A reasonably honest portrait of where the system is now

By Andrew Norton

On Wednesday, the Minister for Education Jason Clare, spoke at the National Press Club on the interim report from the Universities Accord Panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, who have been given the job of transforming Australia’s university sector.

The report itself has ambitious long- term goals including parity of participation in higher education between the general population and low SES and regional students with disability. This is a very big ask. The minister himself, in his National Press Club speech, noted that in schools these groups are actually going backward rather than forward. The minister also announced a number of other items, including extension of demand-driven funding to all Indigenous students rather than just students from the regions, as it is now.  

If the interim report’s recommendation is accepted there will be some kind of universal learning entitlement for all students, which essentially means that if they’re academically eligible, the system somehow will find a place for them. It implies that universities and other higher education providers might be obliged to take students rather than just having the choice to take them. This makes it different from the previous demand-driven system, which removed funding caps for bachelor degree students, but did not guarantee a place to all who were eligible. 

There are a number of proposals around research and associated issues. The most contentious one will be the idea of a levy on international student fees. 

How this would work is not entirely clear –  the basic idea seems to be that universities will pay a percentage of their international student fee income into a general fund and that money would be redistributed around research infrastructure and other activities around the university sector. 

A number of universities would be very strongly opposed to that. International students will also be unhappy that the money they’re paying will not be spent in their institutions. 

The minister also revealed some proposed and actual major changes to governance. At the national level the interim report recommends a new body, a Tertiary Education Commission, would advise on costs and writing agreements between the government and universities. 

At the university level an interim report recommendation, which the federal government has already accepted but still needs approval from states and territories, will require senates and councils, their governing bodies, to have different compositions. This would reduce the number of business people and increase the number of people with expertise in higher education. I’ve seen firsthand that sometimes the council members don’t have a deep understanding of higher education as an industry so I  support that recommendation.

The goals here are to deal with some of the staffing problems universities have had, particularly in precarious employment and underpayment of casual staff; and also to deal with issues around students particularly around sexual assault. I believe the Accord panel wants university governing bodies to be more aware of and more responsible for trying to improve the performance of universities on these matters.

But it is important that councils and senates are also not stacked by internal constituencies. There was a problem all those decades ago that governments were rightly trying to address in governance reforms. But having people with real higher education expertise will help, hopefully a number of them from outside the institution whose council or senate they are on.

What’s missing from this report? 

What’s missing is mostly the detail of how we would get from where we are now to where they want us to be. They don’t say a lot on a new system of student contributions, which is one of the most controversial areas they have to deal with. They’ve said that the Job-Ready Graduates package (JRGP) is damaging Australian higher education and has to go, but they have only set out a list of potential alternative student contribution systems. 

The report makes a few asides which hint at their views, which means the panel probably won’t recommend just quickly reversing the charges for art students. Nor do they want a flat student contribution rate, as suggested by some university interest groups. But that still leaves a fairly wide variety of possible alternatives. And so I think we will have to wait until the final report at the end of this year to have an idea of where they’re going on that. 

The main defect of JRGP is that it puts a lot of debt on graduates who have a limited capacity to repay in any reasonable amount of time, particularly the arts graduates who historically don’t earn as much as other graduates. They are being hit with the highest student contribution rate, about $15,000 a year at the moment. My view is that many of them will take decades to repay if they ever do. And while the HELP loan system is designed to allow you to spread repayments over long periods of time, that should be people who are sick or for various reasons don’t work full-time, not for ordinary graduates getting a fairly typical outcome for someone with their degrees. 

The report doesn’t directly mention my proposal for replacing student contributions, which is to link student contributions levels to projected HELP debt repayment times. The goal is that the typical student from different degrees would spent roughly the same number of years repaying their debate, on average. But the minister did mention it in the National Press Club. So that gives me hope. 

Another big political issue, which my student contribution proposal is intended to partly remedy, is the burden of HELP debt. The report mentions ideas which it seems the ATO is already working on, such as taking into account the money students have already repaid that financial year, via the PAYG system, before indexation occurs. 

The Accord review panel are also considering moving the repayment system to what they call a marginal repayment system. This means people with HELP debt would pay a percentage of their income above the threshold, not on their entire income as now. 

