Home | Policy & Reform | Universities Accord final report released
The Universities Accord, lead by Professor Mary O'Kane, as announced by Education Minister Jason Clare on Sunday. Picture: NCA Newswire/Liam Kidston.

Universities Accord final report released

The Universities Accord final report released on Sunday called for a major shakeup of the higher education sector that would prioritise accessibility and double the number of university places to 1.8m by 2050.

The 47 recommendations would see students from disadvantaged backgrounds given more opportunity to go to university through 'needs-based funding', with an overarching aim to produce the workforce needed to fill our skills gap.

Jobs and Skills Australia has forecast that the industries that will grow exponentially in the next decade, such as healthcare and education, all require workers that hold a post-school qualification.

Education Minister Jason Clare was adamant that the key to generating these workers lies in giving every potential student, especially those from poor, regional or remote areas, a "crack" at university.

The ambitious reforms outlined in the report aim to increase the number of workers with a university degree or VET qualification to 80 per cent by 2050, compared to the current 60 per cent.

They would also see the number of 24-35 year olds with a bachelor's degree or higher increase to 55 per cent, from 45 per cent now.

To achieve those two goals, the number of Commonwealth supported university places would need to double by 2050, from 860,000 in 2022 to 1.8m, the report recommended.

Participation targets are recommended to increase the proportion of university students from underrepresented backgrounds by 2035.

The aim is to grow First Nations students from 2.1 per cent to 3.3 per cent, students from low SES from 17 per cent to 20.2 per cent, and rural regional and remote students from 19.8 per cent to 24 per cent.

Financial assistance

Key financial issues driving prospective students away from university study should be overhauled, says the report, such as the Job Ready Graduates program introduced under the Morrison government, which attempted to push students towards in-demand degrees such as teaching and nursing by lowering its fees whilst increasing the cost of arts and humanities studies.

Three years after the scheme was introduced, there are no significant numbers showing the fee reduction convinced more students to enrol in the cheaper degrees.

The report also recommends reforms to HECS repayments, such as easing repayments during periods of high-inflation, and reducing the amount of initial repayments when ex-students' salaries first hit the loan repayment threshold.

Students paying off their university fees shouldn't have their home loan eligibility tarnished by HECS, according to the report.

Existing HECS-HELP repayments are due to increase in June, but Labor has said they won't commit to any of the report's recommendations yet.

Other recommendations included payment for students when they are doing compulsory work placement requirements.

Currently these placements are the source of stress and financial strain and cause many students to drop out or lose their permanent jobs.

Another recommendation to support those who aspire to attend university was to increase the number of fee-free places in preparation courses.

Higher income support is also recommended for those in need.

A more seamless education system

The report also recommended the setting up of a new authority body, the Australian Tertiary Education Commission, to oversee universities and eventually the entire tertiary education sector, including vocational education.

It recommended the government move forward with the National Skills Passport, a digital qualification record-keeping platform, and a National Student Ombudsman, which would improve processes that handle wellbeing cases like sexual assault and harassment.

Microcredentials, short courses and other alternative education types would also be pushed to up- and re- skill students more quickly.

Education Minister Jason Clare strongly backs increasing the number of students at university from low-socio economic backgrounds, regional and remote areas, and First Nations peoples.

“The only way that we’re going to have enough people with the skills we need to build the businesses and the jobs in the next few decades is if people from poor backgrounds, the outer suburbs and from the regions, get a crack at university,” the minister told The Australian.

What does the sector say?

Peak bodies have welcomed the report's recommendations, although the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA), that said the review was incomplete.

"The significance of the Australian Universities Accord Final Report is in its very nature, it is institution-centric and doesn’t put students at the heart of the higher education sector," said ITECA chief executive Troy Williams.

"The report sets out some ambitious reforms, but many students will be left behind as the policy options are not provider-agnostic.

"The report’s focus on public institutions offers little for students who want to achieve their life and career goals as a result of studying with an independent higher education provider," Mr Williams said.

Mr Williams said the recommendation that would see Commonwealth support for TAFE students disregards the 10 per cent of the 1.6m total higher education students who choose to study at an independent institution.

Universities Australia chair David Lloyd welcomed the reforms and called on the government to quickly get to work implementing them.

"We encourage government to quickly establish the Implementation Advisory Committee so we can prioritise the rollout of reforms while providing universities with policy and funding certainty," Professor Lloyd said.

"It’s clear the panel has considered multigenerational reforms that require commitment from successive governments, and we urge the serving and all future governments to stay the course."

The total reforms will take tens of billions of dollars and decades to implement, and Labor has said it won't commit to any recommendations just yet.

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