Australian budget bankrolls first stage of accord reforms

Government embraces domestic growth, needs-based funding and a commission to drive it all, but firm commitments remain limited

五月 14, 2024
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Australia’s government will bankroll free preparatory courses for students seeking entry into university, in a bid to expand enrolments from disadvantaged communities.

The 14 May federal budget includes a A$350 million (£184 million) allocation to fund the “fee-free uni ready courses”, designed primarily for people who did not complete their schooling.

The free enabling courses are among several expensive measures in what the government calls the “first stage of reforms” from the review known as the Australian Universities Accord. Previously announced payments for students on compulsory practicums and retrospective changes to student debt indexation will cost another A$667 million.

The government has also vowed to establish an Australian Tertiary Education Commission by July 2025 and to bankroll “managed growth” in domestic enrolments from the beginning of 2026, with needs-based funding to help cover the extra costs of educating indigenous, disadvantaged, regional and disabled students. But details of these reforms will not be revealed until “final consultations with relevant stakeholders have completed”, budget documents say.

Overall, the budget addresses 29 of the accord’s 47 recommendations, with funding allocated to around half of them. The government has also adopted the accord target for 80 per cent of working-age Australians to have tertiary qualifications by 2050.

Universities Australia said the budget had put “a big policy frame” around Labor’s participation and equity agenda. “The government’s endorsing the policy ideas of a needs-based funding system, a tertiary education commission and managed growth – effectively a demand-driven [system] for equity,” said chief executive Luke Sheehy.

“I think this is going to be the big transformative piece and moment for our sector. We’re going to hold the government to account to roll it out as soon as possible, because our university system needs it.”

The Innovative Research Universities network said that the fee-free enabling courses would be critical to meeting the newly adopted participation target. “The government has taken early action to respond to a whole bunch of the accord report recommendations,” said executive director Paul Harris.

But he noted that no resources had yet been allocated towards needs-based funding, and no move had been made to reverse the previous government’s Job-ready Graduates fee hikes. “The announcements that the government has made are all positive, but we see a need for…ongoing bigger reforms if we’re going to achieve the big targets from the accord,” he said.

The Regional Universities Network also applauded the free preparatory courses but said it was “disheartened” that the sector’s immediate needs were not being addressed. Executive director Alec Webb said that while the accord had identified the “diseconomies of scale” confronting non-metropolitan universities, the budget offered no dedicated infrastructure funding for his members.

“Coupled with what’s happening in…international [education], it paints a slightly bleak picture. In these interim years before the needs-based…and managed growth [funding] is implemented, the question is how we get from point A to point B,” he said.

The government has used the budget to launch a “strategic examination” of research and development and an inquiry into racism in universities. The racism review, which was recommended by the accord to tackle bias against indigenous Australians, has been expanded to address reports of burgeoning antisemitism at universities.

Other budget measures include funding for 40 students a year at Charles Darwin University’s recently announced medical school and A$28 million to develop initiatives that “break down artificial barriers” between higher and vocational education. Money has also been allocated towards a national student ombudsman and a new code to address gender-based violence.

The proposed reforms will be partially bankrolled by scrapping the previous government’s Destination Australia scholarships for students at regional institutions, and by reducing funding for the highly regarded Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching surveys.

Contrary to expectations, the budget changes did not include an increase to international students’ visa application fees. Times Higher Education understands that the government still intends to raise the fees but has deferred doing so for several months.

The budget also includes a 10 per cent increase to commonwealth rent assistance, with students among those set to benefit.



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