- As term draws to an end, we are marking the start of the Christmas period with three detailed pieces on the state of higher education at the end of 2023. These are appearing on our News page (and are in addition to the daily HEPI Blog).
- Today, we are featuring Andrew Norton, Professor in the Practice of Higher Education Policy at the Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods, on the state of the higher education policy debate down under as the Australian Universities Accord process nears its final stages. Andrew is on Twitter / X at @andrewjnorton.
- Yesterday, HEPI Director Nick Hillman looked at the challenges facing higher education institutions in late 2023. Tomorrow, we will be featuring a recent lecture delivered by Mary Curnock Cook on ‘Tertiary Education for the 21st Century’.
A major Australian higher education policy review, known as the Australian Universities Accord, submits its final report this month. The Australian Labor Party announced the Accord idea from opposition in 2021, with the current review commencing after its 2022 election victory over the Liberal Party. As the name suggests, an Accord goal was greater policy consensus and ‘a partnership between universities and staff, unions and business, students and parents, and, ideally, Labor and Liberal.’
With UK Labour set to return to power in 2024, do their Australian counterparts offer any lessons?
On the evidence to date, the Australian experience provides a cautionary tale – at least for universities hoping a new government might bring better times. While the Accord review panel has consulted widely, a July 2023 Accord interim report and already announced government decisions suggest a regulatory rather than a ‘partnership’ approach.
Two new government agencies, a Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and a Student Ombudsman, are expected Accord review recommendations. These would add to the existing Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) and the Department of Education, with some departmental functions moving to the TEC.
Central steering of universities
Funding and planning would be the TEC’s role. Instead of today’s system of autonomous institutions, the Accord review is likely to propose TEC coordination of universities as a system to meet national goals, especially around labour market needs and ‘equity group’ enrolment shares. The Accord’s terms of referencerequire targets for equity student enrolments and overall higher education attainment.
In a November 2023 report, I examined the TEC’s labour market functions. While the TEC’s exact methods of control are unclear, supply-side interventions would steer enrolments towards courses leading to occupations in demand, and away from other courses. The government has started allocating new student places at the course level. An existing labour market analysis agency, Jobs and Skills Australia, would provide the workforce data.
The previous Liberal government’s Job-ready Graduates policy, which remains in place, also has employment-related goals but uses demand-side system steering: lower student fees for courses it deems ‘job ready’ and higher fees for other courses. But the policy is not prescriptive on enrolment patterns. Universities receive a flexible block grant to use on any non-research course except medicine. This flexibility would be reduced under the expected TEC system.
The Accord interim report suggests a target for low socio-economic status students to be 25% of enrolments by 2035, up from 17% of undergraduates in 2021. But stubbornly large socioeconomic differences in academic achievement, evident from the early school years, stand in the way. The education minister, Jason Clare, recognises the problems, establishing parallel reviews to the Accord to work on them. But with catch-up the exception rather than the norm, the 2035 goal already seems out of reach. Universities could be penalised for missing targets that were never realistic.
Student safety and support
The Accord interim report, and policies already in progress, put a strong emphasis on student rights, safety and experience. While these goals are reasonable, a ‘support for students’ policy, already legislated as a ‘priority action’ of the Accord interim report, suffers from bureaucratic overreach.
Draft student support legal guidelines include provisions that would replace academic judgment on some student issues with default decisions. The guidelines overlap in confusing ways with existing rules, while imposing more prescription, reporting and higher penalties – up to A$18,780 (£9,800) per student for non-compliance.
The support for students policy suggests that the government wants to replace the risk-based quality assurance of TEQSA with an audit system.
The Student Ombudsman idea is less developed, but a draft ‘action plan’ on student safety issues suggests wide powers to handle student complaints on safety, student welfare, course administration, student loan administration, and adjustments for students with disabilities.
Universities could end up regulated by four higher education agencies – the TEC, TEQSA, the Department, and the Ombudsman, with the last three covering similar issues in different ways.
The Accord interim report concludes, correctly in my view, that the Job-ready Graduates student fee system should go. These fees shifted student demand and enrolments only slightly, while burdening some students with debts they may never pay off. The previous system of linking fees to expected graduate income is the most likely, but not certain, replacement.
In Accord public debate to date the most-discussed issue is a possible levy on international student fees (analysed here), with possible redistribution to poorer universities.
Opinions on the levy are not entirely predictable from institutional self-interest. One vice-chancellor of a university that would benefit from redistribution prefers another Accord idea, basing more domestic student funding on student characteristics. The current teaching funding system is discipline based.
Although student characteristics funding creates complex design issues, it is one Accord interim report idea worth considering. Universities with less selective admissions policies enrol more students needing academic and other forms of assistance. Delivering more support services may improve course completion rates.
Lessons from the Accord process
From the start, the Accord review’s wide terms of reference worked against a successful outcome. While in theory a comprehensive review could improve policy coherence, in this case it made the task overwhelming. With too many topics to cover, none of the July interim report’s policy ideas were well-developed. Its proposals reflected a bureaucrat’s instinct that regulation is the answer, without sufficient consideration given to alternative policies.
On current evidence, the final report will include something to upset every stakeholder – not a solid basis for an ‘accord’. This is not fatal to its parliamentary prospects; Job-ready Graduates was legislated despite little support outside the government. But its policy flaws and limited constituency make Job-ready Graduates a probable short-term policy, a fate the Accord will share on its apparent policy path.
Recent Australian higher education policy provides examples of what British Labour should avoid rather than imitate.