Australian review proposes levy on international student fees

Needs-based student funding and second national university also among accord panel’s ‘spiky ideas’, aimed at improving equitable access

July 19, 2023
campus of the University of Sydney
Source: iStock

Equitable access to university is the primary focus of Australia’s once-in-a-generation higher education review, with an expert advisory group floating about 20 “spiky ideas” – including a levy on international student fees – to increase enrolments from under-represented groups and help students succeed.

The Universities Accord panel has proposed a “universal learning entitlement” guaranteeing all Australians access to subsidies for as many qualifications as they need, with extra places allocated on a “population parity” basis.

The panel is also considering a “needs-based” funding model for teaching subsidies, with universities attracting an extra loading for taking on underprivileged students and helping them to graduate. Other ideas to help struggling students get by include extra financial support for those on compulsory placements and a “jobs broker” programme matching people with part-time work in their fields of study.

In an interim report released on 19 July, the panel mulls about 50 other suggestions to improve funding, governance, international engagement and the student experience, among other areas. Suggestions include a “national student charter” to boost safety on campus, and a new nationally funded institution modelled on the University of California system and focused on regional Australia.

One of the most controversial proposals involves a levy on international students’ fees, with the proceeds used to insure the sector from future economic shocks as well as funding things such as research, infrastructure and student housing.

The report also advocates more work to align the higher and vocational education sectors and to promote “parity of esteem” between the two. But launching the report in Canberra, the federal education minister, Jason Clare, made it clear that equity was his top priority.

He described his upbringing in Sydney’s western suburbs, where few classmates finished high school and his mother barely started. “I’ll never forget where I came from,” he said.

Asked why the accord would succeed in boosting equity and aligning tertiary education – two notable failures of the last major higher education review, headed by Denise Bradley in 2008 – Mr Clare pointed to concurrent reviews of the school and early education sectors.

“Unless this all works together, then the outcome that we want to achieve won’t happen,” he said. “You can’t put all of the obligation at the front door of university. Children from poor backgrounds are less likely to go to preschool than other children. Preschool is what sets you up for success. What chance do we have of those young people making it all the way through the school system and then going to university?

“I don’t want to be sitting on a rocking chair in 2040 looking back and thinking that we have failed. What this report says is that more jobs are going to require a university qualification in the years ahead. That means more people finishing university.”

Response from the sector has been largely positive, particularly around the five measures the government has already agreed to implement. Vice-chancellors said the extension of the funding continuity guarantee provided a vital lifeline to help them continue their work despite a downturn in enrolments.

The University of the Sunshine Coast’s Helen Bartlett said the extension would provide “stability” as the panel grappled with the Job-ready Graduates reforms, which it says need overhauling. “As this review unfolds, we’re not going to see a lot of ad hoc changes,” she said. “And we can spend some of that funding on…students who really need our support.”

Universities Australia said it was heartened by the implementation of measures at the top of its wish list, including the extended funding guarantee, demand-driven places for all Indigenous students and the end of the “punitive” 50 per cent rule, which removes students’ access to government subsidies if they do not successfully complete at least half of their modules.

“Clearly the government and the accord panel have been listening to universities who have said there were some things that couldn’t wait,” said chief executive Catriona Jackson.

But Ms Jackson forecasted a “full-throated discussion with government” about the proposal for a levy on international students’ fees. “There will be a range of views on whether the levy is the right kind of approach. We certainly do need a more sustainable model for funding research. Whether this is it – that’s a matter for debate.”

The report advocates a gradual increase in the value of competitive grants to ensure that they cover the full costs of research projects. But Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil said her biggest concern was the lack of adequate funding for indirect research costs, such as maintaining and provisioning labs and paying technicians. “I look forward to that conversation,” she said.

Science & Technology Australia (STA) described the report as an “epic fail” for missing a “once in a generation chance” to drive job creation by advocating more investment in research.

Chief executive Misha Schubert said she wholeheartedly supported the proposals to boost admissions from equity groups. “The risk is you open up access so they get a place at uni, but there are no jobs to go to because our economy isn’t sufficiently diversified and robust when mining resources run out,” she said.

Mr Clare said he expected research to be “a bigger part of the panel’s final report”.

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