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Response to the Australian Universities Accord Report


I rise in support of the Government's Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023. I have come to this place to represent the constituents of my electorate of Mackellar, and in doing so I represent all constituents of all ages, and of course that includes young people—people for whom this bill will have the most impact.

University higher education has always been enormously important to my family. In the 1930s my grandmother, then Dorothy Arnott, was the second woman ever to graduate from veterinary science at Sydney University. I have also been extremely fortunate to benefit from Australia's world-class tertiary education system. However, I recognise the immense privilege it is to be able to undertake tertiary education. I also believe it must never be something that is only available to the privileged, and so I support this bill as it builds greater inclusivity and equity into our higher education system.

Tertiary education provides an unparalleled opportunity for personal enrichment and is an invaluable investment in the future of our nation, so it is incumbent upon us here in this place to ensure that our universities remain relevant, robust and respected institutions for future generations. Most importantly, we must ensure they are accessible for people of all backgrounds and all walks of life. That's what this bill seeks to do. With the bill, the Government seeks to implement two of the most pressing interim recommendations of the Australian Universities Accord. The Australian Universities Accord is the review that has been undertaken to ensure that Australia's tertiary education system is fit for the demands of the 21st century. Young people in 2023 are facing extraordinary challenges. Intergenerational inequality is real, and it is increasing. Cost-of-living pressures are hurting them more as inflation kicks in, including the booming cost of renting and ballooning HECS debts. Add to that the uncertain future of a world facing climate breakdown. Higher education is a critical area where we in this House must build policy that supports and gives a leg-up to our young people. Our higher education system must not only meet the needs of the nation and the future workforce; it must also meet the needs of the people in the system—the students, the academics and the support staff. To that end, it must be inclusive, relevant, supportive and of a quality that is equal to anything anywhere else in the world. Campuses must also be safe places for our young people to study and socialise.

In November 2022 the Minister for Education, to his great credit, commissioned a 12-month review into Australia's higher education system, led by a panel of eminent Australians—the Australian Universities Accord. The minister's stated objective of this review is to improve the quality, accessibility, affordability and sustainability of higher education in order to achieve long-term security and prosperity for the sector and the nation. These are noble aims. During this process the minister has ensured that the crossbench has been kept up to date on progress of the accord, and I'd like to thank him for that.

This week the minister has also arranged for the crossbench to be briefed by Emerita Professor Mary O'Kane, chair of the panel. These briefings are extremely helpful, and the collaborative approach of the minister on such a critical issue is indeed appreciated and respected. It has been wonderful to hear from Professor O'Kane, who has led a panel who so ardently believe in the benefits of higher education to individuals, to society and to the nation. To quote the panel:

… a high-quality and equitable higher education system is now a must-have for Australia and there can be no room for complacency. To successfully tackle our big national priorities, including lifting economic productivity, making a clean energy transition, building a caring society, meeting the defence and security challenges of our region, and strengthening our democratic culture, our higher education system must become much, much stronger.

The interim report of the Universities Accord was released last month. That report called for five modest and sensible priority actions to be considered immediately. This bill, less than a month later, seeks to implement two of these priority recommendations. It also lists a number of larger-scale issues for further policy consideration which will be dealt with in more detail in the final report, to be handed down in December this year.

I'd like to comment on a few of the accord's priority recommendations today. The first is one of the recommended priority actions being addressed in this bill: the urgent recommendation that the 50 per cent pass rule be abolished. Given its detrimental impact on equality, as it disproportionately affects students from more-disadvantaged backgrounds, I fully support this move. Most of the students affected by this rule have been from underrepresented groups, including First Nations students, who are around twice as likely to be affected as other students. The rule requires that students pass 50 per cent of their units of study in order to continue to be eligible for Commonwealth assistance for their fees. Of course, without that assistance, very few students would be able to afford to continue university. However, the early years of university, as many of us know, are a time of immense change and challenge and can be incredibly stressful. The pressure of living away from home, cost of living, health issues, work demands, study demands and new-relationship demands are just some of the many reasons young people may struggle to achieve in the early years of university. To cut off a young person's dreams in this way is simply not fair. With this bill, the Government will, rightly, remove this harsh and arbitrary rule.

