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What can the UK learn from Australia’s University Accord?

  • 8 April 2024
  • By Leo Hanna
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Leo Hanna, Executive Vice President at TechnologyOne UK.

UK universities enjoy world-leading status, but the sector is not without its challenges. With a general election looming, and as UK higher education institutions look for solutions to overcome their challenges, the recently published Australian University Accord (Final Report) serves as a compelling example of what can be achieved when the government, the higher and tertiary education sector and industry leaders come together with a shared purpose to do just that.

In 2022, and in recognition of similar challenges facing Australia’s higher education sector, the newly elected Labor government established the Universities Accord to outline the path to lasting and transformative reform in the higher education system. Their final report, which was released in February, contains a hefty 47 recommendations to promote the growth of skills through greater equity in participation, access and opportunity and enhance excellence in learning, teaching and student experience. Highlighting the importance of higher education to the workforce of the future, the Accord aims to lift the tertiary attainment rate of all working-age people from 60% to at least 80% by 2050.

Achieving these ambitious goals will help address skills shortages across industries, ensure student wellbeing, reinvest in research, and ultimately, ensure the financial health and continuing competitiveness of the higher education sector; goals which any incoming government in the UK should strive for.  

International students also draw debate down under

As UK universities currently face financial sustainability challenges, they are increasingly reliant on international students to make ends meet. Under an anticipated Labour government, university fees are unlikely to increase for home students, leaving international students key to securing sustainable revenue but fluctuations in enrolments risk the stability and viability of institutions.

While the Australian migration context is vastly different from the UK, international education is a fixture of the economy. In 2022, Australian higher education providers enrolled almost 450,000 international fee-paying students (more than a quarter of total enrolments), with around 120,000 of these studying Australian higher education courses from outside Australia.

Maintaining this steady stream of full fee-paying students has been marred, however, by failures in quality and integrity in some parts of the market. Some agents encourage students to take advantage of higher education visas being more likely to be approved, only to switch to cheaper vocational training courses or private colleges without ever attending their initial student placement.

To overcome these challenges, the Accord urges the federal government and industry to reduce the ‘excessive’ pressure on universities to secure international student revenue by paying at least the full economic cost for the university research they commission and university consulting they purchase. This aims not only to enable enhanced research but also to free up funding so that universities can invest in other priorities like learning, teaching and infrastructure, supporting growth and improving education quality.

One criticism of the Accord is that it does not address financial sustainability directly, which will of course be key to making the 80% attainment rate a realistic goal.

Addressing workforce shortages and administrative burden

In recent decades, Australia’s higher education workforce has grown. But student numbers have outstripped growth in staff. Between 2012 and 2021, the ratio of students to academic staff (including casual staff) grew from 20.4 to 23.2. And yet this reduced workforce reports that their time is increasingly being spent on non-academic activities.

This will sound like a familiar refrain to UK vice-chancellors and their teams. There is no doubt that digital transformation is key to maximising the expertise of academic staff, by reducing their administrative burden. Great technology not only helps universities do more with less but is also a key strategy to retain staff, ensuring they are not dealing with menial tasks and instead focusing on meaningful work, be it responding to individual student needs, refining curricula, or improving research qualities.

The Accord echoes this, recommending joint funding by the higher education sector and the government for digital and built infrastructure, essential components of which include enterprise resource planning and student management systems, crucial for enabling university digital transformation. This innovation and digital transformation have enormous potential to enhance the quality and impact of higher education, research, and engagement, as well as to improve access and equity for students from diverse backgrounds and locations.

Improving student well-being by enriching learning experiences with technology

Given the prominence of student wellbeing in public discourse, it’s no surprise that an entire chapter of the Accord was dedicated to delivering a holistic and supportive learning experience to students. 

And this goes beyond the classroom. For example, we know part-time work is a reality for many students and policy reforms like the jobs broker suggested in the Accord are laudable, but would take time to establish. In the meantime, smarter scheduling and timetabling can be used to ensure students have certainty about their teaching schedule and that the schedule is calibrated to ensure part-time work around study can be maintained.

The Accord also paints a great picture of what students should expect: strong technical and advanced generic skills, a safe learning environment, a student voice in the system, high-quality teaching, innovative delivery modes (both on campus and online), better experiences from student placements, and responsive curricula and pedagogy with deep connections to industry.

To effectively evaluate the success of a holistic learning experience, it’s essential to have quality data that encompasses the diverse components contributing to this outcome. Data silos are just as pervasive down under as over here, and this is where the inefficiency of storing data across disparate systems becomes apparent, hindering rather than enhancing university operations by impeding insights. The remedy lies in adopting an integrated solution, streamlining data management and facilitating more effective decision-making.

It is worth noting that the Accord is seeking around AUD10 billion between now and 2050 – a period where we anticipate eight federal elections and at least six state and territorial elections. No doubt a framework for prioritising these initiatives would be a valuable next step.

Not only is higher education one of the UK’s key exports, but the success of it will also be transformative for the nation’s future. So, as any incoming government contemplates how to arrest the challenges facing the sector, it might draw inspiration from the principles outlined in the University Accord. By initiating a comparable review or incorporating essential principles and strategies set out in the Accord, the UK can transform its higher education sector for the better.

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  1. ROS LUCAS says:

    Time to use student university funding payments to keep universities viable and uodated.
    Also, why not utilise the Degree Apprenticeship/industry sector funding to make it easier for companies to find suitable employees and students to get more experiences/choices of employment earluer…

  2. Gavin Moodie says:

    One of the big limitations of apprenticeships is the shortage of places offered by employers, and this is also a problem with industry placements for T levels and work integrated learning. This is also a problem in Australia and Canada.

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