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Thursday, 30 May 1996
Page: 1417

Senator TIERNEY(12.32 p.m.) —I rise in this debate to support the Education and Training Legislation Amendment Bill 1996. It is quite refreshing to have after three weeks in this parliament an uncontentious bill. We are actually going to get through another piece of legislation, which, I think, is our second piece of legislation in three weeks.

Senator Carr —Wrong about that.

Senator TIERNEY —Our productivity can only go up, Senator Carr, from this point. This legislation does three things and I want to address each of those in turn. First of all it abolishes the training guarantee levy, which was created by the previous government in 1990. The second point relates to the open learning initiative and a technical amendment to finish off funding for that particular program over the next two years. The third point is the provision of an additional $20.7 million of capital grants that have been promised to non-government schools.

On the first matter, this bill finally buries the discredited and defunct training guarantee levy. This measure was introduced in 1991 by the former Labor government and was suspended by amendment in 1994. There is now, as you have heard round this chamber today, bipartisan support for that approach. The ALP realised finally that this scheme was ineffective. It was best summed up in an article in the Good Weekend, in the Sydney Morning Herald, in 1993. It stated:

This act has spawned an industry in which abseiling down a cliff is called team building; in which cosmetics demonstrations are training for receptionists; in which gym membership is written off as a stress management program and in which the definition of a corporate classroom is a five star resort.

They were some of the rorts that were occurring under this particular scheme in the name of training.

Industry was very much opposed to this very blunt instrument to improve training in our country. A 1992 Australian Taxation Office survey of companies' attitudes to the training guarantee levy and what it was actually doing to the companies revealed the following. Seventy per cent said that the act created more administrative work; 63 per cent said they were spending the same amount of time, or even less time, on training; nine per cent admitted they were undertaking unnecessary training to fulfil the requirements of the act; and only four per cent—only four per cent—had a positive response to the act. It was a very ineffective piece of legislation created by the former Labor government. The training guarantee levy, along with the so-called Working Nation program, failed. What they did show was a commitment, under Labor, to off-the-job training.

This government is committed to on-the-job training. We will set out, as one of our highest priorities, to revamp the apprenticeship system in this country, particularly at a time when we have such high levels of youth unemployment. The apprenticeship system was allowed to run down shamefully by the last Labor government. There were only 50,000 places a year under the ALP's scheme in 1995-96. That is exactly the same figure as 12 years ago.

Under the training guarantee, employers have no recognition for taking on apprentices. Labor had set up a scheme that was supposed to guarantee training but they had forgotten to include apprentices in that scheme. No wonder apprenticeships in this country declined so drastically over the period of the previous government. As I indicated earlier, the training guarantee allowed executives to go off on stress relief to resorts, and that was claimable. The scheme became discredited, DEET did not monitor the scheme properly, and what should pass as real training in this country, in terms of apprenticeships, was not being done. Good riddance to another failed Labor program.

The second matter in the bill gives the minister discretion to approve funding allocated under the Higher Education Funding Amendment Act (No. 2) 1990 to the open learning initiative, and in particular to its centrepiece, the Opening Learning Agency of Australia. This is to correct the minor anomaly to allow money to be spent in the last two years of the program, and then the OLAA is supposed to be self-sufficient.

This was an initiative by the last government in 1992-93 to improve flexibility in higher education. In reality it was at that time—as senators will remember, in the depths of the recession—really part of the government's quick fix solution to long and lengthening unemployment queues. We also had at that time long and lengthening university queues. People were trying to get into a university and could not. When I came into this parliament, 50,000 people were being turned away each year from university gates.

So the last government came up with this open learning initiative. Treasurer Dawkins hailed it in the 1992 budget as `creating a new era in higher education'. It was supposed to do this—and I quote from the budget papers of 1992:

Every person with a TV or a letter box will have the opportunity to access higher education.

What overblown rhetoric that was. The reality is that several years later the Open Learning Agency, which was supposed to be the saviour of the system and allow proper access to higher education, had only 5,000 students. It has been a pimple on the pumpkin of the system. When compared with universities like Deakin, where there are 50,000 external students just in the one area, quite a contrast is created with this particular failed initiative.

The Senate committee which I chaired examined this initiative in 1994 and 1995. It brought down two reports: one on the Open Learning Agency and one on open learning more generally. The committee, as a result of those hearings, did table in the Senate a number of unanimous recommendations on what the future of the OLAA should be. We felt that the whole thing needed to be integrated more into the university system and come under the auspices of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. The feeling was that, if we had done that, it would then be owned by all the universities and could become a tool for developing open learning right across the whole system.

Unfortunately, because the system was set up on a cheap quick-fix basis, this was not going to happen. The sums were all wrong. The amount of money the students paid—it was supposed to be self-financing—was $310 per unit. Our best estimate for the cost of running a university course, even in the arts, is from $600 to $800 a unit, and they were only allowing $300 a unit. Worst still, the participating university got only $185 of this off the top and the faculties got only $100 to administer the course.

So how can we have quality in that sort of system? There is not enough money to meet the cost of running the course. There is not enough money for the libraries and there is not enough money for administration. It really worked in only a rough sort of way because the universities that wanted to participate were prepared to cross-subsidise this system, which is hardly fair. We need to integrate open learning with the rest of the universities. Perhaps, in this revamped form, we could use it as a tool to take open learning into other countries and provide those people with access, on a fee-paying basis, to Australian university courses.

The third and final aspect of this bill that I wanted to deal with relates to the amendments to the State Grants (Primary and Secondary Education Assistance) Act, which provides another $20 million for the non-government schools capital works program. This was promised by the last government and this government is honouring that promise. It is very important because of the very long and proud tradition of the private schools in Australia.

When I was young, there used to be great division in society over whether there should be state aid to private schools. When Menzies was Prime Minister in 1963, he ended this sort of sectarian division that existed in Australian society. From that point on, from 1963 on, there was agreement that the Commonwealth government should have a role in providing funding for these schools, particularly capital works funding.

Unfortunately, over the last 13 years under the last government there have been some changes that have put a major brake on the development of new schools in Australia. We had what was called—and I think it is somewhat ironic, given the nature of what it did—the new schools policy. This policy, which allows private schools to be set up, was administered by the last government. We have renamed this so-called new schools policy the `no new schools policy', because the new schools policy stopped new schools from starting up.

It was instructive to hear what the Steiner school people had to say to our committee on employment, education and training. They said that, if the rules under this government for new schools existed 30 years ago when they were established, they would not have even got off the ground. Out there there is a whole range of schools which want to get started and the government has stopped it.

Senator Newman —The previous government.

Senator TIERNEY —Thank you for your correction, Senator. The previous government did stop this because it did not want these sectors which were competing with public schools taking too many places.

It is a time-honoured tradition in Australia that we have choice and that we have choice in the school system. Parents want to be involved in these schools. When I was chair of a private school about five years ago, every time we wanted to expand, a major brake was put on the expansion. They claimed that we all could not find enough pupils in the local area. We kept telling them that people came from all over the region to this private school. They would never hear that argument.

I am very pleased to support the announcement made by Dr Kemp last week that we are going to change all that. If people want to start private schools and they can meet the state requirements, the federal government is not going to stop that sort of choice. We will be supporting it in the term of this government and in the years to come. In relation to this bill, we are quite happy to support this undertaking to put this funding of another $20 million into the private education system.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McKiernan) —Order! It being 12.45 p.m., we will deal with consideration of non-controversial legislation.