The Australian Universities Accord (the Accord) is a “12-month review of Australia’s higher education system” introduced by the Labor Government. The aim of the Accord is to improve the higher education system with a long term plan bringing management, students, staff and industry together. 

The Accord is likely to have a substantial impact on the future of the University sector. Woroni reached out to experts and students to understand their perspectives on the process and likely end result.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education specified to Woroni that “the review will consider university places and funding, the Job-ready Graduates package and greater alignment between Vocational Education and Training (VET) and higher education systems.” 

 The Accord has outlined seven key areas of review, including: 

  • Meeting Australia’s knowledge and skills needs, now and in the future;
  • Access and opportunity: supporting the participation of students with low socio-economic backgrounds, First Nations Austrations, people with disability and regional and rural Australians;
  • Investment and affordability: reviewing the Job-ready Graduates Package;
  • Governance, accountability and community: improving university regulations for staff and students;
  • The connection between vocational education and training and higher education systems;
  • Quality and sustainability: solving the impacts of COVID-19, exploring the role of international students and deepening Australia’s international partnerships; and
  • Delivering new knowledge, innovation and capability: supporting research funding and encouraging the partnership between universities and industries for an increase in commercial returns.

The Ministerial Reference Group, chaired by Minister for Education Jason Clare, includes representatives of universities, business, staff, students and other experts. The students involved include Georgie Beatty, 2022 NUS President and Taylah Roberts, 2020 Rural Youth Ambassador. 

Despite the significant ramifications of the Accord for accessibility and cost of university degrees, five students Woroni interviewed had never heard of it. 

Andrew Norton, a professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Centre for Social Research and Methods at ANU, and also a consulted stakeholder for the Accord, questions what an ‘Accord’ even means. 

The Accord has stirred controversy at the National Union of Students, with Labor factions supporting it and Socialist Alternative rejecting it as “working with management.”

Perhaps of most importance to ANU students is the possibility for the Accord to reform or repeal  the Job-ready Graduates Package.The Liberal-National Government controversially introduced the Job-ready Graduate package in 2020 with the aim of redirecting university enrollments to disciplines with higher demand in the labour market. 

The result has been a significant increase in the costs of humanities and arts degrees, as well as the removal of HECS-HELP for students who fail 50 percent of their classes after one year at the ANU. 

The HECS-HELP changes made under this scheme saw students in 2023 studying Law, Accounting, Administration, Economics, Commerce, Communications and Society and Culture, paying a maximum of $15,142 with the Commonwealth contributing $1,147. Meanwhile, skill shortage clusters such as Nursing, Indigenous and Foreign Languages, Engineering, Surveying, Environmental Studies and Science had to pay $12,425 with the Commonwealth contributing $16,969.

Andrew Norton explains that this current student contributions system fails to “reflect a graduate’s capacity to repay their HELP debt” and calls for reform as soon as possible. Many articles over recent years have pointed to the increasing inability of students to repay their student debt. They point to factors such as the increasing cost of living, inflation, increasing costs of degrees, and the gender pay gap as exacerbating the debt.  

Sam, a third-year ANU student studying a Bachelor of International Law and Commerce, also has concerns about how expensive her degree is. She started university in 2021 and immediately faced the incentive to study a cheaper degree. However, Sam adamantly claims that many of her friends, and herself, still chose to study the degrees they want, prioritising their interests even at an increased cost. 

Research shows that Sam is not alone and that many students ignore the costs of degrees when deciding. 

The Australian Taxation Office claims that the average “time to repay the debt in full was 9.5 years.” Norton disputes this claim because it includes students who dropped out and students who studied courses with lower fees. 

He insists on the necessity to have concrete information on the time it takes to repay a HELP debt, available for students so they can make more informed decisions on whether to continue into postgraduate study. 

Sam conversely says that although she would appreciate information on the time it takes to repay student debt, she considers repayment to be a future issue. K*, a student who studies advanced computing is also not overly concerned about her debt repayment. 

Last year, the Labor Government allocated 20,000 places for equity students, including First Nations students from regional and remote Australia, in skill-shortage courses.The Accord is reportedly also considering if this demand driven system should be extended to all Indigenous students. 

However, Norton reasons that even if the government implements the policy, there won’t be any change for Indigenous students. Instead it will harm other domestic students by reducing the allocation spaces available to them – as it is not an increase in the total spaces. He argues that the allocated 20,000 places will be unsuccessful because “by pursuing two separate goals in one policy…the government reduces the chance of success in either objective.” 

The Accord also aims to improve the working conditions of staff. At ANU, staff have gone on strikes and protests to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. Concurrently the incredibly low conversion rate of 1% for casual staff to permanent roles has become an issue at universities across Australia.

Norton explains that it would be extremely difficult for this major problem to be solved because it may call for a change to employment throughout the economy. Norton believes the Accord may change some casual employment into permanent roles and make “small incremental changes,” but it is unlikely to solve the structural issue that staff currently face.

The Accord also emphasises the role of international students. Since the pandemic, universities have only become more reliant on the higher fees that international students pay. 

International and postgraduate student, Olivia, told Woroni that even though she recognises her privileged position as a part-time student, she dislikes the doubled tuition fees and the troubles her international friends on a visa face. These include the struggle to meet the high expectations of a full-time student and the language barrier. Likewise, during the pandemic, Chinese international students in Australia reported lower social support and experienced mental health issues due to discrimination. 

Many students focus on how the Accord can change university regulations to improve their way of learning. Oliva and Mahisha Sathialingham observe how other higher education systems in Switzerland and Korea achieve the Accord’s goals of governance, community and quality of learning. 

Olivia explains the differences between the education system in Switzerland compared to Australia. In Switzerland, a student pays around $800 to be enrolled for one semester. They can then take as many classes as in Australia, and there isn’t the stress of having to pay for a failed class. “I find that the universities here are more customer oriented. I see university as a place to learn and gain knowledge, and should be free of cost.”

Mahisha, a third-year ANU student currently doing exchange in Korea, similarly advocates for changing class structure “so students don’t feel so alone in learning content”. She talks about how her host university combines the lecture and tutorial into one time, comparing the experience to being in high school. “In a way, students feel like they have more attention and help from their professors and tutors.”

Another key desire of students is to regulate and push for greater hybrid learning between in-person and online classes.

Alex, a law student who is also a member of the South Asian Legal Research and Advocacy Hub (SARAH), urges universities to “live with, rather than reject, technology” and suggests “moving towards hybrid learning platforms.” Sam agrees, bringing up the current controversy around ChatGPT and the need to change how universities assess students.

The ANUSA Disabilities Students Association (DSA) is currently campaigning for hybrid options in all classes. COVID-19 still threatens some students’ health and hybrid learning is more accessible for a number of students with disabilities. 

When asked about the viability of the Accord, Norton concluded that it is unlikely to achieve its goals in such a short time.

The extent of the consultation is also unclear. The Accord has included select student representatives, but this does not extend to individual student unions. It is unclear then whether the recommendations of the Panel will ultimately reflect student desires. 

The Accord panel released a Discussion Paper on the 22nd of Februrary this year, which is open for submissions till the 11th of April. An interim report will be released in June, outlining pressing changes that need to be addressed immediately, and the final report will be released in December. 

*K is a moniker to protect the student’s identity. 

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