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Wednesday, 12 February 1986
Page: 149

Senator MACKLIN(10.25) —The Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission Amendment Bill 1985 amends the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission Act in line with recommendations made in the report on the structure of the Tertiary Education Commission, the so-called Hudson report. Over the years the development of policy and funding priorities for tertiary education in Australia has been a very complicated one, becoming increasingly contentious. Unfortunately, it is also not particularly efficient, as I hope to show by reference to some specific items. On page 9 of the Hudson report there is reference to the rather farcical situation of the Commission preparing its report before the councils whose advice the Commission is bound to consider have finished their reports. It is an extraordinary and inefficient situation when the peak body puts down its report prior to the reporting of those bodies which are meant to advise it. Hence, there is fairly obviously a need for an overhaul of the system. However, let that comment not be taken as meaning that the Australian Democrats agree with all the criticisms contained in the Hudson report.

I refer to one example that seems to me to illustrate our concern with many of those recommendations. It is that the councils recommended an increase in funding of $355m for the 1985-87 triennium and the Government provided only $65m. The Hudson report cites this disparity as evidence of the irresponsibility of the councils.

Senator Peter Baume —They would fail Logic I on that.

Senator MACKLIN —Quite frankly, I find this an extraordinary proposition. The importance of having independent commissions and of having advisory councils is precisely that they will advise government on how they see the matter. In their expert professional opinion, they put forward what they believe should be the case. It is not for them to make the policy decision; that is for government. But one does not appoint a commission and then expect it to guess what government wishes to do. I have expressed this viewpoint time and again, not only under this Government but also under the previous Liberal-National Party Government. The Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Tertiary Education Commission are expected to provide professional expert advice-not to be a commission of yes men and women, but to put forward a strong, reasoned argument of what are the needs of the sector. The Government, in its budgetary considerations, taking into account advice from the commissions and from all the other expert advisory bodies, has to make tough decisions. It should bear and does bear the odium or the applause arising from those decisions. But it seems to me very odd-almost, as it were, killing the messenger who brought news-to blame the people who put up what is needed.

I wish to illustrate that with some examples of where I think the previous work that has been done to date in many of the recommendations is very useful, not only for the Government but also for the debate in the community at large. I am the first to admit that it is most definitely inconvenient advice, and I suppose all governments are concerned when they receive inconvenient advice. But I would have thought that governments would welcome being given the kind of strong, rigorous advice rather than the weak-kneed, `what is it that the Minister wants' type of advice. Rather than have that served up I would have thought that Ministers would like to know precisely what is going on so that they can make their decisions based on facts and not on material that they come to understand is being given to them because it is perceived to be what they are asking for. The amendments we propose to move meet that very philosophical point of trying to make sure that the advice can be offered-if it must be offered-and it is up to the Government then to make the decisions down the track.

If we look at that $355m that the councils recommended and the $65m that the Government finally provided, it does not seem to me that it is a criticism-if it was meant to be a criticism-that could be levelled only at the councils because after all the Commission, in its wisdom, recommended an increase of $158m, which is still three times what the Government actually provided. Everybody managed to get it wrong. So if Mr Hudson's committee is willing to criticise others, it should also accept that same type of criticism. But I think it is ill-founded, misdirected criticism.

The fact of the matter is that tertiary education is still massively under-funded. That is what the councils have been pointing out; that is what the committee has pointed out. I imagine that the Government itself also believes that tertiary education is still massively under-funded. Its excuse is that it cannot find any more money in a budgetary context. That is fine, but let us not go around criticising various expert bodies just because they point to the obvious facts-they are obvious facts-of the situation in Australia today. When the councils put in those reports they were merely doing their job and I think that they are to be applauded, not criticised. We know from the figures for the 10 years after 1975 that funds for capital developments for tertiary institutions have been drying up. They were drying up under the seven years of the Fraser Government, and that has continued. The Tertiary Education Commission's report for the 1985-87 triennium, volume 2 part 1, on page 39, points to a number of examples. They are matters that I have raised previously and, as I have suggested before, they will probably not be rectified until we have a major catastrophe. For example, paragraph 3.48 says in part:

In particular, it has not been possible to provide all the additional space necessary to cater for increased enrolments. This has resulted in serious overcrowding at some institutions, especially those in outer metropolitan and regional areas . . . While the Commission considered that priority should be given to providing for enrolment growth during the 1985-87 triennium, it also recommended that substantial funds be provided for essential projects to rectify existing building deficiencies. These deficiencies are the result of serious overcrowding . . .

I have already mentioned that, but of even more concern is the following statement:

. . . buildings in the older universities, institutes of technology and consolidated colleges which, because of their age, are completely unsuitable for present needs and in a number of cases, are now serious fire and safety hazards.

That is the fact. I am quite sure that other members of the Senate who visit tertiary institutions, as I do, can see that a number of serious fire hazards exist. I am particularly concerned about the buildings in which large numbers of students gather for major lectures.

