature age students would lead to declines in the number of indigenous students, and the minister insisted that the changes were budget neutral. Now we have information from his own department that shows that the critics were right and the minister was wrong: the total number of indigenous tertiary students in receipt of Abstudy fell by 1,568 between 1999 and 2000, when the changes were implemented; and expenditure on tertiary Abstudy fell by more than $5 million. So much for budget neutrality! Of the $8.6 million in extra program funds provided by this bill, $5 million has already been taken from Abstudy. As I said before, the opposition will be supporting this bill, but we would appreciate more honesty and integrity from the government—and in particular from the minister—in dealing with the serious problems facing indigenous Australians.