The Australian Universities Accord: An Access perspective

The Australian Universities Accord: An Access perspective

Australian Universities Accord:

An Access perspective


Professor Jim Nyland, Professor The Hon. Verity Firth AM and Emeritus Professor David Davies


The Australian Universities Accord: An Access perspective

The Accord is an Australian government intervention designed to address future higher education issues for the nation at large. Following extensive consultations it reported in 2024 with an extensive description and analysis of themes and challenges for the tertiary education sector. A substantial list of recommendations covered many aspects of higher education including research, university governance, university engagement and the needs-driven position of equity groups and the disadvantaged in accessing higher learning and qualifications. Australia is viewed as a growing and developing society whose presence on the world stage is increasingly seen as key to economic and geopolitical security and the maintenance of democratic values and practices in its region and across the world. Social change and diversity has been embraced.

We can note that labour market and economic concerns underpin the Accord’s viewpoint on educational needs and the requirement for skills development is stressed. It is the case that industrial and economic productivity growth was strong in Australia—particularly through the 1990s—however, the growth of the world’s economy in the third decade of the 21st century slowed and geopolitical uncertainty became more marked as the USA retrenched its economic reach and China extended its own. A changing population in Australia with countervailing trends of an ageing settled demographic and a younger migratory one with multiracial/ multicultural origins now suggest challenges for the labour market and the social structure. The aspirations for ever-rising living standards are not commensurate with low productivity and depressed educational achievements. A healthy education higher sector is crucial for both economic growth and social and community wellbeing, twin objectives which drove concern for renewal in Australia in the third decade of the 21st century.

The Accord was an ambitious and far-reaching review of the state and future potential of Australia’s higher education system. Its fundamental concerns were for the future skills needs of the nation, the need to grow the numbers of students to meet rising social and economic demands and the desire to assert equity and fairness within practical policies supporting disadvantaged people with special recognition of the position of the Aboriginal peoples. A renewed system was envisaged as an evolving mission for Australian higher education with equity concerns and an expanded conception of community engagement given prominence. The overall concept of the Accord was immensely wide-ranging and included analysis and recommendations covering the need for excellence in teaching and learning, international engagement, research and innovation, sustainable funding requirements for stability and growth, updating of governance and regulation of HE, regional challenges for HE providers and students, and consideration of a universal learning entitlement to make lifelong learning a reality. The consultation was quite categoric, that too few Australians are going to university and asserted that the goal must be growth for skills through greater equity. Crucial to this vision and analysis was the claim and belief that First Nations students were at its heart.

The thrust of the Accord is quite clearly ‘progressive’ and aimed at reform in that real and concrete steps are contemplated to improve access and participation in higher education for designated social and equity groups. There is a recognition of historic inequalities and inequities and of the need to bring Australian thinking in line with modern/current events and movements on access and opportunity. There can be little doubt that the Accord hit important targets in the attempt to produce an enriched and diverse consolidation of higher education in Australia.

The Accord identifies National Tertiary Objectives which it states must underpin a strong and resilient democracy and this is to be done via drive for national economic and social development and environmental stability. New knowledge must be created to sustain the social transformation which will lead to the betterment of society. These are worthy objectives by any standards and accompany the commitment to a vision of democratic cohesion and environmental sustainability and environmental wellbeing. The potential threats to social cohesion are mentioned on page 1 of the Accord and must be addressed by the education system. The system must grow on a ‘needs driven’ basis which puts the student at the centre of concern and puts ‘equity students’, that is those who are educationally disadvantaged by background or capacity, in the forefront of support whether that is financial, familial, institutional or pedagogic. Both logic and rational morality support the case for all of this intended change and a whole raft of potential ‘shifts’ in the system delivery mechanisms are made in the Accord. From the Access perspective the most significant include:

