CW: This article mentions sexual violence.
The Labor government has committed to its first significant changes to higher education, in line with recommendations of the Universities Accord interim report. The final report, the cornerstone of federal Labor’s higher education policy, is expected to be delivered by the end of the year. From what we have seen so far, the report will need to offer more wide-ranging recommendations, and be supported by funding commitments by the government, to support the ailing higher education sector.
The Key Reforms
Students who fail 50% of their subjects will no longer be denied access to FEE-HELP loans, after the Accord panel described the rule, introduced by the Morrison government as part of the failed Job-ready Graduates Package, as “unfair and unnecessary”.
“The 50% pass rule … is also causing undue stress for many students. Most of the students affected by this rule are from underrepresented groups, including First Nations students, who are around twice as likely to be affected as other students,” the report said.
In just two years, more than 13,000 students have been affected by the rule, with thousands of these students forced to quit university altogether.
The Accord panel, chaired by Professor Mary O’Kane, also recommended that the government ensure that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at university as a “priority action”.
In a speech delivered at the National Press Club, federal Education Minister Jason Clare said that implementing this guarantee could “double the number of Indigenous students at university in a decade”.
Further priority actions recommended by the report, and since supported by the government, include the creation of additional regional universities and their relabelling as “study hubs”, the extension of the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee until 2025, and efforts to reform the governance of universities “to put greater emphasis on higher education expertise”.
Lia Perkins, President of the University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council, told Honi “The SRC is demanding more significant change than what the Accord process has offered so far. A terrible part of the Job Ready Graduates package [the 50% pass rule] will be overturned, yet students have been completely ignored in other demands for paid student placements, adequate income support while at university to end student poverty.”
The report was critical of the governance of universities, saying “systemic issues persist across the higher education sector, including widespread underpayment of staff.” It noted universities’ “emphasis on appointing people with business expertise to [university] councils,” at the expense of people with academic experience and First Nations people.
The National President of the National Tertiary Education Union, Alison Barnes said, “It’s encouraging to see the government and the review panel making governance reform a priority.
“For too long, corporate appointments have sent universities’ focus off course without the accountability needed to ensure our institutions are delivering for students and staff.
“We need to see major action on insecure work in the final report. So far we’re nowhere near addressing the deep crisis that has fuelled a $100 million wage theft explosion in universities.”
Beyond the five priority actions, the interim report contained few concrete measures to improve experiences for students.
While it was critical of the Job-ready Graduates Package, saying it “needs to be redesigned before it causes long-term damage to Australian higher education,” the report did not recommend further changes to the Package.
As a result, students studying humanities will still be forced to pay excessive fees, along with students studying other degrees which the Job-Ready Graduates Package more than doubled. However, given the criticism of the Package from a range of submissions to the Accord, it appears that some changes will be on the cards for later in the year.
The panel noted the concerns with the HECS-HELP system, in the wake of rising student fees and record indexation of debts. Although it claimed that the HECS system is “highly effective”, changes to indexation (such that it is tied wage to growth or government bond yields), repayment (introducing a marginal repayment system to avoid “debt cliffs”) and student loan forgiveness (targeted forgiveness for workers in certain industries and changes regarding home loan eligibility) are all being considered by the report.
From this, it appears unlikely that there will be a debt-forgiveness program that will assist students who have already been burdened by Job-Ready Graduates’ fee hikes. Instead, the interim report suggests change will be focussed on the cost of degrees themselves . Perhaps the political pressure being placed on the current government, after the seven per cent indexation of loan balances earlier this year, could be the impetus for action.
The report also canvassed a range of possible changes to the sector that will specifically concern students. It briefly noted that it is currently “needlessly complicated” for students to navigate pathways through university and TAFE into the workplace, suggesting the eventual creation of a unified platform where students can access this information.
The key reforms likely to eventuate from the final report concern issues of equitable access and participation at university. The interim report noted that increased university fees, and inadequate financial support for students were a barrier for First Nations students, and students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The financial barriers to participation need to be addressed if we are to meet our equity targets,” the Accord panel said. The report said “current income support arrangements are complex, create perverse incentives for some students and leave others missing out.” But, with the current government prioritising welfare support for older Australians over young people, it is likely that there will be barriers to the eventual implementation of such support.
The other key area of student concern addressed by the Accord panel was the safety and wellbeing of students on campus. The interim report note that the Accord panel had received many submissions concerned with student’s mental well-being, the harm caused by ongoing sexual violence on campus and the “power imbalance between students and influential stakeholders such as universities, peak bodies, government, and industry”.
Accordingly, the Accord panel is now considering strengthening the Ombudsman for student complaints, increasing the power of students’ voices in decision making, the establishment of a national student charter, and increasing the amount of Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF) given to student unions. These reforms would be welcome, but it seems the Accord is not giving enough consideration to more ambitious ideas for student wellbeing. Despite saying staff and student safety from sexual violence required “concerted action,” there was no clear detail as to what this would look like; and, it seems that a return to Compulsory Student Unionism and thus a more vibrant campus life, is off the cards for now.
In all, the Accord interim report offered incredibly modest actions for the systemic higher education issues which it identified at length. There is some promise in the Accord’s discussion of key issues facing students — high fees, rising debt, the cost of living and poor university experiences — but without recommendations in the final report that go to the core of these issues, the Accord process risks leaving students behind. Even if the Accord promises the “spiky ideas” asked of it by Minister Clare, the Labor government’s aversion to spending, particularly on young people, could impede any glimpse of progress finally offered. In the meantime, students are still being left in the dark.
This article was updated and extended on 1 August 2023.