31 Jul View From Our Chair On The Australian University Accord Interim Report
Engagement Australia welcomes the much-anticipated Australian Universities Accord Interim Report published on the 19th July 2023, which is a good attempt at developing the whole system around what are clearly equity issues and engagement.
The Interim Report illustrates very well the deepening of change impacting on Australian society and communities. It signals that there 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. It states clearly that new boundaries of public policy for access and progression through higher education need to be redrawn to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead as our existing structures of provision are ill-matched to respond, and without change our society will continue to be divided between the educationally qualified and information rich, and those who are poor and excluded.
The Interim Report notes the need to lift the number of people with higher levels of knowledge and skills dramatically in order to meet the jobs and skills of the future. It states that among those who will be in greatest need are the socioeconomically disadvantaged, those from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds and part-time students. Its intention in this regard is to build upon the unmet target of the Bradley Review in 2008 in relation to participation of students from low socio-economic status backgrounds whilst catering to the future needs of Australia’s economy and society.
The premise here is that universities cannot be open only to those who are most privileged, and neither can the heavy lifting for access and widening participation be left to the mass participation or lower status institutions. The so-called elite universities also carry the social and moral obligations to provide fair access and equity because this is a key part of what universities are for. A universal access curriculum and a universal literacy (i.e., an understanding and critical awareness of the social and psychological conditions which sustain our democratic and free way of life and culture) should be part of what we can all understand as a true university education. Fair and equal access to education are part of the social and economic rights of the twenty-first century citizen; and they are part of the basic social provisions around impact and cohesion that any advanced nation would seek to make. The Interim Report is timely as the time is now ripe for re-thinking just what universities are for and for whom they exist as social institutions established for the public good. Access and widening participation was and remains central to this concern.
The Australian Accord Interim Report goes to the heart of what universities are for, positing that they play a major societal role in being good for communities, good for social solidarity, good for democracy and good for social justice and fairness. In this context, Interim Report calls for immediate action by the sector in five priority areas, namely:
- Extending visible, local access to tertiary education by creating further Regional University Centres (RUCs) and establish a similar concept for suburban/metropolitan locations.
- Ceasing the 50% pass rule introduced as part of the ‘Job Ready Graduates’ (JRG) package, given its poor equity impacts, and require increased reporting on student progress.
- Ensuring that all First Nations students are eligible for a funded place at University, by extending demand driven funding to metropolitan First Nations students.
- Providing funding certainty, through the extension of the Higher Education Continuity Guarantee into 2024 and 2025.
- Improving university governance focusing on: universities being good employers, student and staff safety and membership of governing bodies, including ensuring additional involvement of people with expertise in the business of universities.
A further 82 policy areas are identified in the interim report for consideration and feedback by the sector by 1 September 2023, which will inform the Panel’s final report to the Minister for Education due in December 2023. The section Serving Our Communities references Engagement Australia’s position as the peak body for university engagement, in its opening headline quotation:
“Beyond producing graduates and research, the purpose of the modern Australian university needs to be more explicitly connected to civic outcomes that advance Australian society and this should be intrinsically tied to the engaged teaching, research, and outreach functions of the university.”
(Engagement Australia, Australian Universities Accord Interim Report, p. 85)
The Interim Report goes on to recognise the central importance of engagement in Australia’s higher education system stating that ‘Community Engagement is a central part of university missions, and the Review considers this should be better recognised and sufficiently resourced.’ (p. 85). It calls on the sector to submit further strategies and ideas for change about how higher education providers can deliver for their communities and make distinctive contributions at a local, regional and national levels. Special consideration is asked to be given around formalising the crucial role institutions should play in their communities (through e.g. mission-based compacts) and the creation of stronger links between industry and education – particularly in regional areas and other areas with low participation and attainment rates.
The Interim Report has clearly asked for a fundamental re-thinking of some of the characteristics of universities as new circumstances and demands on education emerge with changing demography and changes in the nature of work. New pedagogies and new delivery systems are emerging continuously and new curriculums and frameworks for recognising learning and experience are needed in response. Below are just some of the areas that could inform and advance Engagement Australia’s response to the policy and issues raised in the Interim Report:
- Future funding models should encourage and depend on demonstrating wider collaboration with Australian industry and society. The encouragement of funding for place-based compacts that enable universities (and their staff through appropriately funded workload models) to tackle local issues with community should be established at policy level.
- The adoption of the ground-breaking Carnegie Community Engagement Classification system (now in operation in a number of universities who have made submissions for this classification Award this year) could be used as a benchmark for engaged universities nationally, unlocking through engaged teaching, research, and outreach for the Australian HE sector.
- This shift in policy and practice would enable an increased focus on the education of citizens with a civic-mindedness and accompanying set of capacities as opposed to the mere production of workers and consumers. Civic-minded and broadly capable graduates can transform society in a manner consistent with the transformational shift the Accord has been designed to promote.
- Measures of success and metrics collected by government should be more focussed on impact with community (community groups/organisations, industry, NGOs, governments, etc) as opposed to a more narrow focus on graduate outcomes and research rankings. An appropriately incentivised university will be more impactful on the broader society.
- A strong growth plan from and for under-represented populations is needed. Such a plan needs to be comprehensive, coherent and based on foundational principles for access and widening participation. The graduate class of people is still very much a middle class, even though its constituent parts have a greater variety of ethnic and social groups.
- There is a long tradition of Access Education in Australia and beyond in the USA and in Great Britain. This tradition is a living one and can be used to inform and support the development of access courses and widening participation in the current era and for equipping the future educators to respond and anticipate the equity issues that must be addressed.
- Actual and symbolic recognition should be given to the places and communities from which marginalised students come from. In this way social capital can be constructed from the functional resources of family, community and the workplace. Universities should be funded to help construct and extend such facilities as part of their access programmes and thereby aiding the raising of educational achievement across the whole of our society.
- Schemes are needed to allow universities to work more closely with industry on WBL and WIL and accreditation of learning and work experience. Such schemes can be significantly further developed which will raise participation rates and increase skills needed for economic development and broaden the context of the social purposes of universities.
- Learning achievements can be made more flexible and usable through the use of transcripts and micro-credential awards so that terminal degrees are no longer the only significant recognition of knowledge acquired and used.
- School/college tertiary partnerships need to be re-imagined as near universal tertiary education becomes the norm. A near-universal ‘open system’ is required which can re-structure the interface between school and university and this is a leading policy issue which demands our attention as the contexts for 2030 appear on the horizon.
- Community-led research programs should be recognised and supported to a much greater extent in order to significantly benefit local regions as being becoming even greater places to live, work and study.
2023 marks twenty years since the formation of Engagement Australia (EA). Over the last two decades EA has successfully championed the unique role our universities have with society in addressing contemporary global challenges and trends through teaching, learning, research and partnerships. Engagement Australia looks forward to celebrating this magnificent milestone in our history at our flagship International Conference and Awards Ceremony in November 2023, where we will have the opportunity to hear from leaders and practitioners in the sector as well as Ministers and architects of the Accord process, about how we chart our new course for this important area of University business that we all cherish, over the next twenty years.
Professor Jim Nyland
Chair, Engagement Australia