Australian accord’s challenge: boost enrolments in sceptical era

Once-in-a-generation review aims to massify a massified system, just as students question the cost-benefit equation

July 24, 2023
The annual Pier to Pub open water swimming race in Lorne. Victoria  Australia to illustrate Australian accord’s challenge: boost enrolments in sceptical era
Source: Alamy

Australia’s Universities Accord review panel has the daunting task of steering more people than ever into higher study, at a point in history when increasing numbers seem disinclined to go.

The panel, which released its interim report on 19 July, says the country needs to double domestic higher education enrolments by 2050. This will arm the workforce with the necessary attributes for an era when nine in 10 new jobs require post-school qualifications and half require degrees.

La Trobe University vice-chancellor John Dewar spelled out the challenge when he addressed the HEDx conference the day after the report’s release. The higher education sector, which had undergone “massive growth” since the reforms under then education minister John Dawkins in 1989, now faced demands to double again, he said. “Let that sink in,” Professor Dewar added. “Don’t underestimate the scale.”

Campus resource: Scaling success – how to retain the student experience when going for growth

Professor Dewar’s successor, Theo Farrell, who takes over La Trobe’s leadership next February, said universities must reskill the workforce to resuscitate flatlining productivity by harnessing artificial intelligence. He said AI would transform the world as profoundly as the Industrial Revolution, and far more quickly.

“It’s a great opportunity to get productivity back in our economy,” Professor Farrell told a UNSW Sydney forum. “But…it’s going to displace a lot of activities and jobs. If we don’t do it right, we risk increasing inequality in our society.”

The mission to expand has been set at a time when domestic enrolments are falling. Many universities are “below cap” – meaning that they have fewer students than they are funded for – leading to a collective sigh of relief when the government decided to guarantee universities’ teaching grants for another two years, on the accord panel’s recommendation.

Observers blame a cocktail of temporary factors – a hot job market, high living costs, a Covid hangover – for the indifference to university’s charms. Some suspect the disenchantment runs deeper.

Australian National University policy expert Andrew Norton said the proportion of school-leavers applying to enter university had been falling since 2014, coinciding with “the worst-ever graduate employment outcomes”. He told the UNSW forum that the decline appeared concentrated in arts and business degrees – courses often favoured by people without clear career plans.

The interim report warns that Australia’s attainment levels could “falter and even fall” over the next decade, with early signs that this is already happening. It says degree completions hit a seven-year low in 2021 and will probably fall further, with unpublished data confirming that higher education demand has declined.

If young adults are starting to question the benefits, they are also questioning the costs. When the education minister, Jason Clare, launched the report at the National Press Club, he was asked why the government had not intervened to stop “the highest-ever level of indexation” being applied to student debts, potentially adding years to repayment times: “Why should people study at university if it seems like they’ll be left behind when they graduate?”

“Don’t create that impression in people’s minds, please!” Mr Clare implored journalists. “I don’t want Aussies thinking that it’s not a good idea to go to uni.” He said the average degree holder earned A$100,000 (£53,000) a year, compared with A$70,000 for high school graduates with no tertiary education. “That’s a big difference. Thirty grand a year, every year of your working life. The average uni debt in Australia at the moment is A$24,000.”

But if the cost-benefit equation seems straightforward, many Australians appear unconvinced. Graduate debt – the money students repay in years or decades, through modest add-ons to their tax – has captured more newspaper ink than the crippling costs students face right now.

Mr Clare acknowledged this, revealing that economist Bruce Chapman – designer of the 1989 Higher Education Contribution Scheme (Hecs) – was doing “a mountain of work” for the accord panel. “[Hecs] has done great things to help expand our university system over the last few decades, but some of the changes…in the last few years aren’t working. Here is an opportunity, with the architect of Hecs, to make changes that will set us up for the next few decades,” the minister said.

Review head Mary O’Kane said she wanted to modify Hecs, along with student income support, to make them “fair”. This was vital because the enrolment growth mission could be achieved only if more people from under-represented groups could be enticed to study.

“Equity is not a matter of just getting people into a university,” Professor O’Kane told the Accord Insights webinar after the report’s release. “It’s about getting them through – in minimal time, at minimum cost and with minimum welfare needs.”

Her team has five months to produce its final report. She has asked for the sector’s help, with submissions due by September. Mindful that its much smaller discussion paper elicited 300 submissions, the panel has requested brevity. “I do encourage you to be succinct,” Professor O’Kane said.

Big ideas: some of the key suggestions in Accord interim report

Boosting sector’s capacity

  • a “universal learning entitlement”
  • “more modular, stackable and transferable” qualifications
  • “earning while learning” models such as degree apprenticeships
  • university course funding from employers, including state governments
  • more preparatory programmes “with consistent recognition across all institutions”.

Addressing students’ reservations

  • revised fees and repayment arrangements
  • helping students complete quickly to avoid unnecessary debt
  • financial support for students on compulsory placements
  • easier student transfer between institutions and sectors
  • exploring income-contingent loans to help cover living costs.

Funding research

  • “significantly” increased funding for the Australian Research Council
  • separate funding for scholarship and research through revised research block grants
  • future fund for critical research infrastructure
  • higher PhD stipends
  • tax exemption for part-time and industry-linked scholarships.

Treading on toes

  • Tertiary Education Commission to negotiate universities’ “mission-based compacts”
  • levy on international students’ fees
  • restrictions on universities’ freedom to cross-subsidise their activities
  • remoulded governing bodies
  • shepherding non-metropolitan universities into a “National Regional University”.


Print headline: Australian accord faces challenge to big dreams

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