Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023 – Thursday 3 August 2023

In November last year I appointed Professor Mary O’Kane AC to lead the biggest and broadest review of Australia’s higher education system in 15 years.

Professor O’Kane is the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Adelaide. She was also the first woman to become the Dean of Engineering at any university in Australia.

She is an extraordinary Australian and she leads an extraordinary team in this important task.

The other members of the Accord team are:

  • Professor Barney Glover AO, Vice-Chancellor of Western Sydney University;
  • Ms Shemara Wikramanayake, the first female Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Macquarie Group;
  • the Hon. Jenny Macklin AC, former Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and more recently the Chair of a review into Victoria’s post-secondary education and training system;
  • Professor Larissa Behrendt AO, the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from Harvard Law School. A professor of law and the director of research and academic programs at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney. Larissa was also the Chair of the 2012 Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People;

and

  • the Hon Fiona Nash, a former Senator for New South Wales, a former Minister for Regional Development, Regional Communications and Local Government and Territories and now Australia’s first Regional Education Commissioner.

Together, they bring to bear enormous experience in our universities, in business and in public policy.

And a mix of experience in STEM and humanities.

From our cities and our regions.

From across the political divide.

Their terms of reference are also broad. I have asked them to look at everything from access to affordability.

From teaching quality to research.

From governance and employment conditions to how higher education and vocational education and training can and should work more closely together.

Two weeks ago I released their Interim Report.

It is an important first step.

What it says is that in the decades ahead more jobs will require a university qualification.

36 per cent of the current Australian workforce has a university qualification today.

The Interim Report estimates that could jump to 55 percent by the middle of this century.

That’s a rough estimate but it gives the House an idea of the skills challenge we face in the years and decades ahead.

And what the Accord team argues in this report is that the only way to so significantly boost the percentage of the workforce with a university qualification is to significantly increase the number of students who are currently under-represented in our universities.

Students from our outer suburbs and the regions.

Students from poor backgrounds.

Students with a disability.

And Indigenous students.

Today almost one in two Australians in their late 20s and early 30s has a university degree.

But not everywhere.

In the outer suburbs of our major cities, only 23 per cent of young adults have a university degree.

In the regions it is 13 per cent.

Only 15 per cent of young adults from poor families have a degree.

And if you are a young Indigenous Australian, it’s even lower again. Only 7 per cent.

If you are a young Indigenous man today you are more likely to go to jail than university.

What this report says is we need to fix this.

All of this.

Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s what we have to do.

If we don’t – if we don’t significantly boost the number of students from the outer suburbs and the regions and other under-represented groups – we won’t have the skills we need, and the workforce we will need, in the years ahead.

This report is in two parts. The first part sets priorities for immediate action. It makes five recommendations and says the Government should act on these now, ahead of its final report.

When I released the report a few weeks ago I confirmed that the Government would implement all five recommendations.

This legislation is necessary to implement two of those.

The five recommendations in the Interim Report are as follows:

  1. that we create more university study hubs – not only in the regions, but in our outer suburbs;
  2. that we scrap the “50 per cent pass rule”, and require better reporting on how students are progressing;
  3. that we extend the demand driven funding currently provided to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas – to cover all Indigenous students;
  4. that we provide funding certainty during the Accord process by extending the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025 – with funding arrangements that prioritise support for equity students;

    and

  5. that we work with states and territory governments, through the National Cabinet, to improve university governance.

As I have said, the Government will implement all of these recommendations.

In response to Recommendation One, we will double the number of university study hubs. There are currently 34 in regional Australia. We will establish 20 more in the regions and for the first time establish 14 in outer suburbs of our major cities where the percentage of people with a university qualification is low.

In response to the Fourth Recommendation, we will extend the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025.

And as part of that we will require universities to use any funding remaining from their grant each year on things like enabling courses and extra academic and learning support for students from poor backgrounds, from the regions, and other under-represented groups.

In response to the Fifth Recommendation, we will work with the states and the territories on improving university governance.

I have written to the Ministers responsible for higher education in each State and Territory to convene a working group which will be led by Ben Rimmer, the Deputy Secretary – Higher Education, Research and International in my Department. Its job will be to provide advice to me and other Ministers on the immediate actions we should take to improve university governance.

There are three areas this working group will focus on.

  1. Ensuring universities are good employers providing a supportive workplace – and importantly a workplace where staff can have confidence that they will not be underpaid for the important work they do.
  2. Making sure governing bodies have the right expertise, including in the business of running universities; and
  3. And of critical importance – making sure our universities are safe for students and staff.

