New education minister calls for step change in HE equity

Peak bodies for universities have welcomed plans by the new Minister for Education, Jason Clare, to make an investment in improving equity and diversity in higher education, and have committed themselves to working with the government to help achieve them.

Clare, who was sworn in on 22 June after the Labor Party secured an election victory in May this year, announced earlier this month that his government would be allocating AU$20.5 million (US$13.8 million) over the next four years to expand the work of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education based at Curtin University.

In a speech, titled ‘Reset, Rebuild and Reform’, delivered to the Universities Australia Gala Dinner on 6 July, in which he sought to highlight the opportunities for change that accompanied a new government, Clare said: “The centre has been around for a while. And it does good research. But I want to see a step change. I want to see real results. That means trialling, evaluating, implementing and monitoring the sorts of things that will really shift the dial.”

Missed targets

Clare’s funding announcement followed an admission that attempts to “shift the dial” when it came to improving enrolment from low socio-economic groupings, indigenous and rural communities had largely been inadequate and had failed to meet targets proposed in a review by higher education expert Denise Bradley at the request of then federal education minister Julia Gillard.

“In 2008 when the Bradley Report was published, 29% of 25- to 34-year-olds had a bachelor degree. Professor Bradley set us the target to reach 40% by 2020. And we did. It’s now more than 43%. But she also set us another target: that by 2020, 20% of enrolments should be students from low socio-economic backgrounds. At the time, it was about 15%. And it has barely moved,” he told his audience.

Of further concern was the fact that, while more than 48% of 25- to 34-year-olds in cities have degrees, in regional areas that proportion drops to just over 20% and is even lower – 16% – for remote areas.

“And it’s even worse than that for our indigenous brothers and sisters,” he said. “That figure is less than 10%.

“Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university,” he said.

Clare, who revealed that he was the first in his family to go to university, said: “I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents or the colour of your skin.”

Research review

In his speech, Clare said he would initiate an independent review of the role and function of the Australian Research Council (ARC) with “a particular focus on the governance framework and reporting” – as recommended by the Senate Committee in March.

The review comes in the wake of outrage from the academic community over the vetoing of six ARC projects by acting education minister Stuart Robert late last year in a move widely perceived by stakeholders as political interference and infringement upon the academic freedom of the council.

Acknowledging the need for change, Clare said: “The delays and the political interference in the way competitive grants operate need to end.

“It damages our international reputation. It also makes it harder for you to recruit and retain staff … It’s my job to make sure the Australian Research Council has competent leadership and is functioning well. That its objectives are clear and that its processes are rigorous and transparent.”

He said the independent review would complement “work already under way by the ARC reviewing its internal administrative processes”.

Diversity of international student intake

Clare also signalled his ministry’s intention to rebuild international education in the wake of COVID-19, singling out the Indian sub-continent for a special mention.

“Next month, the Indian minister for education is intending to visit Australia. That will be an important opportunity to forge a relationship with him and build on the strong foundations we already have to teach and train more Indian students in Australian institutions,” he said.

“We need to do that with other countries in our region as well,” he added.

Clare said his department was working with Home Affairs to deal with the backlog in the student visa processing ahead of the start of the second semester and hinted at additional initiatives aimed at encouraging graduates to remain in the country for work.

“I also think there is more we can do to get more of the students we teach and train to stay after their studies end and help us fill some of the chronic skills gaps in our economy. Only 16% of our international students do that at the moment. In some of the countries we compete with for talent it’s a lot higher than that,” he said.

‘How to achieve that goal’

Writing in The Conversation on 12 July, Professor Sarah O’Shea, director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, also welcomed the minister’s commitment to improving outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but said the challenge is “to identify exactly how to achieve that goal”.

Quoting figures from a media report based on information from the 2010-21 Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) Participation Allocations, O’Shea indicated that progress in improving equity had been limited – in spite of an investment in higher education equity programmes by the Australian government of nearly A$1.5 billion since 2010 – before going on to suggest the need for “fundamental shifts” in higher education.

When asked how confident it was about the minister’s “step change” being realised, Matthew Brown, deputy chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8), the body representing Australia’s top research universities, said in an e-mail to University World News that the group “has previously advocated that a new model is needed to support opportunity, student choice across the tertiary education sector, including targeted and effective support to enable students from equity groups to attend university.

“We look forward to working with the government to deliver this.”

Brown also said the government’s independent review of the ARC has been “well received by Australia’s research-intensive universities and our research community”.

“The minister’s commitment to remove political interference in the system signals a relationship reset. Accountability and transparency are important to regain the research community’s trust in both the ARC and its processes,” he said.

Brown said it was “time to reaffirm the role of peer review in the grant funding process” and said the Go8 has recommended the adoption of the ‘Haldane Principle’ to ensure the allocation of public funding for individual research proposals are made following evaluation by independent experts rather than directly by government.

“Nothing could be more obvious or effective as a first step to rebuilding Australia’s research grant reputation,” he said.

A reflection of trade relationships

On the issue of diversification of international students, Brown said the Go8 “supports the pursuit of diversification as a strategic goal but recognises that success will depend on the introduction of a range of measures to rebuild and reshape the international education industry and promote the quality of Australia’s offering to existing and new markets”.

“The Go8 educates 160,000 students from over 160 countries. We account for 71% of Australia’s enrolments from Chinese university students. Our international education sector export profile simply reflects Australia’s trade relationships. Diversification should be a medium- to long-term strategy,” he said.

“The recent European Australian Business Council (EABC) delegation to Europe provided an opportunity to reset relations with our key partners in Europe. We have a window of opportunity to capitalise on improving relations with Europe by diversifying Australia’s foreign student intake and strengthening research ties with the EU.

“The Go8 is also working hard to recruit more students from the ASEAN region – it’s important to build closer ties with our neighbours and provide the education needed to support prosperity in the region,” Brown said.

Universities Australia was equally sanguine about the minister’s comments.

Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the 39-member organisation was “delighted to welcome the additional funding to accelerate work at the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education”.

“A central part of improving participation and educational outcomes for marginalised and disadvantage people is understanding and defeating the barriers to entry and retention,” she said in e-mailed comments to University World News.

Jackson said universities had long been committed to equal opportunity in access, regardless of geographic location, demographic, identity or background.

A partnership with government

“There is considerable work to be done and we look forward to pursuing this matter with the minister – specifically in relation to expanding the number of fully-funded places, which is high on our list of priorities.

“It really is a partnership between universities and government to give all Australians the opportunity to study at university, and to deliver the skilled people our economy needs,” she said.

Jackson also said her organisation welcomed “close scrutiny” of the ARC and a reinforcement of its role in merit-based grant allocations.

“Australia needs a research system with strong governance, robust peer review and genuine transparency at its core,” she said. “The new administration of the ARC has already made fruitful changes and we look forward to working with the government to deliver the best possible support or our valued researchers.”