This article is part of our series on big ideas for the Universities Accord. The federal government is calling for ideas to “reshape and reimagine higher education, and set it up for the next decade and beyond”. A review team is due to finish a draft report in June and a final report in December 2023.
Decades of research shows how the higher education system has failed to give Australians a “fair go”. For example, young people in major cities are much more likely to have a university degree than those from regional or remote areas. This is despite an increase in overall university participation over the past 20 years.
The Albanese government says it is aware of such discrepancies. “Greater access and participation” for students from underrepresented backgrounds is one of seven key areas identified for the University Accord review.
But how can we move from good intentions to long-overdue change?
The accord review team can begin by making recommendations that prioritise five key ideas: address student poverty, make it easier to study near home, properly understand disadvantage, support teaching staff and help marginalised students get a job when they graduate.
1. Address student poverty
Many Australian university students experience devastating poverty. A 2017 Universities Australia survey found one in seven regularly go without food or other necessities. This pre-pandemic figure increased to almost one in five for those from lower income backgrounds.
We know the prospect of debt also deters some students from studying in the first place, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Changes to course fees in 2021 under the Job-ready Graduates scheme mean some undergraduates are now accruing record levels of debt.
So poverty does not end with graduation. According to a 2023 Melbourne University report, average debts are now as much as A$60,000. Former students can take more than nine years to repay their fees, with repayment times trending upwards.
We urgently need a national review of financial support for students separate from the accord process.
This should not just tinker around the edges but interrogate everything from student benefits such as Austudy, to the HELP scheme and the number of scholarships and bursaries available.
2. Make it easier to study near home
My research on Australian students has shown students in rural areas may be reluctant to go to university if it means leaving their communities.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 48.6% of 25 to 34-year-olds in major cities had a university degree as of May 2021. This figure drops the further away someone is from a city, from 26.9% (inner regional) to 21.1% (outer regional) and approximately 16% (remote and very remote).
If we want more students outside of urban areas to go to university, we need to give them more opportunities to study close to where they grew up. This is sometimes referred to as a “place-based pathway”.
We can do this through a nationally consistent approach to recognising studies undertaken across different education providers. This would see people able to move between universities, technical colleges, community colleges and regional university centres to complete their qualifications.
3. Properly understand disadvantage
The university sector continues to rely on an outdated approach when it comes to understanding disadvantage among its students.
Most students with a disadvantage are assigned into six blunt equity groups: low socio-economic status, students with a disability, rural and remote students, Indigenous students, women in non-traditional areas of study and students with English as a second language.
But about 50% of Australian students from underrepresented or marginalised backgrounds fall into more than one equity group. For example, someone could be from a low socioeconomic background and have a disability.
A 2019 Queensland University study showed experiencing many types of disadvantage reduces a student’s chances of entering or completing higher education.
Australia needs a national approach to understanding and responding to this complexity.
A 2020 federal government-commissioned study has already proposed how to do this. The University of Queensland team developed five prototype measurements to capture multiple disadvantaging factors. We need these types of measurements to properly support the diverse needs of our most vulnerable learners.
4. Don’t forget academics as part of this
The accord discussion paper notes 50–80% of undergraduate teaching in universities is done by casual or contract staff.
This means the delicate work of supporting, engaging and teaching students from diverse backgrounds is often done by staff on temporary, precarious contracts.
We cannot expect people to behave inclusively when they themselves are not included or valued in an institution.
Creating sustainable and secure employment options for academic staff would benefit staff and positively impact student outcomes and experience.
5. Supporting graduates to get jobs
Assuming a student from a diverse background makes it to and through university, we need to support them when they look for a job.
Students from underrepresented groups can take longer to, or in some cases, are are less likely to find a job compared to their more advantaged peers. According to the 2022 Graduate Outcomes Survey 79.8% of undergraduates from a high socioeconomic backgrounds were in full-time work within six months of graduating, compared to 76.6% of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
Undergraduates with a reported disability had a full-time employment rate of 68.4%, compared to 79.5% for those with no reported disability. Those who spoke a language other than English at home have a full-time employment rate of 66%, compared to 78.9% of students whose home language was English.
There are many reasons for these differences, including less access to professional and social networks. These differences perpetuate ongoing cycles of disadvantage.
We need a targeted national graduate employment strategy to level the playing field in a congested and competitive graduate employment environment. This should include ongoing support and advice offered to students to assist job-seeking activities even after graduation.
The accord promises to be a vast document with many recommendations. But if it really wants to live up to its promise to reshape and reimagine Australian higher education, equity can no longer be regarded as an add-on, bolted onto existing activities or structures.
Instead, it needs to be embedded across all the changes proposed by the University Accord.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Sarah O'Shea, Curtin University.
Sarah O' Shea receives funding from the Australian Research Council and the Department of Education. She is affiliated with University of Wollongong (Honorary Fellow) and the Churchill Trust.