There was a big tick for access and equity in yesterday’s announcement of Interim Accord measures, but decisions on major structural reform await.
University managements will wait to year end for word on structural reform – plus they are on a warning to lift performance.
Since he started in the job, Education Minister Jason Clare has said expanding access to HE was his priority and his response to the first Accord paper is designed to do just that.
It also gives universities time to tackle proposals that could transform their operating models – the 70 “policy ideas” Mary O’Kane and her Accord colleagues are considering for the final report.
Mr Clare states that demand for graduates in the economy will double by mid-century and the only way to meet it is to expand HE participation by students from outer urban and regions and equity groups.
And so the government is acting on Mary O’Kane and Accord colleagues’ “five modest, sensible priority actions to address these immediate issues.”
Four go to access and equity
- 20 more “regional university study hubs” (in addition to the existing 34 regional university study centres which will be renamed). A further 14 new suburban study hubs will be created
- Abolition of the previous government’s 50 per cent pass (or lose public funding for study) rule (which, “has disproportionately negative impact on students from poor backgrounds and from the regions”)
- a government funded place for every First Nations student accepted by a provider – now only available for those from regional/remote areas
- extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee from this year to 2025. This is an original COVID measure that tops-up funding for universities that do not reach their enrolment ceiling. Money not needed to pay for teaching will go to learning support for equity group students. It also provides cover for not announcing the immediate end of the HASS-hated high fee policy.
Plus there is a fifth initiative in three parts, demonstrating which way blows the political wind. Mr Clare
- “university governing bodies having more people with expertise in the business of universities” – this appears a response to unions, staff and student group claims that councils are stacked with appointees from industry who think universities should be run like businesses;
- “a focus on staff and student safety,” – despite years of university management promises, sexual assault and harassment is still a live issue on campuses;
- “making sure universities are good employers,” which means they are expected to address three related issues. First, pay bungles – managements across the country are in the process of variously investigating and repaying staff millions of dollars that staff did not receive due to administrative error. Second – wholesale retrenchments of staff. Cuts during COVID, followed by a year of substantial surpluses created a public impression that remains. Third – career paths for the academic precariat – for all the arguments about efficiency, people subsisting for years on casual contracts looks callous and in the context of senior executive pay.
What it means
This is politics of the Blackadder kind, (“a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel”).
Mr Clare’s commitment to expanding HE access is Whitlamite Labor, expressing belief in the transformative power of education and as such very hard for university lobbies to criticise.
Plus it starves the Greens of rhetorical oxygen to complain about the high cost of HELP.
Criticising university managements also reduces room for vocal staff and students to criticise Accord Part One. All up, it creates a favourable context for the substantive changes in Accord II; needed to create a more sustainable tertiary education system.