April 24, 2024

The Universities Accord and May Budget should stay focused on equity

In the lead-up to the Federal Budget on the 14th of May, universities are keenly awaiting the government’s response to the final report by the Universities Accord panel, delivered to Minister Jason Clare at the end of 2023.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said that the government’s third Budget this May should be about investing in the foundations for future growth. Crucially, the government is focusing on investments that won’t make inflation or inequality worse.

International evidence clearly shows that public investment in education and research leads directly to improvements in productivity, wellbeing, and social cohesion. In its recent five-year study Advancing Prosperity, the Productivity Commission found that Australia has “not yet reached the point where the cost of education for additional students outweighs the benefit to them and to society”. The Commission particularly pointed to the importance of improving equity in the education system, lifting participation and completion rates for students from under-represented groups.

The Universities Accord final report has a clear focus on equity and on student success, with a systematic approach and a coherent package of recommendations to tackle persistent barriers. It is a long-term agenda, setting targets for population parity for under-represented groups by 2050, but as the Treasurer says, we are already in the defining decade. What happens now will determine Australia’s ability to deliver inclusive growth in the decades ahead.

The Innovative Research Universities (IRU) has argued throughout the Accord process that student equity and success should be the number one priority. We are enthusiastic to partner with the government to ensure our system has the necessary capability to deliver on this ambition.

The universities in our group have already come a long way. Based on the latest 2022 data from the Department of Education, 21% of our students across the IRU are from low-socioeconomic status backgrounds, up from 16% when our group was founded in 2003. Our universities have met the 20% target set by the Bradley Review in 2008, but we know there is still more to be done. 2.5% of our students are Indigenous (up from 1% in 2003) and 20% are from regional and rural backgrounds (up from 16%). Half of our students are the first in their family to attend university.

Some have argued that the ambitious targets proposed in the final Accord report would lead to a lowering of standards and a “dumbing down” of higher education. We disagree. What this reform agenda is about is systematic uplift across the country to meet the future needs of the nation – ensuring that our country has the skills, knowledge and innovation capacity it will need to be competitive in the 21st century. Not everyone has to go to university, but wise investments now will grow the pie in ways that will benefit everyone.

Nor is it true that everything depends on a student’s ATAR score at the end of year 12. Half of our students across the IRU are coming to university as school leavers, but the other half are coming through alternate pathways, including from preparatory courses and as mature-age students wanting to retrain and upskill. Approximately 10% of our students are coming to university straight from a TAFE or VET course. This is the way of the future – more flexibility and lifelong learning options for students and a more integrated tertiary system.

So what will this take in practice and which of the Accord report’s 47 recommendations should the government prioritise for immediate action? We support measures to address cost of living pressures on students, including targeted HECS-HELP reform and financial support for students undertaking compulsory placements. An expanded and fairer allocation of funded places in preparatory (enabling) courses will be essential to achieve the uplift required.

We also believe that reform of the Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) package is an urgent priority. JRG increased student contributions in a way that disproportionately affected key groups of students – exactly the groups we will need to educate if we are to meet the equity ambition of the Accord. Higher student contributions are a factor in student debt and the longer we leave it, the worse it will get. In 2022, the IRU undertook detailed modelling of JRG reform options and these now need to be acted upon.

Finally, the Accord report also recommended a new needs-based funding model which will target additional investment to the students that need it most – this will be an essential feature of our future system. Different universities should be free to choose different priorities and programs – a one-size fits all approach to equity won’t work – but every university should be accountable for contributing in its own way. We appreciate the government’s commitment to extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee until this new funding model is in place, but from our perspective the requirement to spend HECG funding on new initiatives doesn’t make sense – equity is already the core business of our universities.

The Accord final report contains a big, bold, long-term agenda and Minister Clare is right that it can’t all be done at once. But with a focus on equity and a systematic approach, we have an opportunity in the coming months to put the building blocks in place for a more equitable and innovative Australia.

Professor Simon Biggs is Vice-Chancellor and President of James Cook University and Chair of the Innovative Research Universities (IRU).

This article was first published in The Australian as Accord will help Australia meet its skill and knowledge needs.