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Finding students at the centre of the Universities Accord

Jack Goodman

Jack Goodman

Mar 20, 2024

This opinion piece was originally published in The Australian on 19 March 2024. 

Download a copy of the final report of the Universities Accord and you may feel as if you’re back at uni in a first year survey course. It’s huge, covering just about every topic under the sun. To keep all stakeholders across the sector happy, it contains words that will fit multiple narratives. Yet there is a core message that federal Education Minister Jason Clare wants to come through and, if we ignore the red herrings, it’s loud and clear.

Research needs to be funded differently, and comprehensively, to keep the country internationally competitive. A new regulator should be established to serve as an intermediary between the sector and the winds of political change. Our universities must grow dramatically to meet the projected employment skills the nation will require to be prosperous and competitive in 2050. But these are all sideshows to the core agenda the government is all but certain to pursue. Simply put, the accord directs the sector to renew its commitment and investment in teaching, learning and the student experience to ensure the nation has the knowledge workers it will require in the coming decades.

As the logical extension of the most recent previous review, the 2008 Bradley report, the accord calls for a specific focus on addressing inequalities in access and participation in higher education by students from disadvantaged backgrounds, cultures and geographies. The facts that underpin this conclusion include:

  • Only six of the 46 recommendations specifically discuss research. These are recommendations 24 through 29, well after discussion of the education, equity, employment and skills objectives.
  • The interim report had a similar bias towards the educational mission of the sector. It contained five priority actions, the first four of which related to ensuring improved access, participation and support for students who suffer the most disadvantage and are the least likely to be able to access and benefit from the system as it is currently structured.
  • Actions the government has already taken include passing the 'Support for Students Policy', requiring all universities to publish on their websites, in detail, how they will ensure all students they enrol will be sufficiently cared for to give them the best possible chance of completing their course. Non-compliant universities could face substantial financial penalties. 

There are many reasons the accord has come to this conclusion. First, it is indisputable that the student experience at our large and growing public universities, on the whole, has been diminishing across the past 15 years. Look no further than the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching data to see that trendlines for the student experience have been on the decline (with a few notable exceptions) for at least the past decade because of a lack of prioritisation and investment to match enrolment growth.

Further, there is an inverse correlation between many of the nation’s most prestigious, oldest research-focused universities and their student satisfaction scores.

Indeed, the business model our largest and best-known universities have embraced publicly in recent decades starts with the recruitment of international students, funnelling tuition revenues into research, leading to rising rankings, thus attracting more international students. It’s a virtuous circle in terms of the research side of the mission but it does not rely on or explicitly reference the quality of the teaching and learning experience.

As American businessman Charlie Munger famously said in a different context: “Show me the incentives and I’ll show you the outcome.” So it is not surprising the final report attempts to pull the pendulum of the sector’s focus back from research and towards the primary mission of teaching and learning. This word cloud (below) of the final report shows just how much prominence students have in the document.

Accord word cloud

How effectively will the government prosecute this “students first” agenda? One indicator is that it has already committed to improving access to university for rural students; yet its solution so far is to establish a small number of rural “study hubs” rather than to leverage the hundreds of existing rural study hubs – known as country libraries – that are far better placed to meet local educational needs for access.

Does the government want to poorly and wastefully replicate the infrastructure of our public libraries or does it want to effect change at scale?

If we do not figure out how to ensure equitable participation in higher education by the most disadvantaged parts of the country, we put our economy and our democracy at risk.

Four million Australians live in rural communities that are severely restricted in their access to higher education. So much can, should and must be done to address this issue if we want to avoid the polarised politics infecting much of the rest of the world.



Jack Goodman is the founder of Studiosity, and the president of the non-profit Friends of Libraries Australia.

About Studiosity

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