Home | Industry & Research | Sector: Unis should deliver student diversity data before receiving equity funds
A panel at the ACSES conference including (left to right) Universities Accord panel chair Mary O'Kane, Dr Kylie Austin, Professor Verity Firth, Professor Harlene Hayne and Professor Barney Glover; moderated by director of ACSES Professor Shamit Saggar. Picture: Erin Morley

Sector: Unis should deliver student diversity data before receiving equity funds

A panel that included two Universities Accord review members and two Accord advisory implementation committee members have said universities should be required to report the diversity of their student cohorts to Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC) to drive effective reform policy and needs-based funding.

The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success (ACSES) is a research think tank that exists to improve educational outcomes for and support equity groups in higher education.

It will test and research ways of attracting and retaining students from First Nations, low-SES, disabled, and rural, regional and remote backgrounds to carry out the Accord's purpose of producing an 80 per cent tertiary educated workforce by 2050.

To break down the cultural and financial barriers equity groups face when accessing higher education, universities need to collect and report student demographic data, sector leaders that attended an ACSES conference on Tuesday said.

"We don't know who these students are in our universities. We don't monitor a lot of these student groups," Dr Kylie Austin, associate director of student equity and success at the University of Wollongong, said.

"We need to really make sure ... that as institutions, we're building up capacity in our knowledge as the sector around how to support students.

"We would be very much in favour of universities having to report on how diverse our student cohorts are, beyond the four equity groups as well."

Vice-president of societal impact, equity and engagement at the University of New South Wales Professor Verity Firth is also a member of the newly formed Accord Implementation Advisory Committee, a group that will oversee the execution of Accord reforms.

"Universities, naturally, don't want to be too constrained or regulated, and there's good reason for that. At the same time, I think TAFE is too regulated," she said.

Professor Firth is also a committee member of an ongoing NSW TAFE review.

"The amount of regulation and hoops [TAFE] has to jump through to be able to deliver virtually anything is ridiculous.

"If you're going to have an agile and responsive training system, you need to not be over regulated. We need an organisation that actually has the capacity to understand higher education in the tertiary sector as a whole, and they need to have the data insights to do that."

She said ATEC should deliver data insights about their student cohorts, just as Jobs and Skills Australia (JSA) does for a range of labour topics, to present to government to accurately inform funding.

"You see JSA developing the data capacity, in-depth insights and the expertise to advise government and industry and the sector. That's what we need ATEC to deliver," she said.

"Needs-based funding only works where you're able to actually agree on the baseline cost for the typical student.

"What does it actually cost to deliver education to a typical student, and then the loadings on top of that. What do those loadings look like, and what will it cost? What does it actually mean in terms of additional investment from government?

"At the end of the day, we are going to actually have to have additional investment from government."

Professor Firth explained "bread and butter" issues students face, including high cost-of-living and rent prices, can't be left out when developing needs-based funding.

"It's the youth allowance rate, it's the Austudy rate. It's the fact that in capital cities, it's really expensive to live and to buy food," she said.

"If we don't get those fundamentals right [when deciding where funding should go], we're not going to be able to drive up those participation rates.

"If the government isn't going to be seriously looking at lifting the rate of youth allowance, maybe our needs-based loadings have to also be thinking about accommodation, transport costs and other basic costs."

The federal budget paper states that from 2026, Commonwealth provided needs-based funding will provide per-student-funding contributions for underrepresented students, along with $350.3m to fully fund 'university enabling' courses and increase pathways for prospective students to university.

Professor Firth also said it's important to track where that funding actually goes.

"Accountability is really important in the equity space in particular, so we do need mechanisms to make sure that, particularly when there's needs-based funding involved, universities are delivering that funding for what it's intended to deliver," she said.

"A relationship of trust would also need to exist between the [university] sector and ATEC."

Education Minister Jason Clare has said ATEC probably won't be active until January 1 2026, leaving some university leaders and staff frustrated that solutions to issues, such as improving entry pathways and student experience for disadvantaged students, will have to wait until ATEC's design is complete.

However, psychologist and expert on higher education equity Professor Marcia Devlin said universities should not be waiting for ATEC to rule them, but instead should be proactive in informing ATEC about what their institution, students and staff need.

Some panel members said little to no requirements to report on where students are from, if they are part of an equity group, whether they work part-time or what pathways they took to enrol in university has caused some issues with the overall quality of student experience delivered on campus.

It has also allowed universities to grow their enrolment numbers with no obligation to enrol or cater for disadvantaged students.

Multiple Accord reforms, including establishing ATEC, would incentivise institutions to enrol more students from equity groups.

Commissioner of JSA Professor Barney Glover, who sat on the Universities Accord panel and is also a member of the Accord implementation committee, said providing data-driven advice to government is necessary to lifting overall student experience and educational outcomes for all students at universities.

"By January 1, 2026, I hope [government has] some very, very impressive data to work with to help inform their decision making and to steward the sector," he said.

"This is all important, because you can't talk about equity if you don't get into the detail of these really important parts of what works and what's effective."

However, Dr Austin said ATEC can't give blanket rules to all universities about how to support their students.

"I'm interested in universities having a level of autonomy to really tailor approaches that meet the needs of their diverse student cohorts," she said.

Vice-chancellor of Curtin University, and chair of the advisory board of ACSES, Professor Harlene Hayne said every bureaucratic measure should keep students at the centre of its work.

"The one word that is missing from the Accord [final report] is empathy. In all of the counting of things that we're doing, and all of the funding, we certainly don't want to step away from understanding that at the base of any of these decisions, are individuals." she said.

"[For] those of us who have to balance budgets, sometimes the individual can get lost in that story."

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