After all this time, are we in Accord now?

Federal Minister for Education Jason Clare released the final Universities Accord report on Sunday. Experts for EduResearch Matters respond.

From left to right: Andrew Norton, professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University; Gwilym Croucher, associate professor, in the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education; Jess Harris, associate professor, School of Education, University of Newcastle; Sarah Gurr, postdoctoral research fellow, School of Education, University of Newcastle; ARC Tracker, researcher at an Australian university tracking the activities and decisions of the Australian Research Council; Mark Scott, vice-chancellor at the University of Sydney and chair of the Group of Eight Universities; and Steven Hodge, associate professor, School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University

The Australian National University’s Andrew Norton: The question now is whether a plan for everything is a strategy for nothing

The Universities Accord final report is a long-term plan for a new tertiary education system – one which would see a larger share of the population attain a university degree, especially from equity groups; that would see new universities opened and existing universities expanded to accommodate these enrolments; and solve the problem of skills shortages by better aligning enrolments with jobs.

The Accord plan would reform the student contribution system so that fees were linked to expected future earnings, pay students on compulsory clinical training and teaching rounds, widen eligibility for Youth Allowance and increase its rate, change the way HELP debt is indexed, and alter the way HELP repayments are made to increase disposable income for many HELP debtors.

Much of this would be coordinated by a new bureaucratic body, an Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC), that would also include the existing quality regulatory agency, TEQSA; the non-medical research project grants body, the ARC; and eventually absorb the vocational education regulator, ASQA, to create a true tertiary education system.

The question now is whether a plan for everything is a strategy for nothing. While the Accord agenda is long-term – its attainment targets stretch out to 2050 – the total cost to implement all of this would be several times current tertiary education spending. And that is not counting the cost of school reforms that the education minister, Jason Clare, sees as essential to making Accord higher education attainment goals realistic.

Clare has moderated expectations; it is not a matter for one budget. My own view is that the Accord panel is jumping ahead of itself with enrolment targets. ATEC would have a much larger analytical role than the current Department of Education, and the targets need to be tested against the evidence. We need to make the lives of the potential students better, not just conscript them into meeting an attainment target based on a consultant’s estimates of job needs in 2050.

The Accord proposals that would give university students we already have a better chance of success – free preparatory programs to fill gaps in knowledge and skills, funding universities partly on the level of student academic needs, perhaps paid placements (arguably state governments should also contribute to the training of their teaching and nursing workforces), and making sure Youth Allowance does its job helping students focus on their studies rather than work excessive hours. There is good empirical evidence that Youth Allowance improves course completion rates.

Even these things would, of course, be expensive. But the current period of soft demand for university creates some budget space to make a start.

The University of Melbourne’s Gwilym Croucher on the mess that was job-ready graduates

One of the most prominent proposals in the Universities Accord report is the reversal of some or all of the fee increases introduced under Job-ready Graduates (JRG).

The report is scathing of the Morrison government’s JRG policies introduced in 2021. Criticising the outcomes of the policy for students (more debt) and, importantly, the policy’s failure to deliver on its stated purpose (incentivising what people study). 

Core to the JRG was the increase in fees for many students. This fuelled debts when it increased fees for a lot of popular subjects in humanities, communications and human movement degrees while also increasing the already high fees in law and commerce but by much less. The cost of many subjects rose by 113% under the scheme.

In 2023, someone studying humanities was paying around $16,000 a year. Add in the fees for a master’s or graduate professional qualification, and graduates with high debts become commonplace rather than outliers. It is not unheard of now for people to have debts over $100,000.

Reversing this would mean significant reductions for many students. But it would come with a serious price tag to return to anything close to the previous settings.  It could cost the federal budget a billion dollars or more, depending on the final details.

This would be worth it, not just for students but also because it was a seriously flawed policy from the outset.

The Morrison Government sold the fee increases in humanities and other degrees as a way to dissuade students from studying these courses and instead select lower fee ‘job-ready’ courses, such as teaching and nursing. This was never going to work for the simple reason that because fees are deferred through the HELP scheme, students face zero price at entry and know that they have a good deal on loan that won’t be repaid for many years.

A cynic might say the Morrison government knew this at the time but wanted to shift the cost to students further. Which is harder and harder to justify. Data from the OECD shows there are only a few other countries where students and their families contribute more to the total cost of tertiary education.

