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The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) director Professor Shamit Saggar. Picture: Supplied/ACSES

Disadvantaged student studies to direct Accord funding

The Universities Accord final report has made 47 recommendations to the tertiary education sector to improve education outcomes and build the workforce of the future.

Both the review and Education Minister Jason Clare strongly recommend extra funding and increased accessibility to tertiary study for students who are Indigenous, disabled or from low socio-economic areas.

These students often miss out, and therefore can't contribute to a workforce that is relying more and more heavily on workers with post-school qualifications.

Although the federal government hasn't agreed to any of the costly reforms, estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars over 25 years, questions about where the reform money would come from are being asked.

Once that has been decided, universities will have to know how to allocate the funds, the Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) director Professor Shamit Saggar said.

"[Needs-based funding is] the number one thing universities struggle with, in terms of having the right resources and allocating resources for kids from disadvantaged, marginal backgrounds," Professor Saggar told Campus Review.

"If you give universities that funding to support these students, there's still that inherent problem of [it] being badly spent.

"Part of our work is to help straighten that out."

ACSES, formerly the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, has established a 'what works' approach to their three programs: data, research and policy, and trials and evaluation.

The trials and evaluations model aims to offer data, collected through randomised control trials, to all 39 universities, so they have access to best practice models when it comes to involving and supporting disadvantaged students.

The professor said, for the first time, the centre is doing in-the-field tests of around a dozen equity programs currently used in universities to analyse whether they're effective or not.

The soon-to-be-announced results of these trials will be able to inform university policies and programs to carry out the Accord's participation mission.

"That's why we call ourselves the What Works? centre, because the sector desperately needs to know what's working and what's not working," Professor Saggar said.

The trails will test how effective current university equity programs are, and hopes to identify a "secret sauce", or element, of the program that really drives participation.

ACSES will also launch an Equity Hub in March, where university staff and practitioners can gather to network and share ideas about accessibility and equity programs.

"Whilst we're getting ready for trials, before we produce the 'secret sauce', as it were, there's lots of small ingredients that can be exchanged across the table," the professor said.

"Traditionally, practitioners haven't had access to a lot of evaluation skills on the programmes they're involved in.

"The whole idea is for it to be a continuous source of expertise."

ACSES has six "strategies for future fairness": needs-based funding; equity programs; HELP-HECS updates; block funding; an Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC); and visionary university leadership.

The director said the recommendation for the government to install an ATEC would boost the program's efforts.

"Our work goes further if we're working with a proper ATEC in the future because it would be a buffer body between the sector and government," he said.

Programs that best support disadvantaged student cohorts, developed by ACSES, could be delivered through commission that would act as an authority body over the 39 independent universities.

Professor Saggar also said he could see ACSES working with a student ombudsman, another reform recommended in the Accord, to deliver better education and safety outcomes for students.

"An ombudsman shouldn't be complacent, just waiting for stuff to come through the front door," he said.

"It should also take the complaints it's received, as well as a soft intel, ... and report those back to the government, or the [possible] commission, or indeed, us."

ACSES' rebrand from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education was announced on Monday. It came after a 2022 $20.5m funding injection over four years from Minister Clare.

"The predecessor body did fine work, but it didn't have a very strong national profile," the professor said.

"The message behind our rebrand to ACSES is very pointed. We have the solutions to help universities close their equity gaps.

"This is a golden opportunity for all 39 universities to raise their game."

Research findings and recommended programs will be announced by ACSES in the coming months.

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