Universities Accord

Want Indigenous university students to succeed? Here’s how

Recommendations in the Universities Accord reveal a focus on increasing enrolments of under-represented groups including  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. 

Enrolling students is just one part of the piece.  Our research identifies what factors contributed to Indigenous students’ graduating from university. We conducted a study with 308 Indigenous university graduates to understand and identify success factors. Economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics were the most crucial factors that contributed to Indigenous university completions.

Emphasis on financial support

Increasing Indigenous student enrolments at universities  must be accompanied by an emphasis on the financial support and resources needed to ensure both the economic conditions and the social environment at university are fostering success. Financial stability while completing a degree is essential, meaning the financial support offered at universities may need to be reviewed to ensure Indigenous students are having opportunities to access financial support, if needed. There also needs to be a focus on supportive networks and access to counselling.

In our study, we developed the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model which highlights what universities should focus on. Our findings could be used to address the concerns raised in the Accord report.  

What is Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model?

The Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model is a framework used to investigate the factors that influence the completion of university degrees, specifically for Indigenous Australian students. The model comprises five categories: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. It emphasises the critical role of external factors (economic, physical, and social) as well as individual attributes in influencing student success in higher education. 

Figure 1. Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model (Pham et al. 2024)

Effectiveness of the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) 

We examined five factors: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. We found that economic conditions proved to be the most influential factor on Indigenous graduates’ completion, followed by the social environment factor and then individual characteristics. The health and wellbeing factor and the physical environment factor both had less influence on completion compared to the other three factors. 

Importantly, the HESF model effectively identified the economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics as critical aspects, emphasising the need for support from educators, peers, and institutional services within Australian institutions. A key element of the economic conditions is the provision of financial support, particularly in the form of tuition and living expenses, to enable students to focus more on their studies and reduce stress, which align with Accord Priority Action 3

Social environment

The social environment cannot be overlooked. It influences the learning environment which needs to be “safe and secure learning” and have “good facilities” for learning to occur.

The study also highlighted mental health issues as significant factors leading Indigenous students to consider withdrawing from their studies. We suggest that university policymakers and educators could use the findings from the HESF model to identify potential weaknesses within their institutions and provide comprehensive support for Indigenous students at all levels of university education. Additionally, we proposed the potential expansion of the HESF model’s application to explore retention and success challenges in diverse settings beyond higher education. This will further enhance its utility and impact. 

The HESF model’s research-based approach provides evidence to support the recommendations made in the Accord report. By demonstrating the effectiveness of addressing specific factors in improving Indigenous students’ success, the model can help build a case for implementing the strategies and initiatives proposed in the report.

Importance of Comprehensive Support for Indigenous Student Success

Our research offered valuable insights into the factors influencing Indigenous student success in higher education and identified challenges faced by Indigenous students in completing their degrees. The findings from the HESF model can guide universities and policymakers in developing targeted support services and interventions to address the specific needs of Indigenous students. For instance, the model underscores the importance of financial support (as part of improving economic conditions), social support networks and mental health services. These areas are not only emphasised in the Accord report as needing attention but are also highlighted as concerns in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance framework.

Last, the HESF model can be used as a tool for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of support services and interventions aimed at improving Indigenous education outcomes. By tracking progress across the five factors, universities can assess the impact of their initiatives and make data-driven decisions to refine their approaches, aligning with the Accord report’s emphasis on accountability and continuous improvement.

From left to right: Thu Pham is a senior research assistant in the Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University. Her research areas include leadership in higher education and Indigenous students’ success. Thu’s doctoral research study focused on leadership to support quality improvement in Vietnamese higher education. She is on LinkedIn.

Levon Blue is an associate professor at The University of Queensland in the Office of the Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Engagement. Her PhD focused on financial literacy education practices in a First Nation community in Canada. She is a member of Beausoleil First Nation in Canada. Her research area includes financial literacy education and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Angela Baeza Pena is a lecturer at Carumba Institute at Queensland University of Technology. She is Diaguita First Nation from Chile. Her PhD focuses on understanding the experiences of teachers and Indigenous community members in providing Indigenous education in rural and remote areas. Her research area includes Indigenous education, teacher professional development and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Peter Anderson is a professor and the Director Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University, Walpiri and Murinpatha First Nations of Australia. His research theorises the understandings of the organisational value of academic freedom in Australian universities and more broadly in the polar south. His research areas include organisational leadership, Indigenous peoples’ education and teacher and academic professional development. He is on LinkedIn.

