By Charles Sturt University Vice-Chancellor Professor Renée Leon:
Last week I attended the National Press Club where the Minister for Education, the Hon. Jason Clare MP, outlined the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report and shared his vision for the education sector.
Charles Sturt University has been actively advocating for attention to the crucial roles and functions of regional universities and will continue to have input as the Accord process continues. We are passionate about ensuring people from regional Australia and disadvantaged backgrounds have the same access to the transformative effects of higher education as others.
As the Regional Universities Network submission to the Accord reported, regional Australians are 40 per cent less likely to have a university degree than their metropolitan counterparts. This is not just historical: as recently as 2021, 17 per cent of Australian higher education students were from low socio-economic status backgrounds, just 2.4 per cent were First Nations Australians, and a little more than one in five were from regional, rural or remote areas.
This imbalance has put our regional communities at a distinct disadvantage as we’ve suffered from a shortage of skilled labour in critical fields like engineering, healthcare, education and IT.
I have been an outspoken supporter of increasing access to higher education in my time at the helm of Charles Sturt. Our 2021 participation rates for students from the same groups listed above showed that 22 per cent come from low SES backgrounds, 4.3 per cent were First Nations Australians, and 55.7 per cent came from regional, rural or remote backgrounds. We are proud of our record of educating large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
But increasing university participation rates among these groups is neither easy nor simple. It has taken significant adjustment to our learning and teaching processes, accessible pathways to university, as well as outreach to communities and schools to build aspiration amongst cohorts that traditionally have been underrepresented in higher education. The future higher education funding framework needs to properly support these kinds of activities to make wider participation a reality.
Charles Sturt University welcomes further exploration by the Accord of the concept of a Universal Higher Education Service Obligation, akin to the Universal Service Obligation for telecommunications. Access to higher education should be universal, not dependent on your postcode or financial circumstances.
University funding also needs to recognise that students will need different levels of support to succeed. The Accord Panel will be considering for its final report the idea of a needs-based funding model, so that students needing more support in the transition to higher education would have their university places funded accordingly. More than half our students at Charles Sturt are the first in their family to go to university and we work hard to give them the pastoral care and the studies assistance they need to succeed. A funding model that caters for this extra support would go a long way to equalising the opportunities for higher education to transform lives.
Students facing cost of living pressures will welcome the Accord’s proposal that income support be reviewed for its adequacy to support students while they study, as well as the plan to provide much-needed financial support for students on work placements as part of their degrees. We know that these placements are particularly tough for regional students who routinely undertake work placements far from home, with all the costs that entails.
Charles Sturt is also calling on the Accord to ensure that funding for innovation and research includes targeted funding for research, research training and research infrastructure at regional universities. We have seen the transformative effect that research can have in our communities: from repopulating endangered fish species into the wild through to helping farmers manage their carbon footprint.
The Universities Accord process needs to be an ongoing, genuine dialogue between the Government and the sector. There must be effective governance in place to ensure ongoing consultation with all key stakeholders, as well as a system of periodic review to ensure implementation of any changes proceed to plan, and that policy is adjusted as necessary to meet the needs of the broader community.
I want to commend and thank Minister Clare and the Accord panel for their initial steps into this important work. Charles Sturt University shares their vision of higher education as the most important instrument of individual and national progress and looks forward to working together closely to see this vision brought to fruition.