On 19 July, the Australian Universities Accord Panel released its Interim Report. The Panel writes, “the Interim Report outlines a vision for the future of higher education. It seeks to build a broad platform for change across higher education in ways that will benefit all Australians.”

The Panel is composed of experts in tertiary education from across the country and, after a process of consultation, will make recommendations to government in regards to reform of the higher education sector. The Interim Report focuses on “important early measures to bolster the accessibility, fairness, stability and integrity of the higher education system.”

The Minister for Education, Jason Clare, in announcing the interim report noted “this report makes it clear that more and more jobs will require a university qualification in the future,” and focused on the disparity in qualifications between cities and rural areas.

Clare added that “only 15 percent of young people from poor families have a university degree. And only 18 percent of young people in the regions do.”

Universities Australia, the peak body for the tertiary sector, welcomed the interim report with its Chair, Professor David Lloyd, saying “clear and constructive consideration has been given to deeper reforms around widening participation, future funding for core teaching, and support for research activities and infrastructure.”

An ANU spokesperson told Woroni, “we will engage with all the ideas in the report during the consultation phase, and do so in the spirit of ensuring Australia’s universities are excellent and resourced to be so.” The ANU also said they are pleased with progress on specific issues they raised with the Accord panel, “including the 50 per cent pass rule.”

The Interim report made five key recommendations to the government labelled Immediate Actions. Clare stated “the Government will act on the five Immediate Actions the Accord Panel has identified.”

The Panel’s first recommendation is to “extend visible, local access to tertiary education by creating further Regional University Centres (RUCs) and establish a similar concept for suburban/metropolitan locations.” The report sees RUCs as a valuable tool in achieving higher levels of participation in rural and regional areas as well as people from a low SES background.

In response, the Government announced it will “establish up to 20 additional Regional University Study Hubs (formerly Regional University Centres)…and up to 14 Suburban University Study Hubs” which will add to the 34 existing Regional University Study Hubs.

The second recommendation calls for the abandonment of the “50% pass rule.” The Panel notes that “the 50% pass rule disproportionately disadvantaged students from equity backgrounds” and that “enhanced reporting on student progress will increase the focus on improving the success rates of at-risk students.” The 50% pass rule previously meant that students who failed more than half of courses in their first year of university would lose access to FEE-HELP or HECS-HELP loans.

The Government will abolish the 50% pass rule and mandate more comprehensive progress reporting. The impacts on this will be felt at the ANU; the more detailed focus on the reasons for students’ low results will allow for the creation of targeted solutions for individuals who are struggling due to reasons that the current reporting structure has failed to identify. 

The Panel’s third recommendation asks the government to “ensure that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at university, by extending demand driven funding to metropolitan First Nations students.” This would be an extension of a government scheme which provided guaranteed funding for First Nations students from regional and remote areas in 2021.

The Government announced that they will extend the guaranteed funding to First Nations students from metropolitan areas. In Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt’s State of the University address in 2020 he noted that “less than 1% of our domestic students identify as Indigenous – while the national figures say 3.3% of the Australian population is Indigenous.” These statistics are mirrored at many of the nation’s most prominent universities and the Panel’s recommendation will assist in raising First Nation’s enrolment by making university more accessible.

In the fourth recommendation, the Panel asks the government to “provide funding certainty, through the extension of the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025, to minimise the risk of unnecessary structural adjustment to the sector.” They add that “interim funding arrangements must prioritise the delivery of support for equity students to accelerate reform towards a high equity, high participation system.” 

This recommendation is one that Universities Australia has long been advocating for. The Higher Education Continuity Guarantee would ensure that universities can adequately plan for course structures, available degrees, staff salaries and many other expenditures into the future with some certainty. The National Tertiary Education Union’s (NTEU) strike on the 28th of July in Kambri drew attention to the mistreatment of university staff at the ANU through deferring pay rises, cutting jobs and cutting courses. An extension of the Guarantee would make it easier for universities like the ANU to respond to the urgent issues raised by staff by providing an assurance of funding.

The Panel’s insistence that remaining funds go to improving support for equity students should assist in ensuring that disadvantaged students receive the help they need as soon as possible; not just at the end of the Accord process.

The Government has agreed to “extend the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee for a further two years to provide funding certainty to universities” and it will “require universities to invest any remaining funding from their grant each year on additional academic and learning support for students from poor backgrounds, from the regions and from other under-represented groups.”

The Panel’s fifth recommendation calls for federal, state and territory government cooperation, through the National Cabinet, to “improve university governance”. In particular focusing on “universities being good employers, student and staff safety, and membership of governing bodies, including ensuring additional involvement of people with expertise in the business of universities.” 

The government accepted this recommendation. Universities have long been criticised for failing to uphold high workplace standards and the recent August 1st rally drew attention to these failings at the ANU. The past decades have seen universities undergo an enormous amount of public pressure in regards to staff and student safety  especially concerning SASH; this report calls for the work to address those concerns to continue and grow. However, the report stops short of End Rape on Campus’ call for an independent body to address sexual assault on campus.

The final part of the recommendation focuses on universities being administered by people with “expertise in the business of universities.” The ANU is managed by a 15-member council over half of which have no significant experience in the “business of universities”, outside of studying in them.

The Universities Accord Panel is currently consulting on the Interim Report. The Final Report is due to be published in December 2023.

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