Opposition ‘welcomes’ accord debate but questions access drive

Coalition pledges to consider landmark Australian report ‘in detail’

February 28, 2024
University of Sydney hosts Welcome Festival in 2022 for students to return and start new semester
Source: iStock/Michael Xiao

Australia’s higher education reform blueprint has passed a major hurdle, with the federal opposition vowing to consider the Universities Accord’s final report “in detail”.

“There is a lot in the accord’s reform agenda,” shadow education minister Sarah Henderson told the Universities Australia (UA) conference in Canberra. “The [Liberal-National party] coalition welcomes this national discussion on reforming the higher education sector.”

Her remarks assuage concerns that the opposition might immediately reject the thrust of the report, offering bleak prospects for a reform agenda that would probably need to extend over multiple changes of government.

Ms Henderson said the coalition had already flagged support for a student safety ombudsman, which the government agreed to establish last week, and given qualified support to an expansion of the regional universities hubs programme – a priority recommendation from the accord’s interim report, which the government accepted last July. “Though we do question the merits of building these centres in the suburbs,” she added.

Ms Henderson highlighted a “big challenge” in the accord’s target of boosting university attainment to 55 per cent – an aspiration requiring participation by all but the least academically capable 45 per cent of the population.  

“You know you can’t just open your doors and hope for the best,” she warned conference delegates. “Pushing vulnerable students with poor grades into a university course risks alienating them from a trade or other more suitable work and putting them on a pathway to failure.”

She accused the accord panel of “kite-flying” in raising expectations that loan repayments would be lowered, income support would be increased and student nurses, teachers and carers would be “paid” for compulsory practical placements.

And she said the coalition would not support the accord’s recommendation for a “completion bonus” for institutions that met completion targets. “It should not take a bonus payment to universities to ensure a student completes his or her degree,” Ms Henderson said. “Surely that is core business. This is what universities are paid to do by students and by the commonwealth.”

She said the government’s “disappointing” response to the report “raised many more questions than answers. At a time when universities still suffering the aftershocks of Covid need certainty and stability like never before, the government has not articulated any sort of plan for universities or put forward a set of priorities, and that makes your job tough.”

Ms Henderson displayed more sympathy for universities than she had last August, when she scolded them for “dud degrees” and “practices which far too often put students last” in a fiery address to the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit.

“I would like to acknowledge the chancellors, the vice-chancellors, the education leaders and of course Professor Mary O’Kane and other members of the accord panel,” she told the UA conference. “I salute each and every one of you for your hard work, your commitment and your dedication to the higher education of Australians.”


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