  • The VET and HE parts of the system are to be seen as belonging to the same system and no longer binary which is divisive and counter-productive
  • Growth as an imperative, with equity groups prioritised, must be built into provision
  • Current tertiary level III provision should be raised to 80% participation by 2050
  • Increases in adult (25-34 years) participation in HE should rise to 55% by 2050
  • Participation in VET/TAFE should rise to 40% by 2050
  • Equity is a key concept and should sponsor increases in undergraduate participation from all under-represented groups
  • Flexible, modular and stackable courses with credit transfers and a study passport are needed to promote attendance and attainment
  • Student finance should be reformed to encourage participation
  • Expansion of Preparatory courses should be undertaken and fees-free courses for disadvantaged students made more widely available
  • A new fund for solving Australia’s ‘big national challenges’ should be introduced
  • Research should be re-prioritised
  • Regional developments and initiatives are needed to counter historic and geographical disadvantages
  • First Nation peoples are to be given priority to shift the dial on participation; a First Nations Council is to be established
  • Community engagement is to be better recognised
  • Diversity of missions in HE is to be supported

The Accord itself states quite boldly that ‘Big changes are needed’ (p.7) and the tenor and vocabulary of the document is one of challenge and change and even of urgency. However, from an Access perspective in particular, and perhaps more generally, it seems clear that the Accord has at its heart a concern with skills development and is rooted in a ‘human capital theory’ framework of thinking. The upskilling and training of new generations of people in the labour market is naturally a vital concern but the assumption that this is at the heart of the problems of participation and access is misplaced. We would argue that the labour market is not an autonomous factor and that the striking growth and
emergence of mass higher education from the 1980s up to the second decade of the 21st century is not crucially explained by the demands of the labour market nor by the changes in labour supply dependent on skills acquisition (Marginson 1997, 2016). The academic record we believe has demonstrated that other powerful forces were at work in shifting perceptions of what higher education meant and how it might be accessed, both by the broader masses through schooling and via the opportunities made available through the Access movement. Although cognitive development and skills for the economy are vitally important and in predicting individual economic success, education and schooling is only part of the process. Socialisation, culture, social differentiation, and the impact of social structures such as class, gender, identity, race/ethnicity and the question of how wealth and inequality are distributed make the difference in how higher education contributes to a viable sharing of the benefits and burdens in which we are all free to pursue our own ends unimpeded by prejudice, lack of opportunity or material deprivation. We believe this approach can take us beyond the equity framework to a deeper and potentially transformative higher education.

The growth of the HE system as an ‘equity guarantor’ focussed on human capital conceptions of skills and motivations is also problematical as long as the basis for growth and expansion is rooted in and based on a race for growth and competition between universities and institutions. Such a marketised system is an outgrowth of previous differences and inequalities which are now embedded in our social and economic structures and are expressed through the class, gender and often ethnic identities and communities of the population. Alongside and embedded within the university system is a fairly newly emergent and highly differentiated and unequal set of hierarchies which perpetuate inequalities. We have an elite-driven HE system which continues to generate and distribute inequality, a position that is not seriously contested by the universities themselves and is seen as inevitable and immovable.

We believe that the Accord is a step forward in engaging higher education in a discourse of change and renewal. We would argue also that its power to shape the future would be enhanced if it were to extend its analysis to embrace a critically informed analysis of how the poly-ethnic nation displaces the ethnic nation and of how critical thinking and a universal literacy can be applied in what Miriam Dixson (1999) called ‘a new dispensation’ which can address the social fragmentation and sense of alienation from national concerns of identity and belonging which many of the educationally disadvantaged experience. These are issues which impact on the sought after social cohesion which many societies seek in times of change and social fragmentation. What we have termed an ‘Access movement’, as a wide ranging set of ideas, principles and practices, can contribute to the ability of marginalised and excluded people to take charge of their own lives , to gain social and political agency and to participate in a renewed civil society and civic identity. In response to the Accord, we believe that from an Access perspective our contribution to public debate can help raise an insistent awareness of the need for new frameworks to analyse and understand access and equality in higher education.