The 2021 National Student Safety Survey found that one in 20 students had been sexually assaulted since starting university.

And that one in six had been sexually harassed.

The actions universities have taken to address this to date have not been good enough.

We have the research. We have the evidence. We know the scope of the problem.

We have to act.

Mr Speaker, yesterday I met with members of the STOP campaign. A group of remarkable young women led by Camille. They told me that in residential colleges there is no consistency of process to make a complaint.

No easily available materials to inform students how to make a complaint.

No formal feedback process once a complaint is made.

And no support to produce and distribute the educational materials that they have created.

Camille and her colleagues didn’t just feel unheard – they felt blocked.

As part of establishing this working group on university governance, I have asked my Department to nominate an expert on prevention and response to sexual harassment and sexual violence.

They will be part of the working group that will provide advice to me and other Education Ministers on the actions we should take and the measures we should implement to improve student and staff safety on campus, including in the variety of student accommodation settings.

I have also asked my Department to make sure the working group consults with groups like STOP, End Rape on Campus and Fair Agenda.                                                                               

The Government is serious about this. On this point I note the broader work being done by my friend and colleague, the Minister for Social Services on the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children.

That’s recommendations one, four and five of the Interim Report.

This Bill itself implements recommendations two and three.

In response to Recommendation Two, it amends the Higher Education Support Act to remove the requirement that students pass 50 per cent of the units they study to remain eligible for a Commonwealth Supported Place and FEE-HELP assistance.

The former government introduced this rule as part of its Job-Ready Graduates package and it has seen a disproportionate number of students from poor backgrounds being forced to leave university.

More than 13,000 students at 27 universities have been hit by this in the past two years, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I’m told by Western Sydney University that this year alone 1,350 students have lost their funding and withdrawn from their courses.

Mr Speaker, we should be helping students to succeed – not forcing them to quit.

This bill requires that universities and other providers have in place a dedicated plan – a Support for Students Policy – under which they will be required to proactively identify students who are at risk of falling behind and set out what they will do to help them succeed.

These Policies will cover matters like:

  • processes for identifying students who need help;
  • assessing a student’s academic and non-academic suitability for continuing study, particularly where they have triggered an alert;
  • connecting students to support – and identifying students who are not engaging with support before their census date wherever possible;
  • providing sufficient non-academic supports for students, such as financial assistance, housing information and mental health supports – this is important because many students struggle because of non-academic issues;
  • having appropriate crisis and critical harm response arrangements;
  • providing access to trained academic development advisors who can help a student identify what’s holding them back and come up with the right response for that student;
  • ensuring that academic and non-academic supports are age and culturally appropriate, including specific arrangements for Indigenous students;
  • proactively offering “special circumstances” arrangements where a provider is aware of a significant life event for a student;
  • providing access to targeted individual literacy, numeracy and other academic supports;
  • providing provider-driven and evidence based additional support such as peer support; and
  • and targeted in-course support from academic staff, such as check-ins and flexibility on assessment arrangements.

Next week I will release a Discussion Paper on the proposed content of the Support for Students Policies. That proposed content will form part of mandatory obligations in the Higher Education Provider Guidelines.

This will also be backed by financial penalties for those institutions that don’t meet these obligations. This bill provides for a civil penalty of 60 penalty units for non-compliance.

Universities and other providers will also be required to regularly report to the Department of Education on the effectiveness of their policies.

In addition to these measures, I have also this week written to the Higher Education Standards Panel asking that the Panel consider the effectiveness of the current Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2021 in supporting students, and that they provide me with advice on matters such as:

  1. whether current thresholds are sufficiently detailed to cover issues like student retention, completion and success;
  2. ensuring universities are appropriately implementing the threshold standards; and
  3. ensuring students know what protections and supports are already available to them – protections like the ability to obtain refunds where their university has failed to properly assess their ability to undertake a course, or has let them take on too heavy a workload. Or where a student has had to discontinue a course for reasons beyond their control.

I’ve also asked the Panel to advise what can be done to improve the standards currently in place.

This is all part of ensuring students are set up to succeed when they attend one of our universities.

Removing the “50 per cent pass rule” has been called for by universities right across the country.

Universities like the University of Adelaide, Monash University, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of the Sunshine Coast, University of New England, the Queensland University of Technology and Western Sydney University.

