By Charles Sturt University Vice-Chancellor Professor Renée Leon:
The Australian Universities Accord provides an opportunity to reset higher education policy and funding, with the goal of making universities more inclusive, sustainable, adaptable and aligned with the nation’s needs.
The Accord will help determine how the nation benefits from its publicly funded universities, and how best to set up the higher education sector to address global, national, regional and local priorities.
It will also confirm the roles of universities in driving national economic transformation, including through their provision of the teachers, engineers, healthcare professionals and other skilled workers Australia needs.
Charles Sturt University is an exemplar of the main goals of the Accord, and of higher education policy for more than a decade: improving access to higher education, boosting attainment, and building stronger links with industry.
As Australia’s largest regional university and a national leader in graduate employment and salaries, it is vital our regional voice is heard by the Accord panel.
Advocacy for greater higher education access and attainment is a key component of Charles Sturt’s submission to the panel. According to the Accord's discussion paper, “Australia needs a system that delivers equal access to higher education for all, irrespective of location, financial circumstance, cultural background, gender or other factors”.
The same paper cites statistics which show the sector is falling short of this goal: in 2021 17 per cent of higher education students were from low socio-economic status backgrounds, just 2.4 per cent were First Nations Australians, and little more than one in five were from regional, rural or remote areas.
Charles Sturt’s 2021 undergraduate participation rates for these same groups - 22 per cent from low SES backgrounds, 4.3 per cent First Nations Australians, and 55.7 per cent from regional, rural or remote – show there is a greater appetite for higher education among equity cohorts. But the challenges faced by regional universities demonstrate that current policies and funding arrangements pose barriers to meeting that ambition.
The important role of comprehensive regional universities is another focus of Charles Sturt's submission. The one-third of Australians who live in regional, rural and remote areas are less than half as likely as their metropolitan counterparts to gain a higher education qualification by the time they are 35 years old. With regional university graduates more likely to live and work in regional Australia, this has led to critical skills shortages in our cities, towns and communities.
Our submission also makes the case for measures to incentivise investment in regionally based researchers. Many of the nation’s most critical challenges, such as climate transitions, export success, and food security, will need to be solved in the regions.
We are also seeking the establishment of an advisory mechanism that can carry on the Accord conversation with the higher education sector and its stakeholders. We need to instill in Australian university policy, funding, management, and operation an appetite for experimentation and innovation – and an eagerness to keep asking and trying to answer the big questions.
Commenting on the Accord’s discussion paper, Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said: “Australia’s future success, safety and prosperity depends on a strong university system”. Her Regional Universities Network counterpart, Executive Director Alec Webb, said: “it is now both viable and overdue for the access and opportunities of university studies to be equitably distributed to all citizens, not just those living within reach of major capital cities”.
As part of this process my higher education colleagues and I have participated in feedback sessions to help inform the submissions of these peak bodies. I’m pleased to endorse the shared views in both the Regional Universities Network’s and Universities Australia’s submissions that equity of access and attainment for all students must be a priority of the Accord.
The students and staff of Charles Sturt University look forward to the next stages of the Accord process, which we hope will see members of the Panel and their team in the Department of Education visit our campuses to see how regional universities work to create a world worth living in.
Explore the world of social