A view and commentary from an Access perspective

The Accord itself identified what it called ‘big issues’ facing Australian higher education. The question of the ‘Big questions’ is the key issue facing Australia’s high education in the future. What is needed we suggest is a focus on the major changes underway in society, economy and the environment and how all Australians can have the opportunity to participate in HE now that more than 80% of the cohort are likely to enter the tertiary sector.

It is encouraging to note the Accord acknowledges that along with awareness of rapid technological change and the mixed impact of globalisation on local and regional economies, there needs to be a balance within and across education so as to regain a sense of purpose in civic and social progress. This emphasis contextualises what is often now taken for granted; higher education institutions are expected to respond to diverse client choice from a student perspective and perhaps increasingly from that of employers in a fast changing and uncertain world, yet are expected to deliver social benefits for the common good on behalf of all in an unequal society. The nature and extent of such inequality is a subject on which the educationalists themselves have spoken and have differed and the Access perspective has contributed to the debate in this article.

We believe that six of the main themes raised in the Accord are of special relevance to our themes of Access, opportunity and widening participation. Within these themes there are specific concerns which this article has commented on and which are relevant to our understanding of the Accord and its likely effects on Australian higher education:

    1. Access, widening participation and equality for all
    2. University engagement for the social purposes of HE
    3. Critical thinking and capabilities for free and democratic citizenship
    4. A curriculum for sustainability
    5. Student engagement and success
    6. The Wicked Issues facing Australia and the Accord.

1. Access and widening participation and equality for all

The Accord illustrates very well the deepening of change impacting on Australian society and communities. This is an economic, a social and a deeply cultural transition which is underway now and whose fruits will be harvested for certain in the period 2030-2040.

The current system produces chronic inequality of opportunity which is a continuing predicament for public policy. However, social inequality is unlikely to be seriously challenged by focussing on the skills needs of the economy as if that were an independent fact and feature of life. Social inequality is encountered in the workplace but it is not caused by the nature of skills nor the access to those skills. Neither is a university education exclusively about acquiring skills and competencies nor access to them; it is about much more than that including the idea of having a place in the scheme of things and the deeper sense of belonging within a culture that values diverse people and talents.

2. University engagement for the social purposes of HE

If it is generally true that the mass expansion of higher education has re-shaped and re-ordered the expectations of many people in modernity so that going to university is now normative, it is nevertheless still true that it has failed to challenge many of the social inequalities and hierarchies that reproduce inequalities. Universities are increasingly ‘corporate’ businesses with the graduate job market highly stratified with developments driven by financial objectives and/or government policy directives. However, the social purposes of higher education will need to be substantially re-imagined for the challenges of the 21st century. There will be a need to create high quality general learning capabilities through lifelong learning and via a ‘universal literacy’ so that each individual can function effectively in modern society. Ever accelerating technological change requires a continuous process of learning and adaptation so that people acquire the necessary skills, knowledge and adaptability to thrive in a knowledge-based society; this means accepting the lifelong and society-wide nature of the university student base. The primary responsibility for learning cannot rest with the individual alone; it should be thought of as a social responsibility (West 1998).

Social capital must be created and rewarded so that communities and individuals are not excluded from national and mainstream economies and higher education’s role in this requires scrutiny, analysis and appropriate change and reform. Community engagement must be renewed in the light of Australia’s evolving reality of being a multicultural and multiracial society with its own distinctive national identity which is truly inclusive. The Accord has the great virtue of bringing light to bear on the wide range of policy initiatives needed to address these issues of the social purposes of higher education in the context of this century’s issues, its uncertain future and its huge potential for the public good.

