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Tuesday, 12 October 1971
Page: 2219

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) (Minister for Education and Science) - I would like to thank honourable members for what they have said during the debate this afternoon and this evening. I think it has been quite an interesting debate. I would like to comment on one or two points that were made by honourable members. I shall start with the remarks of the honourable member for Wills (Mr Bryant), which will be fresh in the minds of honourable members. I should point out that what I said on pupil-teacher ratios in a ministerial statement on education was not a view which was born or dreamed of by myself but one which was given credence, support and weight by the report of the Scott Committee, which was an independent committee set up to examine the problems of class sizes in New South Wales. That report itself quoted other learned academics as putting forward the point of view which I mentioned. It was partly as a result of that, and as a result of the pressure which is at present being applied in Australia to reduce continually class sizes that I said that we need more research on this matter in order to see where we ought to go. I think even the honourable member for Wills will recognise that there is a limit to the degree to which one would want to reduce class sizes. We might as well know what that limit is but I do not think anyone will at the moment admit the point. However, research in this area is certainly a serious matter and Australian research is required.

A number of honourable members have mentioned the importance of assistance to independent schools and made the point that some of the independent schools are experiencing quite acute difficulty at the present time. The honourable members for Diamond Valley (Mr Brown) and Denison (Dr Solomon) amongs others made suggestions about the manner in which support for independent education might be extended. Those matters will be kept well in mind. I am well aware of what is happening in Tasmania. I am also well aware that a potential decision by Victoria would prevent any further expansion of the Catholic secondary education system and that that decision has been forced upon it by financial stringency. That obviously will have implications on not only the Catholic secondary education system but also the State schools as well. The Premier has already announced that the Minister for Education in Victoria is examining the implications of this particular report.

The honourable member for Fremantle (Mr Beazley) in his contribution to the debate this evening made some remarks which I took to suggest that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation was spending the greater part of its funds on primary research.

Mr Beazley - No. The funds that it receives are from the Government and from industry. I said that most of what it receives from industry is from primary industry and not the secondary sector.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) -The honourable member was not trying to suggest that most of its work is undertaken in the primary industry area?

Mr Beazley - I was not trying to suggest that at all.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I am sorry, but that is the inference I gained.

Mr Beazley - I said that secondary industry was not giving enough to the CSIRO by comparison with primary industry.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) - I think that that is a point well made. The honourable member for Fremantle will know that the Government has other programmes under the administration of another department that are designed to stimulate and, for that matter, subsidise research undertaken by secondary industry, but it is largely research undertaken in secondary industry's own establishments and not so much research undertaken by the CSIRO, although some of it might well be a collaborative effort. When the honourable member for Fremantle spoke earlier in this debate he appeared to me to be under a misconception about what is happening or has happened with the library facilities programme. There is no difference in thi manner in which the requirements of a school are judged and no difference in the standards that are being applied. When the scheme was first introduced the Standards Committee met and prepared a document of standards which the Commonwealth accepted. We have been making money available according to the recommendations of State Advisory Committees which determine the timing of payments to schools in the different independent sectors. None of this has changed.

We have done the same thing with the secondary school science facilities programme. Since the inception of that programme all the requirements and the entitlements of a particular school have been adjudged against objective standards. If a school has a library or a science laboratory up to the standards indicated by the Standards Committee, which is an Australiawide committee, then that school will get no support from the Commonwealth and it never has. Both the honourable member and, I think, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Whitlam) spoke as though there had been some significant change in the actual allocation of funds to any particular school.

Mr Reynolds - But you did double the per capita grants to private schools.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) -The actual entitlement of a school was always judged in the same manner and whether a school gets a grant or not depends upon the number of science teaching periods it has, the number of science laboratories it has and the number that it requires judged objectively against the standards, which anyone can test. The same applies to the library facilities programme. What was done - this can be debated when the libraries programme comes on for debate - was to even out the payments to independent schools between the different States so that the different sectors will all progress to the completion of the programme or rather, as there will always be emerging needs to the removal of the backlog at an even pace.

If we give a per capita distribution of bulk funds based on school enrolments and

State populations as was initially the case with the science laboratories programme we get a State like South Australia with a very small secondary enrolment in independent schools which can obviously, because of the State population element in the formula, make progress to completion of the programme much more quickly than another State. With the present 4-year programme for science laboratories this led to an alteration in the bulk distribution of funds which in turn has led to less money being made available to South Australia and more, I think, to Queensland which had not progressed as rapidly as other States. But none of that has altered the method of distribution of funds to a particular school which has always been judged against objective standards. This, of course, can be done when we are talking about capital expenditure. There is no problem in that. If we have a capital programme for one of these facilities or if there is a programme in the future for other facilities we can make objective judgments as to whether or not a school has a requirement. Again, there is no problem. But if we are talking about recurrent grants and the per capita payments to independent schools, then another set of considerations apply.

