Will the Accord deliver a science and tech powered workforce?

Professor Attila Brungs writes that the University Accord is a once in a generation opportunity to support all future Australians through reforms in higher education. This piece was first published in The Australian.

The University Accord – a mammoth suite of proposed higher education reforms released by the government on Sunday – is a landmark document. It reaffirms the critical role of education and research in the lives of Australians and charts a path for securing future economic and social prosperity.

Importantly it is situated within the compelling vision of an education minister determined to consider the whole life cycle of education when enacting reform: from early childhood, to schooling, tertiary and lifelong learning.

As expected with any reform package of such magnitude (no less than 47 recommendations), there is a lot to like, much that requires more detail, and a few ideas in need of further debate.

The Accord’s success will ultimately lie in how the government responds to it, and in which recommendations it prioritises and funds. I know as well as any, the number of well-meaning reports that end up as Treasury induced paper tigers.

This must not be allowed to happen with the Accord. At the heart of the report is a clarion cry for 80 per cent of Australians to have a tertiary qualifications by 2050. This is a rare policy of substance that will raise our nation’s stagnating productivity, alongside equity.

Key themes of the accord include expanding access to under-represented students, improving success rates, supporting student welfare, funding research, and improving the regulatory environment.

On expanding access, the Accord’s recommendations fall into the ‘a lot to like’ category. The report recognises that Australia will need to almost double by 2050 our number of graduates in order to realise our equality ethos and to service workforce demands. To drive this expansion, the Accord recommends significant increases in low SES, Aboriginal, and rural and remote students attending university. It recommends that this growth be supported through commensurately increasing the number of Commonwealth supported places and ensuring that preparatory courses are free. It also provides a plethora of other recommendations targeting student financial and broader welfare.

These recommendations won’t come cheap. Indeed, accepting them will require the government to break a negative fiscal trend that has seen spending on higher education fall from around 2.7 per cent of GDP in 2006-07 to 1.7 per cent in 2021-22. Yet break this trend the government must. Unless sufficient Commonwealth support is provided to domestic undergraduates, participation ambitions will not be realised. If we do not realise these ambitions, our productivity will continue to stagnate. Participation in education is critical to our future productivity.

On improving student success rates, it is vital that a focus on access is partnered with an equal focus on success. To increase success rates the Accord recommends importing a version of the needs-based funding model that has been used in schools since the signing of the National Education Reform Agreement in 2013, with the government providing a per-student funding amount for disadvantaged students that recognises the cost of the additional support they need to succeed, then partnering this with a completion bonus for higher education providers who meet agreed targets.

These are eminently sensible recommendations. Yet needs-based funding in schools has not yet resulted in improved outcomes for disadvantaged students. There is a lack of transparency as to how that funding is spent, and how outcomes are measured. For needs-based funding to work in a higher education setting, it must be contingent on universities concretely improving outcomes for the most disadvantaged. Clear success metrics must be developed. Each institution must build an evidence base regarding what works and what doesn’t – and be held to account for student success.

It is on improving the sustainability of research that the Accord really takes a huge leap forward from last year’s Accord interim report. At present, for every $1 in research income received by universities, an extra $1.19 is needed to meet actual costs. To date, our universities have maintained their leading research outputs by creating the largest education export industry in the world.

The Accord recognises the threat to sovereign capability this poses. It recommends the setting of targets to lift Australia’s overall spending on R&D, increasing investment in Australian Research Council programs, and looking after the engine of our research effort, the PhD student, by raising minimum stipends and making part-time scholarships tax free. If all recommendations are accepted our ability to innovate domestically will dramatically improve.

It is on the issue of regulation that things get hairy. The recommended Australian Tertiary Education Commission (ATEC) looks to be broadly defined and potentially unwieldy. If led by appropriate experts, ATEC, could be a boon for the country, a powerful body that drives best practice. If such a body overreaches to centrally plan every aspect of university operations, then it could be enormously damaging.

The key question now is for Treasury. Interestingly, the Accord outlines the only two policy levers that tackle productivity. Support for innovation and research to boost flatlined multifactor productivity; and 80 per cent participation to turn around labour productivity. This is a package that strives for equity, against the global trend of increasing wealth disparity. Surely there is much in this Accord for Treasury also to like.

2024 will be a pivotal year for higher education. Our future depends on getting it right.