There is plenty of evidence that students don’t select university courses on price. The report recommends that fee levels should reflect “projected potential lifetime earnings” for graduates, as they (sort of) did previously. This approach is not perfect but better than the mess that was JRG

The University of Newcastle’s Jess Harris and Sarah Gurr on facing students in tears

Compulsory, unpaid placements form an integral part of many university degrees, including teaching, nursing, allied health, social work, and medicine. For teachers, unpaid work in the classroom has been referred to as the ‘signature pedagogy’ of initial teacher education. These placements provide undergraduates to apply and develop their skills in ‘real world’ settings, while being supported and mentored by professionals. While the concept of work placements works well in theory, it can present a massive struggle for undergraduate students who are required to work full-time hours for weeks at a time without payment.

We have faced students in tears, wondering how they will be able to pay rent or secure child care when they are required to complete a ‘rural’ placement that means they need to spend two to three weeks away from home. Nursing students have reported that they have been disciplined by their placement supervisor for being tired, after having worked all weekend to afford hospital parking, rent and food while on a 6-week placement.

The Final Report of the Australian Universities Accord recognises that ‘placement poverty’ is a barrier to “tertiary participation and successful completion” (p. 6). Within universities, we know that placements pose a massive obstacle to students enrolling in and completing degrees with mandatory placements. The commitment of the Accord “to reduce the financial hardship and placement poverty caused by mandatory unpaid placements…[including] funding by governments for the nursing, care and teaching professions, and funding by employers generally (public and private) for other fields” is a first step in alleviating this obstacle.

Challenges, however, remain for students in any degree program that requires large placement blocks (e.g. two weeks or more). Teaching and nursing students often rely on their families, partners and friends to support them during long periods of full-time unpaid placement,  meaning that placement poverty disproportionately impacts students who are already struggling financially.

In teacher education, we see our students taking on extra work to save money before placements, leading to periods of intense workloads immediately before starting an intense and stressful placement experience. In other cases, we see students sacrificing engagement in their face-to-face course work (e.g. tutorials and lectures) in order to complete paid work, especially before placements so that they can survive internship blocks and the rising cost of living. So in order to meet the mandatory placement requirements of their degree, some students are sacrificing the quality of their learning experience at university in order to make ends meet. Many students are reaching the end of their placement periods stressed and burned out, putting them at risk of extending and not finishing their degrees. 

Government support for students, who face ‘placement poverty’ is a welcome change. There is, however, a need for careful planning to ensure that any reforms proposed by the Accord are sustainable. Sustainable change needs to both support the development of students’ skills, particularly in placements where they are completing work that is ordinarily completed by experienced professionals, and to alleviate some of the serious inequities in higher education that are exacerbated by unpaid placements.

We know there are shortages in placement availability, particularly in initial teacher education. If workplaces are required to provide financial support for students engaging in placements, we face a critical risk that fewer schools, hospitals and other organisations will participate in university placements. 

Any reforms made in response to the Accord need to consider the wellbeing and educational needs of students, supporting Universities to provide the best possible preparation for our future professionals. 

We welcome the Australian Universities Accord report’s vision for the future of tertiary education, but the idea that universities should pay a tax on some income streams, including philanthropy, must be rejected.   

Academic and investigative tweeter, ARC Tracker, on why universities need more money for research: I’m sure the “best students” will be beating down university doors . . . probably looking for food.

New ideas are risky. Sometimes they lead nowhere. But sometimes they completely transform our world for the better. Only governments can take the risk and fund basic research to explore this world of possibilities.

But in Australia, funding for basic research is dreadfully low. Worse, it’s been dropping, in real terms, for a decade. New ideas for basic research are usually funded through the Australian Research Council. But the ARC’s funding is now so low it only funds 1 in 6 new ideas from Australia’s best researchers.

The Universities Accord Report says the ARC should “be given increased funding to invest in fundamental research”. Yay! Obviously that’s a very welcome recommendation. But the Report didn’t go any further. How much should it be increased? I sincerely hope we don’t need yet another review to figure that out. (Hint: It’s gotta be at least double, if not triple the current funding!)

The Report is a bit more specific about another crippling problem in Australian research: the Government always wants a discount. The ARC only funds the “direct” costs of research – salaries, equipment etc. – but not the additional 50% on top to manage and administer it. When a researcher “wins the lottery” and gets a (pretty small) grant to explore a new idea, universities groan: they see a penalty, not an opportunity. They have to replace that researcher’s teaching duties and pay for additional administration. The Report recommends that ARC grants move towards funding these “indirect” costs of research.

Awesome! Just like it was awesome in 2008 when Labor’s last reviews of higher ed and research (Bradley and Cutler) recommended the same thing.