It is not an accident that the Commonwealth and all States but one have chosen to distribute funds on a flat per capita basis so far as support for running costs is concerned. The exception, of course, is South Australia which has introduced a means test which I think is not really understandable if one reads the booklet and documents. For example, one of the principles is based on pupil-teacher ratios and presumably the better the pupil-teacher ratio the less support the school gets and that means that the incentive to excellence in this area is removed because a school can improve itself out of the grant getting area. That does not seem to me to make a great deal of sense as one of the 4 or 5 principles which were enunciated in the document published by the South Australian Minister for Education, or Department of Education, when distributing the initial $250,000 on this basis. But I think it should not be forgotten that nearly all the independent schools around Australia have come to support the method of allo cation of recurrent funds that has been selected by this Government and all the State governments but one. They have done this of their own free will and initiative because they believe, I would imagine, that it is the best and most equitable means of payment, all matters considered. The National Council of Independent Schools is a body that represents most independent schools in Australia. The Catholic Education Offices in each State certainly are involved in it and they have made a statement to this effect. The Catholic Schools Committee of New South Wales, which obviously has one of the largest independent school systems in the Commonwealth, has made a similar statement. The Australian Parents Council and its constituent parts also has endorsed the same principles.

When the Opposition pushes a different kind of policy, a means test policy, too far in these matters it wants to look to the implications of what it has in mind. But there are some oddities in the Opposition policy in these matters. The Opposition wants a means test for recurrent aid to schools; it does not want a means test lor social service pensions - rich and poor alike would be entitled to them. It does not want any kind of means test approach to universities or university scholars, and there is a means test on the living allowance basis for university scholarships. If the Opposition wants to abolish all fees in universities, that shows a contradiction with the kind of support it wants to offer independent schools. Therefore why be opposed io means tests in a great variety of areas in its social and education philosophies and then want to establish a means test in relation to support for independent schools? I think that in this respect there are some basic contradictions in the policy of the Opposition which would need more explanation than they have had at the moment.

The honourable member for Fremantle added one further education promise to the Labor Party's programme - a promise to establish, as I took it, an open university. At least he said the Government should do this, which is making a financial commitment.

Mr Beazley - That is on the Labor platform. It is not my promise.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) - Well, it is an additional promise from the Labor Party platform, fine. The honourable member may not know that when the Open University was established in the United Kingdom 1 am advised that the British visited the University of New England to gain experience or learn from the experience that that university had had in establishing quite excellent external studies courses. The University of New England has been one of the world leaders in this field. I have not checked since I came back to this portfolio but I think the University of Macquarie also is pioneering the field in science teaching by external studies.

Mr Bryant - You cannot get into that if you live in Victoria.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) - That is an argument applying in Victoria in respect of Victorian universities, as the honourable member for Wills would well know.

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mr Corbett) - Order! There are too many interjections. The Minister is entitled to be heard without interjection.

Mr Malcolm Fraser (WANNON, VICTORIA) - But the principle of external studies which has been adopted by some universities in Australia has not been adopted by all universities. The honourable member might also be interested to know that the Secretary of my Department is overseas at the moment for an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development meeting and amongst other things he will be looking at the open university concept to see how it is operating and to ascertain what implications there might be for this country. He will see whether such a proposal would have some application to Australia. The point I wanted to make is that the principle and practice of external studies is not something which is foreign to Australia although it is something that I think could be more widely practised. There are some who believe that external studies are much better constituted from a fully established and traditional kind of university because then you have the base teaching framework not only solely orientated for external studies. But that is a matter for experts and expert advice.

The only other point I wanted to make concerns some remarks from the honourable member for Bowen (Mr Keogh) who suggested that the failure to proceed at a faster rate with the second university in Brisbane was a responsibility of this Government. I had been involved in the acceptance by the Government of the current report of the Australian Universities Commission. The funds allocated by the Universities Commission were to the limit that the Queensland Government was prepared to provide. I think the honourable member for Bowen made that quite plain but to suggest, because of this, that the whole established framework of Commonwealth-State joint support for universities should be upset is a suggestion that does not really stand on its own feet. The universities have attracted a great deal of support from State governments and from Commonwealth governments and many people have benefited very much as a result.

It should be borne in mind that H is not as difficult to gain admission to universities in Australia as it is in, I think, a number of overseas countries. When the Martin Committee brought down its report on the future of tertiary education in Australia it recommended that scholars basically should be able to complete their university education in a minimum time or in a minimum time plus one year. If that was not the standard the Martin Committee wished to set for all scholars it was, at least, the standard it believed Commonwealth scholars should be able to reach, but even Commonwealth scholars have not yet reached that particular standard. There are failure rates in our universities for a whole variety of reasons and these rates are significantly higher than in many other countries, and much higher than in the United Kingdom where the opportunity for a university education is very much less than it is in Australia.

My only remaining point is in relation to the final comment of the honourable member for Wills who suggested that in many areas education now is much behind that which he had known as a boy 30 or 40 years ago. I think that even the honourable member for Wills, in his more reflective moments, will agree that that is a nonsense suggestion.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Progress reported.

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