Melanie Saward is a proud descendant of the Bigambul and Wakka Wakka peoples. She is a lecturer of creative writing in the School of Creative Practice at QUT, a PhD student, and an author. Recently, she has published a Springer Brief titled: “Higher Degree by Research: Factors for Indigenous student success”.

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

Graduate employment: Right now, the ‘fair-go’ isn’t fair enough

A cornerstone of Australian values is the idea of a ‘fair go’: equality of opportunity regardless of personal circumstances. However, when it comes to higher education, decades of equity data reveal how university systems have failed to ensure this ‘fair go’. Nowhere is this more noted than in relation to gaining employment post-graduation.

Getting a job after completing a university degree is rarely straightforward. Only a minority of students walk straight from the graduating stage into permanent employment. However, students from equity backgrounds experience markedly different post-graduation trajectories compared to their peers from non-equity groups. In Australia,  students from a poorer background, living with a disability or with a first language other than English, consistently encounter ‘labour-market disadvantage’  with lower levels of employment 6 months after graduation. This is particularly noted for those living with disability, with a full-time employment rate of 68.4%, compared to 79.5% for those with no reported disability.

Statistics only tell one part of the story

Disparities in securing employment or job conditions are only some of the inequities experienced. Recent research indicates that those graduates from more diverse backgrounds also 1) have less opportunity to achieve ‘high status’ professional roles (e.g. medicine, law), 2) report differences in hourly wages and also, 3) experience more complex, interrupted pathways to employment.

There are many reasons for these differences not least of which is these graduates may not have access to necessary, but often obscure, networks or information needed to obtain professional roles. For example, graduates who were the first in their families or communities to attend university do not have a ‘guide on the side’ who can provide insight or advice about the fundamentals of job seeking. In recent research, graduates repeatedly told me how this was a hidden, but significant, barrier. For example, one survey respondent explained how seeking employment after graduation was like “navigating uncharted water”, another reflected on the difficulty of “understanding […] the white collar world” and sadly one defeatedly stated: “I was very ignorant in what came after.”

What’s the difference?

In their reflections, there was a perception of “difference” that was implicitly and overtly experienced within the workplace, tied up with their family background and biography:

Perhaps if someone else in my family had graduated and embarked upon a professional career they also could have given me advice about building the foundations early, such as doing internships and volunteering in places.

What this and other quotes indicated was that while these students had received a university degree, there was more practical and applied knowledges needed to achieve their end goals. Not only did they need to aim for good grades but also, participate in internships, gain volunteer experience, network with future employers and proactively engage with the careers services on-campus. As one student so eloquently summed up, many ‘assumed the degree would be all I needed’.

The promises of university education were not delivered for some and the frustration and anger of this situation was palpable in survey responses:

The universities just pretend that getting that piece of paper is all you need, like they are selling ice cream. (Female Survey Respondent)

We need to think about entry and exit

The last two decades have seen huge changes to the university sector with increasing numbers and diversity in our student populations. While policy and procedures have engaged with the implications of this as students consider and enter university, those who are exiting the higher education system have not attracted a similar level of attention. We are experiencing a highly competitive job market with a global oversupply of graduates and this, combined with the need to be ‘employable’ means that those students with less access to necessary material and personal resources may be at a marked disadvantage within the graduate employment market.

The recent Accord Interim Discussion paper proposes a range of actions designed to ensure that the skills and knowledge developed by students are readily transferable to the workplace. The paper calls for a ‘modular, stackable, integrated approach to course design’ complemented by a framework for coordinated work placements as well as ‘earn while you learn’ and other financial support for undergraduates.

What they need

But what the graduates in this study indicated was a need for more practical and applied careers-related support deliberately targeted at that final transition: the move between university into employment. Suggested initiatives included proactive careers advice contextualised to different stages of the degree journey; ongoing professional mentoring that commenced early in the degree and extended beyond graduation; opportunities to have meaningful contact with professionals with similar (equity) backgrounds to their own; and explicit teaching about protocols and expectations within a professional workplace environment. Those changes are not difficult but such initiatives do require a ‘shift’ in mindset across the university sector – to one that more readily embraces and desires a relationship with students that extends beyond the graduation stage.

Sarah O’Shea is the dean, graduate research at Charles Sturt University, a Churchill Fellow, principal fellow of the Higher Education Academy and leading an ARC Discovery Project exploring the persistence behaviours of first in family students.

