How soon will the Universities Accord recommendations turn into actions?

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Following a year of preparation, the weekend’s release of the Federal Government’s Australian Universities Accord report is designed to be a blueprint for reform within the tertiary education sector.

For those already working in the space, the feedback is varied, as analysis of the report’s 47 recommendations – covering everything from student fees to funding, teaching, well-being, university governance and research – continues.

But two questions are at the forefront of all the opinions and insights: 1): how soon will change happen?; 2) Are the right structures in place to support the recommended changes?

Accessibility, equity and inclusion

With the hope that more Australians will get a tertiary education, the report calls for a large increase in the numbers of university students: from 860,000 today to more than 1.8 million by 2050.

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To achieve that ambitious goal, Dr Joseph Crawford, Senior Lecturer, Management at University of Tasmania (UTAS) says “Australia will need more students from currently underrepresented backgrounds going to university”.

But, says Dr Crawford, the report also notes the importance of keeping students at university once they get there – and that’s a challenge that he believes could be a problem as the nature of study universities offer to today’s students continues to evolve.

“Gone are the days when students spent all their time on campus, in lecture halls and tutorial groups with teachers and other students,” he says.

“University life is increasingly spent online. This makes it harder to ensure students have a sense of belonging, which in turn impacts upon their well-being and capacity to succeed with their studies.”

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Belonging is integral to positive mental health

With research showing that a low sense of belonging has been linked to issues around low self-esteem, mistrust, lower self-esteem, feelings of rejections and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression,

“This can make it harder for students to persist with and stay resilient about completing their studies,” Dr Crawford says.

‘Belonging’ is something that presents a significant issue for Australian universities and students.

In 2022, findings from a national student experience survey revealed that 46.5 per cent of undergraduates and only 44.7 per cent of post-graduates felt they belonged at university.

In a 2023 study Dr Crawford says his team used machine learning (or artificial intelligence) to analyse data from the student experience survey on more than one million students between 2013 and 2019.

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“We looked at what factors helped students have a sense of belonging at their university,” he says.

“We found the most important demographic feature contributing to a sense of belonging was whether the students studied online or on campus. This was more important than gender, age, where they were up to in their degree, or the language they spoke at home.”

Battling rising education costs

Graduates facing degree bills of $100,000-plus is not unheard of in today’s tertiary education landscape.

According to Gwilym Croucher Associate Professor, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education, The University of Melbourne, the Australian Universities Accord final report views the former Morrison government’s Job-ready Graduates scheme – introduced in 2021 – negatively, with the scheme directly related to increased fees in some courses, such as communications, humanities and human movement.

In terms of offering solutions to the issue of education costs, though, he believes the report leaves a lot unsaid about how – and when – change will come.

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OECD data shows there are only a few other countries where students and their families contribute more to the total cost of tertiary education than in Australia.

To make the system ‘fairer’, the report recommends a reversal of some or all of the fee increases introduced under Job-ready Graduates.

The report also suggests a more simplified system that could see tertiary education fees divided into three tiers instead of the current four.

Asking Australian banks to view HELP loans differently from other debt, such as credit card debt, when assessing whether or not to approve a bank loan, is another recommendation. This follows concerns graduates are not able to secure home loans due to their HELP debts.

Work placement system need to change

The review also calls for greater financial support for students who can’t complete their degrees without undertaking work placements – a feature of nursing, allied health and teaching degrees, for example. Recent research on social work students found the financial burden of doing these placements can be crippling, with students having to quit paid work, travel long distances and pay for clothing.

Recommendations about eligibility criteria for student income support payments being extended to help part-time students, as well as increasing the threshold for the parental income test for eligibility for some students, also feature in the report.

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On an individual student level, the accord proposes Australia adopt a ‘needs-based’ funding model that would see universities receive a base amount per student. Further loadings for equity students – including students with a disability, First Nations students and those from low socio-economic backgrounds – would also be offered.

Because of their student cohort typically enrolling more under-represented students, regional universities and universities in outer-suburban areas would receive the biggest share of funding increases, while the more prestigious universities would gain the least.

Yet when it comes to the detail of how these loadings and extra places will be funded, Associate Professor Croucher says the report is unclear. The inclusion of an international student levy – something widely anticipated to be included – is not mentioned.

What’s next?

To achieve the proposals outlined in the accord report, a redistribution of federal government financial support in the sector is essential.

But with the report failing to outline exactly how this will be done, the Tertiary Education Commission will be required to determine funding rates and funding caps with universities.

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It’s a reality that Associate Professor Crouchers says means a new Tertiary Education Commission (if one is, indeed, established) faces a challenging task ahead in an already constrained funding environment.

“Nevertheless,” he says, “this much anticipated final report has good news for many universities students who are struggling with the costs of study, even if it does not offer any immediate relief.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]