Quality of higher education, equity of participation and access are front and centre in the new Universities Accord interim report, released by Education Minister Jason Clare at the National Press Club on Wednesday.
Minister Clare described five key priority areas for immediate action – three of which directly related to equity. In contrast to increasing equity and fairness for students, there was limited mention of university staff and the levels of casualisation in the sector, aside from calling for universities to become “exemplary employers”.
What are the five key priorities?
The first priority action recommends extending access to higher education by creating more Regional University Centres. In response, the federal government has committed to doubling the number of existing hubs, creating a further 20 centres in regional locations and 14 in the outer-suburban areas of major cities.
The second priority action recommends abolishing the 50% pass rule which was introduced under the former government’s Job Ready Graduates Package. The government has committed to removing this rule, which has disproportionately affected students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Professor Barney Dalgarno from the University of Canberra said that many of these students can excel in their studies, when given appropriate support from academics.
The third priority action seeks to ensure all First Nations students are eligible for a guaranteed funded place at university. In 2021 such a guarantee was introduced for First Nations students from regional and remote Australia, and the government has agreed to applying this guarantee nationwide.
The fourth priority action recommends extending the Covid-era Higher Education Continuity Guarantee for 2024 and 2025. The government has agreed to this to allow funding certainty to universities as the Accord process rolls out.
Finally, the fifth priority action seeks to improve university governance with a focus on employment practices, student and staff safety, and the make-up of university governance bodies.
Equity is about more than aspirations
Investment in higher education is an investment in young people and in our future as a nation. As Minister Clare pointed out in his address, that investment needs to start in our early childhood education and continue through our school sector. He rightly treats the education landscape as an interconnected jigsaw puzzle.
However, too often the question of equity becomes one of raising aspirations. The interim report focuses on “increasing aspiration” and the need to “develop the aspirations of potential students”. However, we know from research that students from all backgrounds aspire to university and careers that require higher education qualifications. The final report of the Accord working group must focus on how we remove barriers that not only limit access to university for students from diverse backgrounds and target equity groups, but also support their success once they arrive on our campuses.
University staff are key to realising the Accord’s ambitions
A big gap in the Accord’s interim report is concrete action on improving employment conditions at universities. The Accord report rightly acknowledges the rife casualisation across the sector, noting that 69% of teaching is conducted by casual staff members. While the report notes that casual employment can suit both employer and employees, a 2019 survey conducted by NTEU showed that 82% of casual staff would prefer part-time or full-time ongoing employment.
My research, with colleagues from QUT, Charles Sturt University and the United Kingdom, has identified that casualisation of teaching and short-term contract research gigs disproportionately impact women, people from diverse backgrounds and early career researchers. Lengths of precarity can limit career opportunities through reduced ability to obtain professional development or career planning. Some casuals have held the same roles for decades and yet aren’t considered eligible for conversion to ongoing roles.
The Accord recognises that recent staff underpayments are “patently unacceptable” for a public institution but must go further to ensure that everyone in academic work is paid for the time they spend on supporting student learning and engaging in high quality research.
Casual teaching staff are only paid for their time on class and limited time for marking assignments. They are not currently paid for their time engaging in professional development or providing additional supports for students, both of which are recommendations within the Accord. These situations leave many academics with the impossible choice of providing the levels of support that they know students need and just focusing on what they are paid to do. Universities know this and exploit the care and dedication of their staff.
More consistent funding is required for universities to ‘de-casualise’ and ensure that the knowledge and skills of high-quality lecturers and researchers are acknowledged, retained and enhanced.
A vision for high quality teaching and research
Consideration of the employment conditions in Australian universities is critical if the vision laid out in the Accord interim report is to be achieved. It describes a vision for 2035 of a more equitable system that supports all Australians, who choose to go to university, to study in supportive environments that foster high quality teaching and research.
The interim report acknowledges that this vision and “the sector’s success in delivering skills, knowledge and equity is underpinned by enduring and stable funding and governance architecture”. The potential risks of continuing such high levels of casualisation in higher education are clearly illustrated in the issues currently playing out in UK universities, reminding us that “staff working conditions are student learning conditions”.