By way of example, Universities Australia has described it as a “punitive measure… widely regarded as being unnecessarily harsh”, and noted that “the students most likely to fall afoul of the 50 per cent pass rule are first year students from low socio-economic status backgrounds”. They have welcomed this recommendation and the Government’s plan to implement it.

Innovative Research Universities also called the rule “punitive” and congratulated the Government in moving to abolish it.

The other Accord priority action addressed in this bill, Recommendation Three, is to ensure all Indigenous students are eligible for a funded place at a public university if they meet the entry requirements for the course.

This means that where a student meets the entry requirements for a course, they are able to access support in the form of a Commonwealth Supported Place and a HELP loan.

It’s a proven mechanism to increase access to university for under-represented groups.

Under the current legislation, only Indigenous students from regional and remote Australia can access demand driven places.

In other words, it applies to students who live in Townsville, but not Logan. If you live in Armidale, but not Mount Druitt. If you live in Port Hedland, but not Perth.

This bill means that demand driven places for bachelor level courses (excluding medicine) will now be available to all Indigenous students, wherever they live.

The Department of Education estimates this could double the number of Indigenous students at university within a decade.

This is another reform strongly supported by universities.

Universities like the Australian National University, University of Queensland, Western Sydney University Macquarie University, James Cook University, University of Southern Queensland, University of Melbourne, University of Adelaide, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Technology Sydney.

Universities Australia said:

Universities have long called for uncapped places for all Indigenous students, and the removal of barriers to a university education for students from under-represented backgrounds, which the creation of more study hubs will help facilitate”.

Mr Speaker, I said there were two parts to the Universities Accord Interim Report.

That’s the first part.

The second part proposes more than 70 different ideas to reform our higher education system.

Between now and the end of the year when their final report is due, Professor O’Kane and the Accord team are seeking feedback on these ideas, including from members of this place.

Here are just some of those ideas:

  • a Universal Learning Entitlement, that helps as many Australians as possible get the qualifications and skills they need and ensures that all students from poor backgrounds and from the regions and from under-represented groups are eligible for a funded place at university;
  • a new needs-based funding model for Commonwealth Supported Places – that builds in extra support for students from under-represented groups, to provide an incentive to universities to offer them a place and help them graduate;
  • a National Skills Passport that includes all of your qualifications, micro credentials, prior learning, workplace experience and general capabilities, and the expansion of quality, stackable micro credentials and short courses to rapidly up-skill and re-skill the workforce;
  • improving the integration of higher education and vocational education – and that includes creating new types of qualifications that combine both;
  • more work integrated learning in more courses, including degree apprenticeships, and financial support for students doing compulsory placements;
  • a jobs broker program to help students find part-time work in the area where they are studying;
  • a National Student Charter, similar to the one recently introduced in New Zealand, to ensure there is a consistent approach to student safety and wellbeing, and a stronger role for the Ombudsman in addressing student complaints,
  • a change to the way research is funded to put it on a more predictable footing;
  • a wider range of institutions, with different missions, including, potentially, a second national university that’s focused on regional Australia, based on the University of California model;
  • a levy on international student fee income to create a fund, a bit like a sovereign wealth fund, that could do multiple things like protect the sector from future economic shocks, and help fund things like infrastructure, research or student housing; and
  • a new Tertiary Education Commission that would oversee the implementation of these reforms, provide long term advice to government, including where new institutions may be needed, and determine the mission-based funding that each university would get.

As I said, they’re just some of the ideas in this report.

Now is a chance for everyone, here in this place, and right around the country, to read the report and have your say.

Be part of this reform work.

Pull the ideas in this report apart.

Challenge them and improve on them.

Or reject them and suggest others.

Big reform is hard, and not every good idea can be funded by Government.

As Professor O’Kane has said, there will be far less than 75 recommendations in the Accord panel’s final report.

The final report will look at what the top priorities should be and what reforms should be rolled out over time.

So this debate in here and around the country in the months ahead is important.

Mr Speaker, can I thank Professor O’Kane and the whole Accord team for their work to date.

For their immediate recommendations that we are acting on here.

For the ideas that they are asking us to debate.

And for the common thread which runs through all of this.

And that’s about ensuring that more Australians, wherever they live, get a crack at going to university.

That – as the Prime Minister puts it – we open the door of opportunity a bit wider.

That’s what this is all about.

I commend the bill to the House.

And Mr Speaker, I present the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report to assist members in their consideration of the bill.

[ENDS]