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Accord panel calls for creation of Tertiary Education Commission

Image: JoshCrawfo [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Interim report on Australian Universities Accord covers specialised universities, Job-Ready Graduates and full research funding

Australia may get a new Tertiary Education Commission to oversee its university system, with more specialised universities likely to be created and a new deal possible for the competitive research funding system.

The interim Australian Universities Accord report to the government from Mary O’Kane, released on 19 July, recommended a major overhaul of Australian higher education.

The report proposed a bigger pool of money for university research and a second national university to join the Australian National University.

The proposed Tertiary Education Commission would advise the government on new universities and determine “mission-based funding” for institutions.

Education minister Jason Clare (pictured) said the proposed Universities Accord reforms would make Australia’s higher education system “fit for the future”.

Delivering a speech to the National Press Club on 19 July, Clare said he would make five reforms immediately, with more sweeping changes to come after the final report is delivered by the end of the year.

Immediate reforms include a doubling of the existing 34 regional and outer-suburban university hubs. Students will no longer lose government support if they fail more than half their subjects, and Clare will write to state governments to ask for talks to improve governance, staff conditions and safety at universities.

The vice-chancellors’ group Universities Australia said in a statement that it welcomed the report, and that “clear and constructive consideration has been given to deeper reforms”. The Innovative Research Universities group said the reforms were on “the right track for a more equitable higher education system”.

Research recommendations

The report said that in Australia, “universities play a larger than normal role [in research] compared to international economic peers”, accounting for 36 per cent of national R&D spending.

“It is only in our universities that Australia has research capability in several areas of sovereign risk,” it said. Because of that, “the research strength of our universities should be protected and increased”.

“The review is also of the view that mechanisms for sharing and translating university research should be improved significantly, starting with establishing a baseline and then continuing to measure how useful university research actually is to end-users.”

It added: “Funding for the Australian Research Council has not grown significantly for many years and this puts our capacity for breakthrough research at risk.”

Full funding of research is also a possibility that could come out of the review. While not directly recommending the move, the report said that “teaching and research may need to be funded separately and consideration should be given to ensuring national competitive grants cover the cost of undertaking the research”.

It noted the risk that moving to full funding would reduce the total amount of competitive funding available across the sector, but it said the burden of matching government funds was “less than ideal”.

It also said that consideration should be given to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy “moving to sustainable, ongoing funding”.

Specialised institutions

Clare said Australia might need more universities, which could be more specialised.

Australia must ask “whether all universities should look the same”, and it would be the role of the new commission to help shape that.

The interim report said Australia might need “institutions specialising to a greater or lesser extent in teaching or research”.

Clare said the report’s recommendations included “university governing bodies having more people with expertise in the business of universities, and a focus on student and staff safety and making sure universities are good employers”.

He said a levy on international student income proposed in the report could possibly fund research and student housing. The report suggested that such a levy could “support infrastructure needs and other national priorities”.

Student numbers

The interim report said that up to 55 per cent of the Australian workforce will need a university degree by the middle of the century, compared with the current 36 per cent.

The number of students at university may need to double to 1.8 million by 2050, necessitating new institutions.

Clare also emphasised greater equity in higher education. The interim report recommended a “universal learning entitlement” for underprivileged groups, with accompanying funding. One of the immediate changes will be to mandate universities putting any unused student funding into “enabling” courses and support for such students.

Clare tied the need to train more students to the push to include more groups in higher education. “If we don’t, we won’t have the skills and the economic firepower we need to make this country everything it can be in the years ahead.”

He noted that the Universities Accord panel recommended a National Student Charter “to ensure there is a consistent approach to student safety and wellbeing, and a stronger role for the ombudsman in addressing student complaints”.

Job-Ready Graduates

The report slammed the previous government’s Job-Ready Graduates scheme.

“It is clear the funding system, as changed through the JRG package, needs to be redesigned before it causes long-term and entrenched damage to Australian higher education.”

The scheme has created debts unlikely to be repaid and is “unfairly affecting female students and Indigenous students”, the panel said.

“The review considers this is untenable.”

Clare promised to change it, saying the final report would “fix this”, with the review panel now working with Bruce Chapman, one of the designers of the original Higher Education Contribution Scheme, the national student loan system, on replacement options.

“It hasn’t worked,” Clare told the Press Club, but he would not commit to scrapping different fees for different courses of study.

Next steps

Clare warned that “not every great idea can be funded”.

“So the final report will also look at what the top priorities should be and what reforms should be rolled out over time,” he said.

That report will “recommend targets for where we need to be and what we want to do”. It will have a “sequencing of priorities” for the next 20 years, he said.

He called on the sector to give feedback and find “consensus for reform”.

“Between now and the end of the year, when the final report is due, is a chance for everyone to test these ideas. Pull them apart. Critique them and improve on them. Or reject them and suggest others.”

Submissions are open until 1 September.