Want fairness at uni now? There’s one crucial thing the minister forgot

Quality of higher education, equity of participation and access are front and centre in the new Universities Accord interim report, released by Education Minister Jason Clare at the National Press Club on Wednesday.

Minister Clare described five key priority areas for immediate action – three of which directly related to equity. In contrast to increasing equity and fairness for students, there was limited mention of university staff and the levels of casualisation in the sector, aside from calling for universities to become “exemplary employers”.

What are the five key priorities?

The first priority action recommends extending access to higher education by creating more Regional University Centres. In response, the federal government has committed to doubling the number of existing hubs, creating a further 20 centres in regional locations and 14 in the outer-suburban areas of major cities.

The second priority action recommends abolishing the 50% pass rule which was introduced under the former government’s Job Ready Graduates Package. The government has committed to removing this rule, which has disproportionately affected students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professor Barney Dalgarno from the University of Canberra said that many of these students can excel in their studies, when given appropriate support from academics.

The third priority action seeks to ensure all First Nations students are eligible for a guaranteed funded place at university. In 2021 such a guarantee was introduced for First Nations students from regional and remote Australia, and the government has agreed to applying this guarantee nationwide. 

The fourth priority action recommends extending the Covid-era Higher Education Continuity Guarantee for 2024 and 2025. The government has agreed to this to allow funding certainty to universities as the Accord process rolls out.

Finally, the fifth priority action seeks to improve university governance with a focus on employment practices, student and staff safety, and the make-up of university governance bodies.

Equity is about more than aspirations

Investment in higher education is an investment in young people and in our future as a nation. As Minister Clare pointed out in his address, that investment needs to start in our early childhood education and continue through our school sector. He rightly treats the education landscape as an interconnected jigsaw puzzle.

However, too often the question of equity becomes one of raising aspirations. The interim report focuses on “increasing aspiration” and the need to “develop the aspirations of potential students”. However, we know from research that students from all backgrounds aspire to university and careers that require higher education qualifications. The final report of the Accord working group must focus on how we remove barriers that not only limit access to university for students from diverse backgrounds and target equity groups, but also support their success once they arrive on our campuses.

University staff are key to realising the Accord’s ambitions

A big gap in the Accord’s interim report is concrete action on improving employment conditions at universities. The Accord report rightly acknowledges the rife casualisation across the sector, noting that 69% of teaching is conducted by casual staff members. While the report notes that casual employment can suit both employer and employees, a 2019 survey conducted by NTEU showed that 82% of casual staff would prefer part-time or full-time ongoing employment. 

My research, with colleagues from QUT, Charles Sturt University and the United Kingdom, has identified that casualisation of teaching and short-term contract research gigs disproportionately impact women, people from diverse backgrounds and early career researchers. Lengths of precarity can limit career opportunities through reduced ability to obtain professional development or career planning. Some casuals have held the same roles for decades and yet aren’t considered eligible for conversion to ongoing roles.

The Accord recognises that recent staff underpayments are “patently unacceptable” for a public institution but must go further to ensure that everyone in academic work is paid for the time they spend on supporting student learning and engaging in high quality research.

Casual teaching staff are only paid for their time on class and limited time for marking assignments. They are not currently paid for their time engaging in professional development or providing additional supports for students, both of which are recommendations within the Accord. These situations leave many academics with the impossible choice of providing the levels of support that they know students need and just focusing on what they are paid to do. Universities know this and exploit the care and dedication of their staff. 

More consistent funding is required for universities to ‘de-casualise’ and ensure that the knowledge and skills of high-quality lecturers and researchers are acknowledged, retained and enhanced.

A vision for high quality teaching and research

Consideration of the employment conditions in Australian universities is critical if the vision laid out in the Accord interim report is to be achieved. It describes a vision for 2035 of a more equitable system that supports all Australians, who choose to go to university, to study in supportive environments that foster high quality teaching and research. 

The interim report acknowledges that this vision and “the sector’s success in delivering skills, knowledge and equity is underpinned by enduring and stable funding and governance architecture”. The potential risks of continuing such high levels of casualisation in higher education are clearly illustrated in the issues currently playing out in UK universities, reminding us that “staff working conditions are student learning conditions”.

Jess Harris is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. Her research is focused on the leadership and development of teachers and teaching within schools and through initial teacher education. She draws on a range of qualitative research methods, including conversation analysis and membership categorisation analysis.

Image of Jason Clare at the National Press Club from video on his Facebook page.

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 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

Universities Accord: Why this urgent deadline is mission (almost) impossible

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