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Thursday, 3 May 1973
Page: 1683

Mr MacKELLAR (Warringah) - As the honourable member for Chisholm (Mr Staley) said last night, the Opposition does support in broad principle the legislation at present being considered by the House. We support these 3 Bills - the States Grants (Advanced Education) Bill, the States Grants (Universities) Bill and the States Grants (Universities) Bill (No. 2) - which are being debated in a cognate manner. We support the concept of assistance to needy students. We support the concept which sets out to achieve additional social workers. We support also the decision to allocate increased moneys for libraries to be developed at colleges of advanced education. There is no doubt, as the honourable member for Chisholm said last night, that there is a great and growing need throughout the community for increased numbers of social workers. The honourable member for Scullin (Dr Jenkins) in his address to the House also mentioned this growing need. I think it is somewhat symptomatic of the development of our society and the way in which family units are being increasingly fragmented that this need is developing.

I am very conscious of the problems particularly of the elderly people in the electorate of Warringah. I know just how useful trained social workers are and how much benefit would result from an increase in the number of trained social workers available not only to voluntary institutions working in the Warringah electorate but also to those institutions supported by the local council. I am very pleased that there is to be an increase in the number of males who will undertake courses in social work. I think this is a significant response to a deeply felt social awareness by a large number of people and I think that the increased number of males being trained for social work will result in increased benefits right throughout the community.

Dealing very briefly with the proposal to increase the allocation of funds for libraries at colleges of advanced education, I am one of those who believe very deeply that library facilities, not only in educational institutions but also right throughout the community, should be built up in the most rapid manner possible. I was a student at the University of Sydney before doing a post-graduate degree Sydney before doing a degree at Oxford. I was amazed at the difference between the library facilities available to the students at the University of Sydney and those at Oxford. The experience of being within walking distance of, I think it was, approximately 7 world class libraries in the case of students at Oxford was something which was an extremely eye-opening and mind-expanding experience for me. I believe that not only should students have access to these libraries but also that we should try to increase the availability of library facilities for the general public. I commend to the Minister for Education (Mr Beazley)in fact 1 have written to him about this matter - that not only should he support the concept of an increased allocation of funds for libraries at educational institutions but also he should not forget about municipal libraries. I am not quite sure whether this comes within his responsibility, but certainly it should come within his interest. He should support the concept of an increased allocation of funds for municipal libraries.

Dealing with the problem - and it is a problem - of needy students, there is no doubt that this is a problem which has been with us for many years and will be with us in the foreseeable future. At every university and at every college of advanced education there are and there will be from time to time students who experience difficulties in completing their courses mainly because of the financial difficulties in which they find themselves. I was very interested in the amount of $3m selected by the Minister to be divided up between the universities and the college of advanced education to assist needy students. The Minister did not inform the House how this amount was arrived at. This was an omission because I believe very strongly that in any allocation of public moneys the House and the electorate should be informed as to how the decision was arrived at. What reasons were behind the choice of $3m? Why was it not more or less than this figure? I ask the Minister when he is replying to the second reading speeches to inform me and the public how he arrived at this figure of $3m. I think that the fact that this is a comparatively small amount is, in its way, a tribute to the support that the previous Government gave to tertiary institutions, and particularly to its increased support for universities and of course its development of the concept of colleges of advanced education.

It is rather interesting to note that one of the chief growth areas in education in Australia is in the number of students attending tertiary education institutions. Approximately 200,000 students throughout Australia are attending tertiary education institutions this year. The previous Government in an accelerating fashion over the last 10 years recognised the growth of tertiary education institutions and significantly increased the number of scholarships of various types to students attending those institutions. For instance 29,800 scholarships were made available in 1972. Also 71,000 students held scholarships that year, and there were 4,000 Aboriginal student scholarship holders. This situation can be contrasted with what obtained in 1961 when only 4,800 scholarships were available. Of course, there has been a tremendous increase in the direct allocation of Commonwealth expenditure on education as such. I would just instance again that in the period 1967-68 the Commonwealth allocated $176.5m and that this amount was increased in 1971-72 to $345m. I think that we can truthfully say that the provision of these scholarships and of course the living allowances which are available to scholarship holders who come within the provisions of the means test, has to a significant extent cut down on the need for extremely large amounts of money to be made available to needy students. Although I mentioned living allowances, I would not like it to be thought that I believe that the living allowances given to scholarship holders are adequate. I do not think that this is the case at all.