The panel does address some long running problems in the system, including not covering the full cost of competitive research grants. I’m not sure that they have new solutions for that, a lot of these issues have been known for a long time. Governments for various reasons have decided it’s too expensive to fix them. 

One potentially complex issue is that the Panel suggests winding back some of the research requirements that were introduced by the Peter Coaldrake review of the regulations for being a university.  That will make it easier for some universities to retain their university status. But there’s always anxiety that universities might be reduced to so-called teaching-only universities, particularly if they are regional institutions. That group will be trying hard to make sure that they get good mission-based funding, which respects the role that their research plays in their local areas. 

I think the report paints a reasonably honest portrait of where the system is. It highlights the problems around staffing. But these exist for reasons which are deep in the funding system. There is no easy way out of the basic structural problems – universities can have better payroll systems that stop the underpayment of casuals but that won’t remove the underlying reasons why they have so many casual staff in the first place. 

The panel and the minister are encouraging critique and alternative ideas. Whether or not we agree with all the ideas presented, that is a good approach to public policy. 

Andrew Norton is Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at the Australian National University.  He blogs at andrewnorton.net .au  Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton 

Header image of the Minister for Education Jason Clare speaking at the National Press Club from the minister’s Facebook page

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3 thoughts on “A reasonably honest portrait of where the system is now

  1. Kelli McGraw says:

    This sums up what every academic I know is talking about:
    “universities can have better payroll systems that stop the underpayment of casuals but that won’t remove the underlying reasons why they have so many casual staff in the first place.” It’s hard to see how any lofty goals for improving teaching quality (or ensuring teaching-only institutions don’t develop) will be achieved, until we start hiring the required number of academics and professional staff in secure, ongoing positions again.

  2. Roslyn Happ says:

    I heard talk of developing more regional centres for higher learning to make access better for more students. If so, what we need is ‘teachers colleges’ … old fashioned ones which concentrate on ‘the arts’ as the core of personal development of a teacher, especially at primary level. Music and the arts in general are ‘basic tools’ for teaching young children. All teachers should be musically literate and able to play a simple instrument, as well as dance and sing. Add to this a good background in the visual arts as well as games and sport … you have the foundation of excellent primary teachers who can base their teaching on the building blocks of bigger better brains … that is music and activity. Richard Gill always said that. The outcomes for schools all over the world who do it … show this is a fact. We need teachers colleges in rural areas which use the local talent to each the various aspects of the arts and integrate it into the local community. One doesn’t need academics with doctorates to teach well in these spheres. Most ‘artistic people’ are not interested in doctorates, rather they love creating and sharing that with others. The academic trend in universities preparing young teachers is not producing good results which is seen in the disastrous trend of leaving the profession out of frustration. We absolutely need to do a lot better in preparing teachers with much more practical skills which, by the way, are also life skills and fun to do.

  3. A universal learning entitlement seems reasonable, & doable, if it includes vocational education as part of the mix, to make it accessible, & affordable. The entitlement could be set at enough money to fund one certificate, and a nested diploma delivered in the vocational system, followed by the remaining two years of a nested bachelor degree, and one further year for a masters, in the university system. That is four years study in total. Students who wanted to undertake further, or more advanced, study could compete for funded places, or pay for it themselves.

    Universities paying international student fees into a general fund is also reasonable. This would be similar to the way mining companies pay royalties. The universities are benefiting from the Australian brand, so should pay towards the common good.

    The requirement that senate members have expertise in higher education may take some interpreting. Most academics are not experts in education, just in their particular discipline. I am happy to consider offers to sit on Senate, being one of the few at university who actually has a degree in education, and writes papers about it. 😉

    The precarious employment needs to be addressed, while retaining the flexibility casual employment provides. In particular, this allows the use of people from industry with real world experience for teaching.

    Underpayment of casual staff should be dealt with through civil and criminal legal processes. This may require new laws to make it clear stealing wages is a crime, and that senior executives complicit, or negligent, are criminally liable. Similarly with sexual assault, where university staff are negligent, criminal penalties should be imposed.

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