Regional University Centres

A reasonably honest portrait of where the system is now

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 .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

No way to study with kids at home. Here’s how a unique program helped

For mature-aged students in regional areas, studying a university degree online can be challenging at the best of times. Add in the pressures that school holidays bring for students who are also parents or carers and continuing university study across this period can be incredibly difficult. 

During the April school holidays, the Country Universities Centre (CUC) Snowy Monaro invited parents to bring their children into the Centre to participate in outreach activities facilitated by a university partner, while they were given the time, space, and academic support to maintain their study patterns.

The Centre was buzzing. Across five days, kids were constructing bridges, learning about the environment, talking about what university is and why their parents were working on obtaining a university degree in one room, while their parents and carers were studying with the CUC resources in another.

Recent research has highlighted the need to recognise that older students – particularly women – are likely to be combining study with family caring responsibilities. For those who are mature-aged, their identity as a student is likely to take second, third, or even fourth place, to other more pressing identities – such as those of parent, carer, financial supporter, and paid employee.

In regional communities, these caring responsibilities that mature-aged students face are often compounded by other forms of inequalities when accessing higher education – such as being first in family, low-SES, or studying part-time. Additionally, students over 25 and studying part-time have high levels of attrition.

These compounding challenges are felt significantly by regional students across the Country Universities Centre (CUC) network, which offer campus-like facilities to any student studying at any Australian University. Each centre is equipped with high-speed internet, computers, workstations, and video conferencing facilities. Additionally, students can engage with academic, administrative and wellbeing support from staff within the Centre. The CUC is part of the larger Regional Universities Centre program, funded by the Commonwealth Government, to improve access to higher education for regional and remote students.

Of the students currently registered with CUC, 76% are female, 59% are older than 25 years, 51% study part-time, 45% are first in family and 63% are from a low-SES background. Regional students are also significantly more likely to be mature-age and studying part-time than their metropolitan counterparts.

Research by Stone and O’Shea on supporting women with caring responsibilities who study online has illuminated several challenges for this cohort of students. While online study makes it possible for them to participate in higher education and balance caring commitments, a significant amount of planning, good time management, multitasking, and dealing with family resistance is required for them to be able to persist.

One challenge that was identified in Nicole Crawford’s recent NCSEHE Equity Fellowship research, and across the CUC network, was that the school holiday period causes high levels of stress for mature-aged students.  It increases the caring responsibilities and creates significant difficulty for mature-age students with children to maintain consistent study patterns.

In response, the CUC developed a pilot program that aimed to provide consistent, uninterrupted study time across the school holiday period for parents in the Centre, while simultaneously nurturing the aspirations and understanding of university for their children.

The program consisted of five days of outreach activities for primary school aged children delivered at CUC Snowy Monaro. These were facilitated by an outreach team from a partner university and were grouped into themes of science, engineering technology, performing arts, and environmental conservation. There was complete flexibility in which sessions parents and children could attend, with some parents utilising the entire week, while others only attended one session.

While children were engaged with the university outreach program, parents were provided the opportunity to study onsite at the CUC with the support of the local Learning Skills Advisor (LSA). Across the week, the LSA provided a combination of 1:1 support for students, academic workshop activities, and “Shut Up & Write” sessions.

Many students reported that having this peer accountability and allocated study time and at the CUC without the distractions of their school-aged children was the most valuable element to the program:

“There is no way I could study with my daughter at home, the [school holiday] program has meant I can come in for a few hours, get work done, and then go home for time with the kids” – Parent

For these students, simply having the time and space to study without the distractions of their children was invaluable. Additionally, the outreach activities enhanced what the children understood about university.

“I felt less guilty knowing that [name removed] got to learn about university and do some fun engineering activities while I could focus on my assignment” – Parent

After participating in the outreach program many children had an increased understanding of why their parent came to the CUC to study.

“This is mum’s uni and this is where she comes to learn things for her job” – Child

The outreach program not only nurtured aspiration for university within the children but helped them understand why their parents were studying. At the end of each session, some of the children were asked about what they had learned or experienced. One session was focused on developing career aspirations:

“I learned about uni and jobs and when I grow-up I want to do uni to be a teacher like my mum is going to be” – Child

Bringing kids and parents into the CUC together helps normalise expectations of studying at university – especially for first in family students. This shared experience helps families to be included in the process of university study, while developing a shared sense of belonging and ownership of their local CUC. The program helped children to understand that the CUC is a place of higher education, and that university study is a ‘normal’ thing for people in their community to do.

The school holiday program is a simple idea that generates a shared experience of university between parents and their children. It highlights that we need to do more than focus on supporting the individual student, we must also support their families to share the university experience. 

It is early days, but programs like this are the start of creative ways to include the entire family of a mature-aged student in their learning journey. Increased understanding of university at the family level further normalises study and develops deeper support structures for mature-aged students to succeed.

Chris is the director of equity and engagement at the Country Universities Centre and has worked on national research projects as part of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and with the University of South Australia in Regional, Rural and Remote higher education policy, student equity, widening participation and rural student transitions. Chris is on the National Executive team for the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia (SPERA) and is the Director of the National Conference for Regional, Rural, and Remote Education.

New evidence: Stark inequity of online access for rural and remote students

It’s long been known that those in regional and remote areas of Australia do not have access to the same quality of internet as their metropolitan counterparts. Now we have more evidence about how regional and remote students are disadvantaged by this low-quality access. We should mention here that Australia’s average internet download speed is 43.4 mbps, ranking Australia 62nd in the world for connectivity. So generally, Australia lags way behind in internet download speeds compared to other parts of the world.