Of particular concern to me are the old-style, very steeply raked lecture theatres in the older universities and some of the colleges of advance education. I know of some lecture theatres in Australia whose only fire exit is the main door at the front, past which gas is piped and which leads into a very narrow corridor able to carry only a very small number of people. Often in newspapers and in reports from overseas we learn of major catastrophes occurring in old buildings because of their inadequate facilities. I expect that such facilities will remain in Australia until a major catastrophe occurs and, probably, large numbers of students are burnt to death. Certainly at that point there will be a lot of concern and people will ask why we have not done something. Unfortunately, then it will be too late.

Such facilities currently exist in Australia. I believe that there is an urgent need to upgrade many of those old-style lecture theatres to provide them with a safety outlet. I have raised this matter previously on a number of occasions. In fact, I remember three distinct occasions on which I have raised this matter over the years. I was interested to see that the most recent report for the Commission pointed to the problem as a serious deficiency. We must do something about it. I do not want to be saying `I told you so'. It seems to me to be an area of top priority. It has been pointed to by the Commission and should be seen to.

There is a good argument for having people point out the inconvenient facts. It is important that they do so and that they continue to do so. We should continue having bodies in Australia that can point these problems out and can put pressure on government so that government finally has to respond. The report of the Universities Council, one of those supposedly `overkill'-and I quote from the Hudson report-or `counterproductive' reports, points out in paragraph 9.7 on page 107 the following:

Capital grants made available over recent years at less than $20m a year represent only 0.5 per cent of the total replacement value of buildings within the sector--

I emphasise `0.5 per cent'-

estimated at some $3,000m. Thus the current level of capital grants implies an average life-span for university buildings of about 200 years.

That is fine. We know that many old buildings exist in overseas universities. However, I suggest that anybody who has visited those buildings would know that they are no longer used for the purposes which we use them, that is, for packing in students. This is clearly absurd. The tax Act does not provide for that incredibly long life-span arrangement. But that is the current funding which is available. Again, that is inconvenient advice for sure. Nevertheless, it is true. Capital grants happen to be only 0.5 per cent of the total replacement value of the buildings which implies an average life-span of 200 years. There is nothing wrong in the Council's pointing that out. I am grateful that it has done so. Unfortunately, I am not sure whether it will be able to do so in future.

The differences that we find between what the Government does and what is recommended are the result of political decisions, as they should be in a democratic country. I am happy to go on knowing what should occur even though it does not, because at least we know the size of the problems which face us in each area. I would have thought any government would want that type of information. Paragraph 2.5 on page 9 of the Hudson report states:

The Councils have been used for the wrong purposes. The greatest contribution the part-time members can make is in the area of planning and development of policy rather than on matters of detailed administration and funding which are frequently put before them.

I could not agree more. I believe that is perfectly true. It points to a problem we have had in the past that, in many reports, there has been an over-emphasis on a great deal of detail and of administrivia. I would much prefer it if they had pointed to those general policy items such as those to which I have just referred, as they are general policy positions. I want to point to the last set of amendments, (4), (5) and (6). Often in making a policy statement it is necessary to refer to some of the funding operations, but the Bill as currently stated says in clause 20:

A report furnished under sub-section (2) shall not contain recommendations in respect of grants to be made to particular States or particular institutions.

That is fine in that technical detailed sense, but I do not think I would want to support the idea that the reports need to go on making those fine judgments, because in many ways it is pointless to make fine judgments about $355m when in fact the Government comes up with only $65m. But I would still want as my amendment suggests to provide:

except where the Council considers such recommendations to be necessary for the purposes of the report.

In other words, the carrying out of those general functions of planning and policy development is sometimes inextricably woven with the discussion of the distribution of funds, such as I have just suggested in terms of replacement costs. Unless one makes some type of recommendation on replacement costs, any recommendation does not make much sense at all. Some of these things are so tied up that it is necessary to be able to include those.

In some discussions my staff has had with the Government it has been suggested that `recommendations' means only formal recommendations. If so, I suggest the Government take back the Bill and redraft it because the word `recommendations' I am quite sure on any interpretation, when it finally came to the crunch, could refer to any recommendations contained anywhere in the report. The suggestion is put that those concerned could gabble on about anything they wanted to in the report itself, but that when it came to recommendations there would be a distinction. There is no basis in the legislation for the proposition.

Senator Peter Baume —Convenience.

Senator MACKLIN —I know that it is convenient, but there is no basis in the legislation for making that distinction because no distinction is drawn in the legislation between the report and the recommendation. There is none in number two, and that is the only basis upon which any such legal distinction could be drawn. None is drawn, and therefore this is obviously a blanket prohibition on moving anywhere in these areas. But it is so specifically drawn that one wonders what the Government is getting at. The legislation says, for example, that recommendations cannot be made in terms of any particular States or particular institutions. What happens if one talks about regions? Presumably one can. One could talk about institutions in the western suburbs of Sydney. Provided there is more than one, and there is, we are all right. If the Government wishes to take this step, it will have to redraft clause 20. If not, I wonder why the Government wants to stop States and particular institutions who are quite happy to allow financial recommendations to be made about regions. I do not follow the logic, and perhaps at a later stage the Government may be able to explain the logic behind it, if indeed that provision were meant to implement paragraph 2.5, which I presume it was. However, it does not do that.