The unheralded hero of Australian research is the PhD student. Learning on the job, they help explore the newest, riskiest ideas. But we pay them a pittance: $30k per year, below the poverty line. It’s shameful. Or, in some of the Report’s strongest language, it’s “discouraging many of the best students from becoming the next generation of researchers”. Heartening stuff, especially after PhD students campaigned hard last year for a pay rise … to the minimum wage. Again, the Report doesn’t say how much they should get, musing only that $47k is “more competitive with other countries’ rates”, a sweet $10 per week more than minimum wage. I’m sure the “best students” will be beating down university doors … probably looking for food.

The University of Sydney’s Mark Scott on donor worries – and why the government must recognise the cost of teaching, learning and research and invest in it.

Australia’s public universities are not-for-profit registered charities. Donations are tax deductible because the Government recognises the crucial contribution our universities make through teaching, research and community outreach. This proposal is inconsistent with the Government’s broader approach to encouraging philanthropy through tax incentives and policy reform.  

Philanthropic revenue isn’t usually discretionary. Most gifts to universities must be used in accordance with the donor’s wishes, set out in legally binding agreements. They can’t be redirected to other causes.   

Donations come in all sizes from ordinary people who’ve worked hard to be able to support deeply personal causes. Our donors believe that universities have the power to shape a better world and want to understand exactly how their gifts will be used. Imposing a tax on university philanthropy will deter donors when we need them more than ever.  

Donors help pay for the very things the Accord report identifies as gaps under the current funding model. Their generosity gives regional, disadvantaged and Indigenous students the chance of a university education and supports vital research.  

Universities don’t make profits. We invest every cent we receive back into teaching, learning, student support and research. Many large-scale initiatives supported by philanthropy require extra funding from universities, drawing on resources rather than providing revenue.  

It’s perplexing to suggest that the way to improve an underfunded system is to tax the measures universities have developed to close funding gaps, such as philanthropy.    

We look forward to the Government’s response to the report and to collaborating to secure the future of tertiary education in Australia. If we are to have the world-class university system we need, we must recognise the cost of teaching, learning and research and invest in it.    

Griffith University’s Steven Hodge on the familiar ring of skills

The Australian Universities Accord makes over 700 references to the concept of ‘tertiary’ education, a notion that signifies an interconnected system of higher and vocational education that was envisaged 16 years ago in the Bradley Review (2008). Although the Accord process was about developing a long-term plan for higher education in Australia, the Review Panel acknowledged challenges that would require all educational sectors to work together, including higher education and vocational education and training (VET). That is why the framing of the report is often in terms of ‘tertiary education’, recognising higher education and VET as ‘2 important parts of the same system, each bringing different strengths’ (p. 1). 

Observers of VET policy will find much of interest in the Accord document, although some of the suggestions have a familiar ring. At multiple points in the document there are calls for better pathways between VET and higher education. One would expect that moving between the two kinds of tertiary provision would be straightforward, and that providers would do all they can to facilitate such movement. While there are some excellent examples of seamless transition between VET and higher education studies, there are too many situations where students face frustrating barriers. The Accord document calls for this situation to be addressed, although fundamental change would be required to fully overcome it. 

For VET observers a striking feature of the Accord document is the prevalence the language of ‘skills’ throughout. For those who research VET skills talk is so common it is no longer noticed, so to see it assume such importance in this context is interesting. Higher education has always had a vocational purpose. Whether preparation for professions or disciplinary scholarship and research, higher education is vocational through and through. A concern is that the intent of the document is to eventually foist a narrow conception of skills upon higher education. That approach has not always worked well in VET, where the call now is to embrace richer approaches to expressing skill standards. 

Indeed, one of the most promising ideas in the document from a VET perspective is that of TAFEs being allowed to self-accredit in the VET space, at least in higher VET qualifications (Diploma level and above). What this recommendation amounts to is freeing providers from the limitations of centrally defined competency standards and giving them scope to directly address the needs of employers, communities and students. This is a revolutionary proposal in the context of VET. So long as both sides of the tertiary sector can be allowed to innovate like this, then the system should be well-placed to address the changing skill and knowledge needs of the future. While it makes sense for industry to articulate standards for its occupations, great care should be taken to express these in a way that fosters – not constrains – curricular innovation on the part of tertiary education providers.

Header image of Minister for Education Jason Clare and Professor Mary O’Kane, Chair of the Australian Universities Accord Panel, taken from the minister’s Facebook page

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