During the COVID-19 lockdown we asked university students in eight regional NSW towns – Cooma, Goulburn, Broken Hill, Narrabri, Moree, Grafton, Griffith and Leeton – to run an internet speed test and share the results with us. The regional internet speeds reported by our students were a long way behind the rest of the the country.

The students in our study were all registered with a Country Universities Centre within the eight towns. These centres are part of the network of Regional University Centres. The students were mostly enrolled in a fully online, distance mode within a range of universities, while some  had recently returned from on-campus study to their home towns, to study remotely during the COVID-19 restrictions. Due to these same restrictions, none had been able to physically visit one of these centres during the COVID-19 lockdowns for some weeks prior to our survey. We asked them what their home internet download speeds were, whether this was sufficient for them to do their university work and how it was affecting their study.

A total of 55 students responded over one week. Almost two-thirds disagreed or strongly disagreed that their internet was sufficient for their studies. Among those who strongly disagreed, the median download speed was 4.5 mbps, with some experiencing speeds of less than 1 mbps. Multiple problems were reported in accessing or downloading materials, including being unable to watch lectures and having assessment tasks interrupted. Understandably, many expressed anger, stress and frustration, with some being unable to access the internet from home at all.

 “It takes an eternity to download lectures and streaming them requires extensive buffering. Uploading any files for group work or assignments is extremely slow and frustrating when deadlines are looming. The fluctuating connection which completely drops at times makes live tutorials or meetings pointless.” (Internet download speed: 6.4 mbps Broken Hill)

 “I am currently unable to properly access my zoom calls and online lectures because of how unreliable my internet service is. It often cuts out or is incredibly delayed. (Internet download speed: 1.6 mbps Goulburn)

The median download speed test was slightly higher amongst those who disagreed (rather than ‘strongly disagreed’) that their internet was sufficient, at 10.6 mbps, although many experienced lower speeds than this. These students talked about interruptions, disrupted focus, reduced productivity, and being unable to study at certain times.

 “It’s challenging and frustrating to be productive when everything takes so much more time.” (Internet download speed: 5.2 mbps Broken Hill)

“If it is really slow you easily lose focus and you get easily frustrated. This can turn you right off studying in these conditions.” (Internet download speed 9.5 mbps Goulburn)

Only those with a download speed above 16 mbps agreed that their internet was sufficient. Even among this cohort, difficulty with video calls and slow internet at certain times of the day or evening were reported. Across the whole cohort, cost of internet was a recurring theme.

I also do not have access to NBN or broadband where I reside and having to complete my whole degree at home has become quite costly with all the excess data charges (for incredibly bad service)”

Students studying online are two and half times more likely than those on-campus to withdraw from university without a qualification.  Certainly, this survey revealed that internet problems can make it nearly impossible for a student to continue with their online course, much less perform at their best.

Access to reliable internet has been identified as a key equity issue for education in Australia, with previous research identifying that poor local residential internet connectivity is a significant barrier to regional university study.

The sudden and exponential increase in online delivery during COVID-19 restrictions has led to a heightened focus on the quality of online deliveryTechnology advances coupled with universities aiming to deliver a more engaging online experience means that online course content increasingly contains interactive and engaging content, such as video, live streaming,  collaborative tools and other interactive multimedia.  However, students with poor internet speeds will struggle with accessing, let alone participating in this more engaging and interactive remote learning environment.   Unless home internet connectivity is adequate and affordable, those in regional/remote areas and/or from low SES backgrounds are likely to be excluded from these technological and pedagogical advances in online learning.

The lifeline of Regional University Centres

Prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, many students in regional/remote areas were relying on Regional University Centres which offer high-speed internet connection (100 mbps up/down) to any student studying at any Australian University. These centres have been a lifeline for many online students in country areas, with some students willing to travel up to 150km to access a centre.

Country University Centre Clarence Valley
(Image by Monica Davis)

Offered free to students, the centres are supported financially by Commonwealth, State and local Governments, as well as community and university partners, and provide face-to-face support for regional online students, not only with fast internet but also with academic and social support.  Most of these centres have now reopened or are planning to reopen under socially distancing guidelines, however some students may face other COVID-19 related reasons they cannot attend their centres.

The COVID-19 restrictions have further exposed the inequitable access to adequate internet across Australian society, affecting those who are already among the most educationally disadvantaged. This is a problem that urgently needs attention if the past and current lower participation rates in higher education across regional and remote Australia are to be seriously addressed.

Cathy Stone, DSW (Research), is a Conjoint Associate Professor in Social Work at the University of Newcastle. Cathy  is an Adjunct Fellow with the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, where she undertook research into improving outcomes in online learning as an inaugural 2016 Equity Fellow. Cathy is currently an Independent Consultant and Researcher on the support, engagement and success of diverse student cohorts in higher education. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at Cathy is on Twitter @copacathy

Monica Davis is the Director of Educational Delivery for the County Universities Centre. In this role she focuses on student support and collaborations with Australian universities to make higher education more accessible to regional, rural and remote students. Monica completed her Bachelor of Science with Hons I from the University of Newcastle, and a Masters in Geostatistics from the University of Adelaide. Monica believes that the future of an aspiring student should not be predetermined by where he or she lives. She can be contacted for any questions or further discussion at The Country Universities Centre is on Twitter @countryuc