Last November education minister Jason Clare released details of Labor’s election promise ‘Universities Accord’ review of higher education. Its terms of reference are wide-ranging. Skills, equity, quality, funding, engagement, research, commercialisation, workforce, regulation, governance and connections to vocational education are all in the brief.
An ambitious schedule
A consultation paper released last month poses 49 questions for stakeholder feedback. Joining considered answers to these questions into a coherent set of recommendations on the Accord review’s timeline is a near-impossible task. An interim report is due in June 2023 and a final report in December 2023.
The most practical way forward for the seven-person Accord panel chaired by former vice-chancellor Mary O’Kane is to recommend policy responses to pressing problems and policy processes for resolving longer-term matters. Australia’s higher education system has faults, but most of them do not need admitting to the policy hospital via its emergency department.
Student contribution reform should be a priority
My first submission to the Accord panel, made in late 2022, focused on matters I see as relatively urgent. These include the student contribution system established by the Morrison government’s Job-ready Graduates policy, which more than doubled student contributions for most Arts students, slashed them for nursing and teaching students, and moved most other student charges up or down. The idea was to encourage students to take ‘job ready’ or other ‘national priority’ courses.
The Morrison government agreed in 2020 to a Job-ready Graduates review to commence in 2022. The Albanese government slowed this review down by incorporating it into the Accord process. The student contribution reform timeline now looks like a final Accord report December 2023, legislation 2024, and implementation 2025.
But every year Job-ready Graduates continues, with the top student contribution now above $15,000 a year, students charged this amount sink further into a debt that will take them many years, and potentially decades, to pay off. CPI-linked indexation of their accumulated HELP debt, likely to be around 7 per cent when applied on 1 June this year, will compound their financial misery.
A June 2023 interim report focused on student contributions would leave time for legislation later in 2023 and new student contributions in 2024. Job-ready Graduates itself worked on similar timelines.
My proposal links student contribution levels to other practical policy issues including HELP debt repayment times. One goal is to align average repayment times between courses, so that the years of work required to clear a debt become more similar. Underlying dollar amounts of debt could still vary. Doctors for example earn more than nurses, so with HELP repayments based on a percentage of income doctors repay more each year and can incur larger debts without causing longer repayment periods than nurses.
Student contribution rates cannot be set entirely in isolation from other policies that might be decided later in the Accord process, such as total university resources for teaching or the overall share of public and private finance. The price relativities between courses could, however, be set this year, with later smaller adjustments to support other policy decisions. Every study of graduate earnings shows arts graduate incomes at the lower end of the range, so arts student contributions would return to the cheapest level.
The problems of a stakeholder-government ‘partnership’
For longer-run policies, the Accord panel’s consultation paper suggests a ‘continuous dynamic partnership’ involving the government and sector stakeholders. A formal consultative body to promote regular discussion of higher education trends and performance is worth considering. But giving it a formal role in setting policies and priorities via an Accord ‘partnership’ would be a mistake.
The higher education institutions to negotiate a sector-level Accord partnership do not exist. The sector has many conflicting interests and opinions, within nothing like elections and parliament on the government side to reach decisions seen as legitimately made despite disagreement.
An Accord with real influence over policy direction would accentuate power imbalances. University management and staff are well-organised to promote their views in stakeholder discussion, but student and other groups are less effective. Student income support and HELP debt get little attention from non-student stakeholders. Policies on these topics affect household and public, but not university, finances. The interests of taxpayers are not considered by sector stakeholders, beyond general claims about higher education’s public benefits.
A government-sector ’partnership’ approach also risks bypassing Parliament on issues that it should engage with, replacing legislated policies with agreements between the minister and universities.
The government should consult, but ultimately it must set priorities and make trade-offs between competing goals. The government and any new consultative body should diligently monitor higher education trends, but direction-setting should not be a ‘continuous’ or ‘dynamic’ process. Well-designed policies let higher education institutions adapt to changing circumstances within a stable set of rules. Such rules are a better basis for successful long-term strategies than deals that change with the mood and the minister.
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 is a member of the Australian Universities Accord Ministerial Reference GroupHe blogs at andrewnorton.net .au Follow him on Twitter @andrewjnorton
Header image of the February 21 meeting of the Ministerial Reference Group is from Jason Clare’s Facebook page