3. Critical thinking and capabilities for free and democratic citizenship

The Accord identifies an aspect of the role of higher education in terms of its support for critical thinking and capabilities for independent thought and judgement in its students and staff. Neville Meaney argued that even if core values for what it meant to be Australian were disputed, there were some that were not contested. ‘The commitment to Western liberal values is fundamental. So also are ideas about equality, about the individual in relation to society and about the right to challenge authority’ (Meaney 1996 and 2013).

Universal and democratic access to knowledge is restricted where knowledge itself is stratified (Griffin 1983: 82-83). This arguably mandates us to renew and reform how we understand and transmit knowledge to our students. We now have, arguably, produced a mass system of education without a common culture of knowledge – what Stuart Hall referred to as a universal literacy (Hall 1983). A number of key themes for an expanded curriculum can be identified within this generic approach and for the type of pedagogy (learning and teaching) adopted by learning programs targeted at groups that have been marginalised by their socio-economic status , their culture or their lack of previous education and qualifications (Shor 1980, 1987; Nyland and Davies 2022).
The Australian Accord is an opportunity also to re-engage with the debate about the ‘Anglo-Celtic core’ (Dixson 1999) as an expression of Australia’s national identity, not least in the light of the plurality of more recently arrived ethnicities and the question of what holds together the diversity of diasporic communities from being a disintegrating force. Civic identity must be rooted in the core culture. This is the real meaning of social cohesion and the importance of developing a sense of belonging which can combat the disintegrating elements of modernity. Without a cohesive force, multiple identities and communities are at risk of what Miriam Dixson referred to as …‘exploding into psychosis’ (1999 p 11).

The Accord notes the need for reform and vigilance in how higher education is governed and that a wider range of stakeholders can be recognised, ‘Place-making’, for example, which involves recognising the significance of landscape and place, is vital for many communities and often ranges across state, city and local boundaries (Pearson 2009). Questions of personal and social identity can become the foremost concerns for individuals and groups, not least when faced with uncertainty and the possibility of marginalisation within the wider culture.
The dimensions of student diversity and identity (Thomas and May 2010: 5) are actually and potentially huge and are an unrecognised resource in much of higher education. Whatever we do we must find and re-invent where necessary the capacity, motivation and will to learn from our students (Barnett 2007).

4. A curriculum for sustainability

Learning is always a contemporary ‘project’ because it takes place in the here and now, in the active present; it takes place in particular places and geographies and it is done in particular languages and with and through cultural practices by individuals who are members of groups and communities. The term community has generated a great deal of argument over decades (Anderson, 1983; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Bauman 2001) and its meaning is often both ambiguous and confusing; it also has strong resonances in Australia (Ward 1958, 1978; Dixson ibid1999; Meaney 2013: ch 3). Community narratives explore in detail what it is to live in communities defined by the nature and availability of work, by the social and economic state of the residents and of their cultural pursuits and social organisation (Bauman 2001; Edensor 2002).

An ecological approach to community would argue that there is a continuing geographical basis to most people’s lives (Urry 2002, 2005) and therefore learning and education should reflect this fact and be based upon it. Geographical communities and identities generate natural learning groups through which learning takes place. Relations between people and groups of persons are seen as potent sources of learning and meaning. Our imaginations are important elements in defining ideas, concepts and even academic disciplines within the social sciences. This means that individuals and groups within a bounded geographical community can develop that community’s awareness of itself ‘ecologically’.

5. Student engagement and success

The Universities Accord identifies student success as a prime focus for the renewed Australian HE system. Student success for those who need it most depends upon many things but prime amongst them is the successful application of the principles of critical learning and teaching. The underlying principles of most concern are: support for diversity of experience in the student journey through higher education; engagement with appropriate knowledge disciplines and situated and ‘ local knowledge’; critical literacy and learning for life, not just for accreditation; active and reflexive learning and teaching; recognition of the social importance of education beyond skills acquisition and human capital; acknowledgement within learning frameworks of the importance of cultural and ethnic difference within a common core of cultural identity; and a shift in the grounds of those who claim power and privilege on the basis of their knowledge monopoly (Dixson ibid: 31).

