Australian Universities Accord final report recommends pathway for fairer tertiary education

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

It’s the report those connected to the Australian tertiary education sector have been waiting for – and yesterday’s release of the final Australian Universities Accord sent university communications departments across the country into after-hours overdrive.

Overwhelmingly, the responses shared from education-focused organisations, universities and business sector specialists said they welcomed the final Australian Universities Accord report on Sunday 25 February but that it did not go far enough – with the Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA) describing it as “a comprehensive if incomplete roadmap for a high-quality and sustainable post-secondary education sector”.

The ITECA is the peak body representing independent providers in the higher education, skills training and international education sectors.

“The significance of the Australian Universities Accord Final Report is in its very nature, it is institution-centric and doesn’t put students at the heart of the higher education sector,” says ITECA Chief Executive Troy Williams.

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“The focus on addressing equity and skill requirements requires innovative approaches. The Review explores streamlining tertiary education and improving student access to higher education by eliminating barriers and fostering flexible pathways for broader success,” Mr Williams says.

Full capabilities not leveraged

Of key concern to the ITECA is that the Australian Universities Accord Final Report has not leveraged the full capabilities of all providers in the higher education sector.

“The report sets out some ambitious reforms, but many students will be left behind as the policy options are not provider-agnostic. The report’s focus on public institutions offers little for students who want to achieve their life and career goals as a result of studying with an independent higher education provider,” Mr Williams says.

To explain its position, the ITECA draws attention to one of many recommendations that it believes need to be given a greater student-centric focus.

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“The recommendation to make Commonwealth Supported Places available to TAFE colleges shows where the report lets many students down. Any decisions here need to be student-centric and agnostic to provider type, allowing the student to choose either a public or higher education provider,” Mr Williams says.

Given the scale of the report, the ITECA acknowledges the task ahead for the Australian Government is significant, and says it looks forward to supporting the implementation phase.

“ITECA’s focus will be to ensure that students are at the heart of the higher education system. The bold and generally positive direction set out in the Australian Universities Accord Final Report can only be achieved with policy solutions that are agnostic as to provider type and back a student’s decision to embark on higher education with either independent or public institutions,” Mr Williams says.

Education charity welcomes focus on disadvantaged students

For the national education charity The Smith Family – currently supporting more than 1,500 tertiary-aged students with scholarships – the report’s recommendations support the organisation’s belief in what Head of Policy, Programs & Strategy Wendy Field describes as an “education system that ensures all young people are given equal opportunities to advance their studies, regardless of their background and circumstances”.

The report, she says, has outlined positive steps to help achieve this.

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“We know that who turns up at the gates of a tertiary education institution is a product of who’s supported throughout their school years, and it’s encouraging to see the report acknowledge the need to ensure that our schooling system supports students from the earliest years to achieve as a key enabler of success at tertiary level,” Ms Field says.

“Once a student is engaged in tertiary education, it’s important they are provided with the necessary support to succeed.”

The Smith Family believes the range of measures outlined in the report to ease the financial burden faced by students with low socioeconomic status (SES) is a critical component in enabling students to overcome the barriers often preventing them from completing their studies.

“The recommendation of paid work placements, for example, is instrumental in helping students who may already be struggling financially to complete these essential course requirements,” Ms Field says.

Industry expert calls for action in sector workforce

Engineers Australia has welcomed the Australian Universities Accord while calling for focused action on the engineering workforce.

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“The Accord sets a visionary direction for the future, reflecting a commitment to enhance Australia’s higher education sector. However, with engineering shortages called out in both the interim and final reports, Engineers Australia stresses the need for any implementation to address the specific requirements of professions experiencing skills shortage, particularly engineering,” says Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew AO.

“The engineering profession is critical to Australia’s economic growth. Yet, there is a concerning gap between the current supply of engineering talent and the growing demand in various sectors. The Accord is commendable in its ambitious targets. It will be critical to see that the Government’s response and its implementation target the acute needs of workforces like engineering, where demand continues to outstrip local supply.”

Addressing skills shortages

The engineering peak body is pushing for a more focused approach to ensure that the Accord not only sets a direction but also delivers tangible outcomes for sectors where skill shortages are most acute.

“With many of the challenges identified in the report impacting the engineering profession, engineering could be used to test many of the recommended initiatives,” Ms Madew says.

“Engineers Australia urges the Australian Government to implement a nationally coordinated plan for the engineering workforce. This strategy should focus on the whole engineering team, collaborating with both the vocational education and higher education sectors, increasing graduates and ensure their skills align with Australia’s evolving industry needs. It should involve collaboration between the tertiary sector, industry, and government, leveraging each sector’s strengths to build a sustainable pipeline of engineering talent.”

As Australia’s national body for engineering, Engineers Australia describes itself as “the voice and champion” of its 120,000-plus members.

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“With extensive expertise and a deep understanding of the engineering sector, Engineers Australia can support the Government to shape practical and affordable solutions in a workforce strategy that meets both current and future demands.”

Helping regional students achieve equitable access

As a regional tertiary education provider, the University of Wollongong (UOW) says it backs the report’s emphasis on increasing equity and access for a smoother integration of the tertiary education system.

UOW’s Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Patricia Davidson applauded the Accord Final Report’s focus on equity and access and said UOW was ready to work with the Government to implement any recommendations that increase participation in higher education among underrepresented groups.

“I thank Accord Chair Professor Mary O’Kane AC and the expert panel for their diligent work on the Australian Universities Accord,” Professor Davidson says.

“The Accord’s emphasis on improving equity and access to higher education aligns with our longstanding commitment to expanding access to higher education, an aspiration ingrained in our DNA.

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“The University of Wollongong understands the transformational power of education and has always been passionate about fostering education for all, irrespective of one’s background or circumstances.”

Rural and regional areas deserve quality tertiary options

With around 40 per cent of UOW students coming from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education – and with a history of working closely with local communities to drive increased participation and attainment among diverse groups – the university says its pathway programs and network of campuses in rural, regional and outer suburban locations make it well placed to deliver the Government’s objective to increase the number of students from those areas attaining a university qualification.

“By delivering a world-class education close to home, our regional and outer suburban campuses play a key role in driving student equity and access outcomes, in helping people get skilled and secure work, and in supporting the economies of those communities,” Professor Davidson says.

UOW also endorses the Report’s finding that barriers between VET and higher education need to be broken down to ensure a more seamless and integrated tertiary education system.

“We have a long and proud track record of working with TAFE NSW and industry to provide students with the skills they need to succeed in the workplaces of the future,” Professor Davidson says.

System needs “transformative innovation”

At Melbourne’s RMIT, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President, College of Vocational Education Mish Eastman says the institution “supports the report’s recommendation for stronger partnerships between government, tertiary providers, industry and unions, through TAFE Centres of Excellence, Jobs and Skills Australia and Ministerial Advisory Boards”.

“As Australia’s largest dual sector university, we know first-hand the need to create more seamless pathways between vocational and higher education, supported by the right policy and funding models, if we are to tackle the real and pressing skills shortages in our communities,” Ms Eastman says.

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“To make a step change in addressing the skills crisis, proven new models of education are needed. Tertiary education reform that commits to these new models will enable RMIT and other dual sector universities to do this at scale to address critical skills shortages.”

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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]