What it does on my reading is two things. First, it does not stop one doing anything about regions; secondly, it could stop one even engaging in any discussion of planning and development of policy by the way it encompasses almost everything and just sucks it up. In terms of planning policy with regard to a particular State, seemingly the councils will be hamstrung in a way that I think is totally inappropriate. It would have been possible to implement that general contention that more emphasis should be put on the development of policy and planning in a way that would not hamstring councils in the general wide-ranging views that they wish to put forward.

With regard to the first set of amendments (1) to (3), I would refer to clause 15 of the Bill which deals with the Universities Advisory Council. That is the new name, so presumably we shall have a large number of new letterheads, though I am not sure why we keep changing these names ad nauseam. I imagine that all honourable senators would know that, after the passage of this Bill, the university councils will have a composition different from that before the introduction of the Bill. Why we should go on and on changing the names, I do not know. It must help somebody; I hope so, anyhow. Clause 15 of the Bill states:

The Universities Advisory Council shall inquire into, and furnish information and advice to the Commission with respect to, such matters relating to universities, or relating to university education, as the Commission requires.

In other words, all the initiatives in these areas will now come from the Commission. The Commission will simply say to the Universities Advisory Council `We want X', and the Universities Advisory Council will go and do it. It seems to me that, if we are going to establish a universities advisory council, a TAFE advisory council or the college advisory councils, we should at least give them some respect and recognise their professionalism. I will be moving a set of three amendments in respect of each of those new advisory councils to attach at the end of clauses 15, 20 and 25 the words: `or as the Council determines'. In other words, because the Universities Advisory Council knows the sector and because it is the advisory council there may be matters on which it wants to give advice. If its wants to give advice on some matter of great urgency to it why should it be prevented from doing so and be able to give advice only on matters on which the Commission wants to receive advice? If we are to set up these advisory councils I would have thought that it would be perfectly reasonable to allow them to have an initiative of their own to offer advice, otherwise I think the people who serve on them will feel very hamstrung indeed.

The rest of the Bill carries into effect, in a technical way, the general recommendations of the Hudson report. I believe that, because of the way it has now been organised, it ought to be possible to get advice from the councils to the Commission in time for the Commission to get its report to government. The structures that are provided and the time tables that are set down will now enable that to occur, and I think that has to be an advance. However, I would be concerned if, in using this new structure, any attempt was made to stifle the free flow of information to the Parliament and to the general community which is crucial for an informed debate about the structure of tertiary education in Australia. It is a sector vital to the health of this country not only socially but also, as I have said many times, economically. It is really the power-house from which we can move forward. It can and should provide Australia with citizens capable of producing an economy to maintain the standard of living that we have had in the past. We need to take every bit of skill, every bit of ingenuity and every bit of talent which could be enhanced by tertiary education and so enhance it. We cannot afford to waste any of that in our community.

In the past Australia has been in the forefront of almost every technological development. As the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones) is wont to point out in the speeches that he makes around Australia time and again, unfortunately that inventiveness in Australia too often has not been followed through to completion. In the end it is not that we do not have the ability, the understanding, the ingenuity, the foresight or the inventiveness to come up with the types of things which are necessary to maintain our stance in the world; it is that we do not then take them forward in terms of their development.

We as a community have been extremely well served by the tertiary sector in Australia. However, an organisation of that size is always and should always be subject to criticism. There is always something that can be done better, more economically, more expeditiously and more efficiently. But unfortunately, I believe, too much of our education debate in Australia, as in so many other areas, is concerned with the knocking and fails to address itself, at least on some occasions, to the enormous value that the community derives from our tertiary sector.

I think we can be proud as a nation that we have devoted the resources we have to the establishment of that sector. We can be disappointed that we have not done more. We can be disappointed that we are progressively falling behind so many countries with which we like to compare ourselves in terms of the availability of places in the tertiary sector for our young citizens who need retraining and upgrading. We are dropping further and further behind. We cannot expect the tertiary sector to supplement this by saying to it `You can take more students', and then not funding them so that the tertiary sector cannot deal adequately with them. In the last exercise we increased the number of students and funded them to the tune of about $4,000 each. The Government then turned round and said that it had calculated the cost of a full time student at $10,000-plus. In other words, the Government, on its own reckoning, said to the universities and to the colleges: `You can take as many students as you like but you will get $6,000 less for each student that you take'. That just seems to me to be an exercise in making sure that we keep the good news in one compartment and do not actually link it up with the bad news on the other side. The tertiary institutions understand that they are being squeezed. They are doing their utmost to cut costs and to cut corners. Let us hope that, in the long term, by implementing that type of exercise, we do not effectively cut our own throats by not having the type of people we need in this country for the years ahead.