The question of needy students is not a simple one. In a number of instances it has been shown that a substantial proportion of students who fail more than half of their course subjects in any one year do so primarily because of financial difficulties which they have encountered during their period at a tertiary education institution. Those who received the maximum living allowance find it still increasingly difficult to cope with the charges and the costs which they face as students both at universities and at colleges of advanced education. The then National Union of Australian University students in 1969 conducted a very detailed analysis of the minimum costs facing students at tertiary institutions who were living in private accommodation and paying their own fees. I will deal with the question of fees at a later stage. This body found that the absolute minimum amount which students required to support themselves in any form of respectability was $1,632. I again point out that this analysis was carried out in 1969. I might add that fees represented less than one-third of this figure and that those fees were made up of not only the actual course costs but also included additional costs such as union fees, sports union fees and other additional charges made on students.

The problem of needy students is not confined only to those who do not hold scholarships. Many applicants for additional assistance are in fact Commonwealth scholarship holders or scholarship holders of some sort. The problem is exacerbated in the case of people who previously have held Commonwealth scholarships. These are people who have lost their scholarships because they have failed some subjects. Such people are caught up in a very vicious circle because their financial difficulties are such that they find it extremely difficult to keep on with their course and if they do not satisfactorily complete their course work they find it increasingly difficult or impossible to regain their scholarships. 1 am very pleased that the legislation introduced by the Minister gives universities and colleges of advanced education the responsibility of allocating the funds they receive and the right to decide whether this allocation wi.l be in the form of a grant or a loan. I believe very strongly that the people best equipped to know the particular circumstances of each individual student are those closest to the student and not someone from some remote bureaucracy. This task should be performed by the people at the institutions who are concerned with a student's well-being and education. I think that this practice in regard to the allocation of funds is one that should be encouraged. As I have said, I am very pleased that the Minister has taken the step of giving universities the right to decide who will receive he'p, what the extent of that help will be and the way in which the help will be provided.

I am very conscious that because of rising costs, tertiary education universities and colleges of advanced education face the prospect of losing their autonomy as more and more of their funds are provided from public moneys. I am one who believes that universities should have the maximum possible autonomy. One of the ways in which this can be achieved is to give these institutions not only the right but the responsibility to decide on the allocations of moneys ceded to them by the Government. Also I would like to point out to the Government the danger of adopting a niggardly approach to needy students. The cost of keeping students at tertiary education institutions is rising all the time. I believe we should take whatever steps we can to reduce the failure rate of students at these institutions because a year repeated is a very costly business not only for the students but also for society as a whole. If one of the prime causes of failure is financial need we should look very closely at the provision of funds to avoid or at least lessen to the maximum possible extent the contribution that financial need makes towards the failure of students. 1 would advocate a policy which errs on the side of generosity rather than one which seeks to be penny wise and pound foolish.

The Minister in his second reading speech spoke of fee abolition. I was a bit disappointed to read this because it is one aspect of the legislation which concerns me. The Minister said that the legislation would continue for only one year because fee abolition will be introduced next year and the necessity for the allocation of this money will then be lessened. The abolition of fees is to be the subject of a separate debate and I hope that we are given the opportunity of debating this question because I know that the Minister feels strongly on it. We all know that he made a statement before the last election concerning his views on the abolition of fees and that the views put forward in that statement are at variance with the policy he is forced to espouse at the moment. I am a strong believer in the fact that entrance to universities and educational institutions such as colleges of advanced education should be on the basis of academic excellence. Once the student is accepted at a university he or she should not be unduly hampered by financial difficulties. It is not pertinent at this point to argue about pre-university educational experiences in terms of education opportunities. We are concerned about the student once he is at the university. The scholarship system does not cater for the poorer student of lower academic standard. This is why I support the legislation introduced by the Minister for Education.

I point out that fees are only one aspect of student costs. They are by no means the main cost; they are only a fairly small proportion of them. As far as I know, we have not yet had an accurate statement of what fees will be abolished next year at tertiary institutions. I should like the Minister to make that plain in his reply to the second reading speeches. The abolition of fees will not specifically help the people who need it most - in other words those students of perhaps lower academic standard, students without scholarships. Therefore, it is wrong to presume that abolition of fees will eliminate the need for assistance to needy students. There will always be needy students and there will always be a need to assist them. We should be looking to see what we can do about fee abolition and whether the money that would be saved if fee abolition were not undertaken would be better spent in assisting needy students in other ways. Wc in the Opposition foresee a need for continuing help to students in financial difficulties. Therefore we propose to move amendments to the legislation put forward by the Minister.

I stress that these amendments are not aimed at curtailing the rights or the autonomy of universities. They are significant in the fact that they seek to elicit information as a result of the operation of this legislation over the coming year, in order to provide guidelines for more meaningful legislation and a continuation of the assistance to needy students in the coming years. I hope that the Minister, who is a fair minded man, will look at these amendments in this light. In other words, we are seeking to obtain information which will be of enormous help in casting further legislation which we all agree is necessary to provide financial assistance for needy students to cut down on the economic and personal lo;,s occasioned when a student, in many cases through no fault of his own, fails his course. This is a loss which the individual and the community can ill afford.

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