Government HE report calls for greater focus on inclusion

The interim report of what is known as the Universities Accord, an inquiry into the Australian higher education sector released by the Labor government earlier this month, reflects a government desire to have universities focus on their public service role to educate the nation, rather than chasing after the lucrative foreign students’ market.

“We have a very good higher education system. The rankings, the research and the people it produces are proof of that. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Or fit for the future,” Minister for Education Jason Clare said while presenting the interim report on 19 July at the Canberra Press Club.

The report estimates that more than half the jobs in Australia would need higher education qualifications by 2050. Clare pointed out that this would require the number of government-supported students in the higher education sector to increase from the current 900,000 to 1.8 million by 2050.

“What this report argues is the only way to really do this, is to significantly increase the number of university students from the outer suburbs and the regions,” Clare said, noting that this would include students from poor backgrounds and Indigenous students. “If we don’t, we won’t have the skills and the economic firepower we need to make this country everything it can be in the years ahead,” he added.

He started his speech by referring to his working class background in Cabramatta, a western Sydney suburb well known for its migrant population. He pointed out that neither of his parents pursued higher education, and most of the students at the local public school were migrants of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chilean and Uruguayan refugee families.

“Guess where they are today? They are partners in law firms, engineers, multi-millionaire start up business owners,” Clare said. “All of that has left an imprint on me. About the power of education”.

Priority areas

To educate a workforce, half of which would need a higher education qualification within the next two decades, the accord’s interim report includes some 70-plus recommendations with five priority areas to jump-start higher education reforms. This includes, as the minister said, increasing opportunities for a wider range of people that includes those from poorer, regional and indigenous backgrounds.

There is concern that a university education in Australia is seen mainly as a privilege for children of the rich and middle-class families.
Some of the ideas the reformist report has floated include:

• a universal learning entitlement that helps as many Australians as possible to get the qualifications and skills they need and ensures that all students from poor backgrounds, from the regions and from under-represented groups are eligible for a funded place at university;
• a new needs-based funding model for government supported places that builds in extra support for students from under-represented groups to provide an incentive to universities to offer them a place and help them graduate;
• a jobs broker programme to help students find part-time work in the area where they are studying; and
• a levy on international student fee income to create a fund, a bit like a sovereign wealth fund, that could do multiple things like protect the sector from future economic shocks, and help fund things like infrastructure, research or student housing.

The recommended reforms also include the government funding the expansion of regional study hubs with at least 34 new ones to be established; and all qualified indigenous students to be supported fully by the government.

The report is critical of the CEO mentality of university executives, especially highly paid vice-chancellors and calls for all university governing boards to be overhauled to install more people with higher education experience.

A regional university study hub is a facility students can use to study tertiary courses remotely delivered by a distant university. It would have study spaces, breakout areas, video conferencing, computer facilities and high-speed internet access. It would also have administrative or academic support services available locally or online. There are 32 such study hubs across Australia at the moment.

Speaking on ABC Radio from the remote north Queensland community of Cooktown – which is a predominantly Indigenous community – Assistant Minister for Education and Regional Development Anthony Chisholm described the study hub operating there as a “fantastic opportunity for Australians to attend university”. He said these centres are supported by the community and it is usually the local council that drives it.

“You can study at any university [in Australia] you wish, and it is not restricted to any university or geographic area. You can be enrolled in Perth, South Australia, Melbourne or Tasmania, and study here in Cooktown,” Chisholm said.

“There’s a full-time officer to provide assistance to students, because quite often [it] could be a daunting task, so [we] have someone to help provide some advice and mentorship. There’s also a fulltime Indigenous engagement officer who would provide some outreach into the local community”.

Commercialisation of higher education

The interim report provides some ammunition for a possibly divisive debate on the commercialisation of higher education in Australia. In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, higher education institutional researcher and advisor Angel Calderon suggested that some universities have lost sight of students in their scramble to compete with elite global universities and in the process becoming a “supermarket for credentials”.

The interim report proposes a tax on the almost AUD10 billion (US$6.7 billion) the big universities make from international students. The Group of Eight Universities that earns most of this revenue has slammed this idea as discriminating against high achieving universities.

Chair of Universities Australia Professor David Lloyd argued in an interview with ABC Radio that this is only an idea that has been floated. “Until an idea is investigated, and I suppose exposed and interrogated, it is only an idea,” he said.

“I think the notion that we will just instigate a kind of quick fix solution, of what is a kind of fundamental ongoing vulnerability in the funding of research, is something that the sector will have to look at carefully”.

Gaps in attainment

Meanwhile, Group of Eight CEO Catriona Jackson in an interview on ABC acknowledged that university education is still somewhat a rich and middle class option. She pointed out that about 60% of young people in Sydney and Melbourne have a degree but it drops to 15 % when you go further away from the cities.

“There’s a big gap in attainment and part of that is because they are not close to a thing that looks like a university. Those hubs are important, but they are certainly not universities,” she argued.

While the interim report outlines a vision for higher education in Australia, it is not a final recommendation for action. Interested stakeholders are encouraged to submit constructive comments to the panel on the recommendations for change, and the final report is due to be submitted to the education minister in December 2023.