Stick with Job-Ready Graduates reforms, Tudge tells Labor

While contentious reforms were ‘a first for the OECD’, conference hears, they have reinforced a move away from taxpayer funding

七月 7, 2022
Alan Tudge

Australia’s new government should “maintain and strengthen” the contentious Job-Ready Graduates (JRG) reforms to help sustain higher education’s contribution to the “momentum” of economic growth, according to the opposition.

Shadow education minister Alan Tudge believes that the Labor government, which “outlined very little policy in higher education” before the May election, risks engendering inertia unless it pursues the previous government’s reform agenda.

This includes maintaining efforts to boost commercial returns from university research, by guaranteeing funding support for schemes like Australia’s Economic Accelerator and the Trailblazer Universities initiative.

“With strong economic headwinds and an absence of Labor policy to ameliorate this and drive productivity, I suggest that continuing our higher education reforms is vital,” he was set to tell the Universities Australia (UA) conference in Canberra.

In a prepared speech obtained by Times Higher Education, Mr Tudge offers a spirited defence of the JRG package which – among other things – reduced fees in perceived skill shortage areas and raised them in arts and business courses.

“We know from enrolment data that students responded to these price signals. Witness the increased enrolments in courses such as teaching, nursing, engineering, IT, sciences and agriculture. It was not a perfect correlation because students choose courses for many reasons, not just price signals. However, it did have an impact,” he was due to say.

“The Labor Party spent much of the last three years criticising our ambition in these reforms. They will be under significant pressure…to now reverse them.”

The speech says earlier changes to the funding of university places, which saw them bankrolled at the “aggregate” rather than faculty level, made the reforms necessary. “There was an absence of policy settings to ensure that national skills priorities were being addressed through course offerings. JRG…created this policy setting while still leaving flexibility to university administrations over which courses they offer,” Mr Tudge was set to say.

Mr Tudge received qualified support from former cabinet colleague Mathias Cormann, who was Australia’s longest-serving finance minister before he left politics in 2020 to become secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In a televised address, Mr Cormann told the conference that the JRG reforms had been “the first of their kind across the OECD. They will help attract students to fields with good employment outcomes linked to national priorities and skills needs.”

But this had reinforced a trend of funding universities increasingly through student fees. Mr Cormann said that while Australia’s pioneering introduction of income-contingent loans had delivered a “socially just and now widely accepted form of cost sharing”, this system of funding was “clearly reflected” in the OECD data.

“The total spending per student in Australia on higher education remains around 30 per cent above the OECD average, but only one-third of this comes from public sources compared to an average of over two-thirds in the OECD,” he said.

“No doubt the conversation about the appropriate long-term resourcing of higher education…which as a former finance minister, I remember well…will continue.”

UA chair John Dewar told the conference that while the JRG package had “some good parts to it, like the return of grant indexation”, total funding for teaching had been reduced by an average of 6 per cent.

“Conditions have changed,” Professor Dewar said. “It’s likely that changes to the policy framework will be needed to enable universities to keep delivering what students, employers and the nation need.”

Education minister Jason Clare, who has promised a review of JRG, made no mention of the reform package in his address to the UA conference.



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