We believe that the Accord offers the chance to renew our concepts of what counts as the student experience and can help empower people to claim a say over their futures in uncertain times. However, the reality is that digital technologies have transformed the world economy and peoples’ lives but they have also amplified unprecedented inequalities of wealth which have harmed many (Piketty 2020; Zuboff 2019). The digital technologies are now firmly embedded in the student experience and this presents both opportunities and severe challenges, not least as Artificial Intelligence (AI) extends its reach deep into student learning and assessments. The dangers of intellectual and emotional dependency, loss of personal autonomy and of the sheer addiction to computational technologies are severe (Crawford 2015; Zuboff ibid). These are some of the concerns which we believe underpin the need for an extended and deeper Access approach and sensibility to higher education renewal, specifically in respect of student engagement.

6. The wicked issues facing Australia and the Accord

A hierarchy of concern can never satisfy all the available priorities but there may be in fact some over-arching concerns which threaten to overdetermine all others if they are left unattended. There are ‘wicked issues’ which in fact threaten the continued existence of our planetary way of life as we know it. In response to the Accord, which rightfully claimed to consider the ‘Big Issues’ facing Australia, we believe there is value in considering some of these issues which we are certain will help shape the future of higher education. This should include our understanding of class, race, ethnicity and belonging in relation to the role of higher education in a changing and uncertain world.

If we were not to recognise and address the most compelling of the ‘wicked issues’ of the day, we would be committing more than just the error of omission. We made the claim earlier that mass higher education is the great story of our time but climate change, world poverty and degradation, war and social dislocation on an unimaginable scale and environmental destruction are the great evils of the time. They are the existential issues which will make or break our way of life and they impact the whole globe and all who live on it. Our handling of these great challenges will determine the future of our planet and species. Whilst we cannot and should not invite people to consider deep suffering and deprivation as a learning opportunity, we believe these serious issues should be at the very heart of our learning and be the basis of a critical literacy relevant to all learners.

Towards an ecology of learning

There can be no easy technological ‘fix’ to the pervasive and extensive issues that arise but educators perhaps above all professions have a duty to respond. Barnett (2017) has suggested we need an ‘ecological philosophy’ where universities can be involved in a range of ecologies – social, cultural, philosophical, political and environmental – and where intentions and values can infuse and interpenetrate learning and teaching about the world’s wicked issues which face us. This is an agenda for all not just the elites in the commanding heights of the economy and culture. This is an agenda for ‘Access as a Movement’ which is needed to mobilise and energise the broader population and to ensure the inclusion of the marginalised. They are not a burden but a resource which government has yet to effectively mobilise for the benefit of all.

The primacy of one of these crises is clear, however, and it is by no means a new phenomenon. What Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1973) called the ‘central ecological hypothesis’ refers to the role of production in generating social wealth and the crisis of existence which accompanies it because that wealth is not shared on any equitable basis. This is an issue on a mass scale and it is global in extent.

It impacts on all who now live on the Earth. The destruction of mankind can now be contemplated not as a result of a nuclear holocaust but as the normalised out-working of the productive forces as, driven mainly by the search for profits, they supercharge the exploitation of the Earth’s natural resources. The unity and reconciliation of human beings with nature is a social question and the question of survival and restoration of the ecological balance is one of learning and education.

Such an approach to critical thinking and learning outlines some of the increasingly urgent concerns of teachers and scholars but in reality the wicked issues are existential matters of life and death for everyone; they are existential. The fact that we are constantly forced to address them across all boundaries of social difference, age, nation and culture suggests that we are experiencing a collective failure of learning. The issue here is the making in part at least of a new curriculum which puts at the heart of learning the actual problems and challenges of the living world. We need a basis for a better education – one in which both the content and form of learning is re-shaped to fit a world which knows it must change in order to survive.


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