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Wednesday, 4 December 1985
Page: 2900

Senator WATSON —Does the Minister for Education agree with Professor Helen Hughes's recently reported comment that `Australia's neglect of intellectual values has meant that people in responsible positions often lacked professional qualifications and were thus unwilling to recognise the need for professionalism'? Would the Minister state what plans are being made to promote excellence throughout the whole schools system instead of the mediocrity and satisfaction with second best effort that pervades our education system today?

Senator RYAN —Whether I agree with Dr Hughes's assessment is secondary to the fact that I certainly do not agree with the assumptions that underlie Senator Watson's question. I certainly do not agree that the second rate or the mediocre dominates our education system either at school or tertiary level. I am quite familiar with Dr Hughes's views on a number of issues relating to education. Some of them I agree with; some of them I do not. I think that Dr Hughes's general concern to see Australia become a leader in our region in educational and associated matters is an important concern, which I share. But I also think that Dr Hughes suffers the disadvantage of having spent most of her working life outside Australia and working in and dealing with an education system of an entirely different kind from the one we have here. I think that some of her criticisms of our education system reveal a lack of familiarity with what actually is happening throughout our schools and tertiary institutions. I hope that as she spends more and more time in this country and becomes more and more familiar with some of the developments that are being sponsored by our Government and by previous governments in recent years she will have a more realistic appreciation of some of the very fine things that are happening in our education system.

That is not to say that we cannot do better. Our Government came to office-indeed has come to office twice-with two very important values underpinning our education policies. Those are the values of equity and excellence. Through our education policies at schools level and in tertiary education we have pursued both of those values simultaneously. We have made education more accessible. For example, the greatly improved retention rate in upper secondary years demonstrates the success of the improved access to schools; and in terms of tertiary education we have also seen greatly improved access to TAFE colleges and universities by previously disadvantaged groups, such as students living in the outer western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, students living in regional centres, and particularly disadvantaged groups such as Aboriginal people. We have demonstrable and measurable improvements in access as a result of our policies.

At the same time we have concerned ourselves with issues of quality and relevance. In regard to schools, we have sponsored a major review of the quality of education chaired by Professor Peter Karmel, perhaps our most distinguished researcher and policy formulator in this field. Consequent upon that review, we are revising both our recurrent funding policies and our approach to special purpose programs in schools to ensure that the outcome of improved quality of education for all students is being met.

So far as tertiary education is concerned, we have now had instituted via the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission a series of discipline reviews which will ensure that the major disciplines in all our universities are thoroughly scrutinised by outstanding practitioners of those disciplines to ensure not only that high standards are maintained but also that where any problem of standards may be identified it will be overcome. It is very important that we concern ourselves with quality because as a social reform government, a government that is intent on bringing the benefits of education to all Australians and not just to those who by background or income can afford to purchase it, we want to be sure that improved access, which we are achieving, is access to the highest possible standard. We would have considered that we had failed in our program of social reform if improved access by disadvantaged groups to education was access to any inferior kind of educational opportunities. So we are pursuing these matters. Dr Hughes may not be aware of the success that we are having-but she may be, because I am not entirely sure that the paraphrase of her views presented to us by Senator Watson in his question is accurate.

I conclude by stating that we already have a very high quality education opportunity available to students throughout Australia. The fact that we have such a queue of students from overseas anxious to take advantage of university education in this country is but one demonstration of the fact that we have a high quality product here.

Senator Lewis —What about the queue of Australians trying to get education?

Senator RYAN —Indeed, the fact that we have an increasing number of young Australians anxious to take advantage of higher education is further demonstration that what they want is of a satisfactory quality. We are an ambitious, reform government and we are determined we will reallocate, review and redistribute resources so that the quality of education at all levels is constantly improving under our administration.