At the same time, the Government has promised increased intervention and support and reporting on student progress, the idea being to help them when they're struggling rather than to kick them out. Again, this is a sensible and practical investment in our young people.

As I explained earlier, starting university can involve significant adjustment stress for students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who have never been in an environment like university before and who don't have the family financial resources to fall back on. These are the very students whose participation in tertiary education we should be fostering, rather than impeding.

In a similar vein, the report identifies as its third priority action that all First Nations students must be eligible for a funded place at university. In other words: despite any caps on the number of students who can ordinarily be accepted for a course, all First Nations students who achieve the necessary grades will be given a place. This guarantee already applies to regional- and remote-area First Nations students but not metropolitan ones—and it must. University will not be free for these students. They will still be part of the HECS-HELP system, and it will not adversely affect any other students because it is in addition to current arrangements.

We know that higher education outcomes are fundamental to closing the gap. The Uluru Statement from the Heart contains the aspiration that First Nations children 'will walk in two worlds' and that 'their culture will be a gift to their country'. The gap that exists in First Nations tertiary attainment needs to be closed. This is one step towards that aim.

Another priority action that the interim report has identified is to improve university Governance. When the interim report talks about governance, the basic idea is that higher education institutions need to be better, safer places to work and to learn. To make higher education institutions better places to work, they need greater funding security. Because of funding insecurity, many universities are only able to offer short-term contracts and rely on a highly casualised workforce. This is just not good enough. Our academics have dedicated their lives to the pursuit and handing down of knowledge. With their qualifications, many, if not most, could have had much higher paying and more stable careers in other industries. Despite this, they remain committed to research, to knowledge-building, to educating and to bettering our society.

As the report states, 'The funding of higher education and its workforce structure are inextricably linked.' Workforce instability in the sector threatens the quality of our institutions, and, as in other sectors, the casualisation of the roles disproportionately affects women. Particularly appalling was the treatment that our university staff, our brains trust, received during the pandemic by the former Government. Thousands of academics and other university support staff were forced to leave the sector during that difficult time because JobKeeper was not extended to them as it was to the vast majority of the country's workforce. The Fair Work Ombudsman considers that these issues causing workforce instability are entrenched in the sector. I look forward to the solutions the panel proposes in dealing with this critical issue in its final report.

The safety of students and the duty of care universities owe to them is also considered by the panel to be an aspect of good governance. We know that safety on campus is an issue that has not been adequately addressed. The 2021 National Student Safety Survey found that 16 per cent of students have experienced harassment and five per cent have been sexually assaulted. If you think about that—about our daughters and their friends going off to university— out of a group of 20, at least one has been sexually assaulted on campus.

Just last week, a group of brave women came to parliament to share their stories of sexual assault on campus, and they also shared their stories of the lack of care and support provided to them by many of the universities. It's unacceptable that these women feel they have no choice but to come to this place and reshare their experience of sexual violence to reopen that trauma in order for Governments and universities to listen and act. Why is it always the survivor's job?

The interim report recommends, and the Government has committed to, engaging with state and territory Governments to improve student and staff safety. I very much look forward to hearing more about how the Government will approach this issue. In conclusion, I applaud the work already done by Australian Universities Accord panel and the work they have signalled they will move onto. To anyone interested in higher education in this country who believes in its transformative power, I commend the report to you. For a report prepared by a Government-commissioned panel, it is genuinely good reading, no doubt reflective of the quality of the academics responsible for it. I will end by sharing one sentiment from the report, which elegantly summarises the place of tertiary education in our lives:

We live in an era of profound intellectual, technological, economic and cultural change, in which complacency is dangerous and our egalitarian values need to be defended and renewed. In this environment, higher education is our best asset. It transforms lives and underpins our nation's wellbeing and security. It delivers education, research, community engagement and industrial capability. It powers social mobility, economic prosperity, security, creativity and innovation. It helps us understand the central place of First Nations people in our history—through the generous sharing of their knowledge, language, culture and sense of community and place. Higher education does all this and more by creating new knowledge, dispersing it widely and applying it to the many welcome and unwelcome challenges that confront us.