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Friday, 30 March 1984
Page: 995

Senator REYNOLDS —Did the Minister for Education see an article by Helen Trinca in today's Australian entitled 'Top uni students ''mostly wealth'' '? How does Professor John Western's research on the relatively privileged backgrounds of the majority of university students, especially in medicine and law, measure up to the Government's own information? What measures will the Government take to ensure that students from less privileged backgrounds are not excluded from Australian universities?

Senator RYAN —Yes, I did read with great interest the newspaper report of Professor Western's research, because obviously it is of great concern to the Government that we introduce a measure of equity into the matter of access to higher education. I will seek to get a copy of Professor Western's survey so I can study it carefully. I am advised by the Tertiary Education Commission that the kinds of findings in Professor Western's research are reinforced by the information available to the Commission. The Commission advises me that if we were to divide university students in Australia into three groups we would find that of people in the high category, that is, the high socio-economic group, almost 20 per cent attend university compared with 9.1 per cent in the middle socio-economic group and 6.6 per cent in the low socio-economic category. The way to address that is not simply to request the universities to broaden access without making any changes. I think the way to address it is to look at the reasons why students from lower socio-economic backgrounds do not get to the point of academic performance where they can get into faculties such as medicine and law. If we are to do that we have to recognise that many of the schools serving the poorer communities have not had available to them adequate resources to prepare students adequately with that aptitude for universities.

Senator Peter Baume —Do you think it all happens at schools?

Senator RYAN —It is a complicated argument. I am not quite sure what the point of Senator Baume's interjection is. Quite clearly, some schools are better able to prepare talented students for entry into prestigious university faculties than other schools. It is certainly the case that students from poorer families, because of their family backgrounds, have further obstacles to achieve.

Senator Walters —Hooray! Ha, ha, ha!

Senator RYAN —It is quite apparent that socio-economic standing and ability are not always positively correlated. There are many examples of that in this place. Our Government is seriously concerned, to put it simply, that students from a poorer background or students who attend schools in poorer areas have many obstacles in their way to enter faculties such as medicine and law. We realise that the solution to this is not simple. We realise that it involves improving the educational standards in the schools that these students attend. I accept, and I believe the Government accepts, that it will mean providing a higher level of income support for students from poorer families so they are able to complete their secondary schooling. It will probably mean a higher level of support for tertiary students because many students from poorer backgrounds have the qualifications to pursue a high level tertiary degree but cannot afford to do so .

It is a complex matter of disadvantage that we are addressing. We are addressing it both through our improvements in schools programs, our increases for student allowances and also in our discussions and debates with the university sector so that they can look at their selection criteria to ensure that they are not using irrelevant selection criteria but are using criteria that have to do with student ability and aptitude and not socio-economic status.