The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report: the devil is in the detail

Aug 1, 2023
Sydney Uni building facade with Australian flag.

The Australian Universities Accord Interim Report (the Report) was made publicly available on 20 July 2023. Since Labor regained office in May of last year and the Accord process was announced, hopes have not been high that either the process or the Minister would make any commitments to reforming what is widely perceived as Australia’s dysfunctional, inequitable and authoritarian higher education system.

The 144-page document is a mixed bag: heavy on corporate rhetoric but light on substantive detail. There are, nevertheless, a number of important observations made in the Report that if acted upon in an open and transparent fashion could potentially lead to some significant reforms that get to the nub of several systemic problems in which the Australian higher education system (AHES) is currently mired.

Perhaps the most significant finding of the Report is that universities are not currently being appropriately governed. It notes that the membership of university governing bodies needs to ensure ‘additional involvement of people with expertise in the business (sic) of universities’, and that National Cabinet needs to ‘immediately engage with state and territory governments … to strengthen university governing boards by rebalancing their composition to put greater emphasis on higher education expertise.’ It also argues that ‘[g]overning bodies must as a priority do more to improve student and staff wellbeing and become exemplary employers.’

Readers who are familiar with past publications by me and some of my colleagues on the AHES for Social Alternatives, The Conversation and Pearls and Irritations will be familiar with the two main problems to which we’ve sought to draw wider public attention over the last few years, i.e. university governance and financing, including wage theft and rampant casualisation. It is encouraging to see both issues receiving some attention in the Report, but the fact that it makes no mention of the radical decline in democratic representation of staff and students in its calls for a new and improved approach to institutional governance responsibilities is a worry. While it acknowledges that ‘some stakeholders [are] advocating for increased transparency, monitoring and accountability mechanisms’ for universities, it does not explicitly endorse or explore such an approach.

The only alternative to democratically elected positions on university governing bodies is more appointed positions by the government or the boards themselves, which will simply reproduce the compliant mentality that characterises most of them today. If there is not a suitably calibrated balance of power on these bodies, the dysfunction, nepotism and malfeasance will continue. While it would be a welcome development for national governance to be coordinated by a new ‘Tertiary Education Commission’, a formal framework of academic values and ethics will need to be implemented and appropriate systems developed to ensure such frameworks are actually being followed by the governance bodies.

An important observation in the Report is that universities are not simply vehicles for driving economic growth and higher productivity. It nevertheless makes frequent mention of ‘translating innovation inputs into outputs’ and that our universities will need to produce more ‘cutting-edge research that can be more easily absorbed by government and industry’. The Report’s opening statement argues that the AHES ‘must become much, much stronger’ if it is going to ‘successfully tackle our big national priorities’, which include ‘lifting economic productivity, making a clean energy transition, building a caring society, meeting the defence and security challenges of our region, and strengthening our democratic culture’.

The Report mentions on several occasions the need to develop the caring professions and foster creativity. It also cites the need to ‘help prepare Australia for the paradigm shifts we expect in global scientific, environmental, demographic and geopolitical conditions’ ‘to meet Australia’s future needs’. However, there is nothing in the Report about enabling cross-institutional or multidisciplinary research. Completely absent from the Report are the words ‘interdisciplinary’, ‘transdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’. This is despite the fact that it’s widely recognised by most researchers that the complex problems facing humanity in the twenty-first century necessitate the creation of research teams with multiple, complementary forms of expertise and that cross-institutional collaboration will be necessary to enable that research.

The fact that the word ‘industry’ appears 160 times, ‘industries’ 15 times and ‘industrial’ seven times perhaps gives a better flavour of what the Report’s authors consider to be Australia’s future research priorities. The overarching corporate and utilitarian orientation of the Report is clearly revealed by statements such as the following: ‘We need clear measures to indicate how useful our university research actually is to end-users.’ The fact that research might create entertaining diversions, or contribute to enriching our culture or providing insight into the nature of society or reality has apparently escaped the Report’s authors.

Given the industry orientation of much of the Report and previous comments by the current minister, it should be a matter of concern for all Australians that the kinds of research that will receive priority under the new regime are almost certainly going to be oriented toward advancing corporate interests.

Some unsettling intimations of why this should be of concern have recently been revealed in relation to the forced merger of the Universities of Adelaide and South Australia, where the Deloitte Academy and defence industry contractors will create ‘corporate teaching and research partnerships’ with the universities concerned. The fact that the majority of staff at both universities believed these initiatives were decided upon without adequate consultation with them, or the provision of any compelling evidence in support of them, is perhaps best exemplified by SA Premier Malinauskus’ threat to both universities that if they didn’t voluntarily agree to the merger, his government would legislate them into existence. Such authoritarian attitudes and arrangements arguably undermine, rather than strengthen, ‘our democratic culture’. They will almost assuredly result in more ‘commercial-in-confidence’ excuses being provided by the institutions concerned to avoid transparency or accountability about what kinds of research are being funded and who and what will benefit from that research.

An unrelated but equally important omission is that although the authors repeatedly mention the fact that domestic student enrolments have been declining for the last decade, they fail to make an explicit connection between this and their observation that mass education of students at minimum standards is actually leading to lower enrolments. Clearly, if students don’t feel they’re getting ‘value for money’ from their courses because most of their teaching is being done by underpaid and undervalued casual staff, or is being conducted online, while their professional training needs are also being neglected due to budgetary and staff cuts, this will inevitably lead to disillusionment and disappointment for both international and domestic students. The course and degree completion statistics also clearly indicate that the AHES is currently failing to provide adequate support for disadvantaged students. There is also very little discussion in the Report about how we encourage and support our best and brightest students to pursue academic careers, although lack of opportunities and job security post-PhD are acknowledged.

While the Report does recommend a retreat from mass education and acknowledges that this will be more expensive, it provides no concrete suggestions for how this will be funded. It does, however, note that ‘the Review is exploring new HELP policies to encourage graduates to remain in valued occupations and in priority communities’. It canvases a few sensible options that could assist in ensuring those outcomes while avoiding the states and territories competing for the same kinds of graduates.

Despite the shortcomings and notable absences in the Report, there are a handful of other encouraging observations scattered throughout it. It suggests there needs to be better coordination of, and funding for, post-school education as a means of better engaging with and retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which it sees as one of the main sources of future domestic student growth. This will involve co-operation between the VET sector and universities, along with innovations such as a virtual regional university that has multiple hubs. With this in mind, it recommends the creation of a new ‘Tertiary Education Commission.’ While such an initiative is long overdue, as James Guthrie, Alex Pelizzon and I have argued previously, how this body is constituted, what it is responsible for, and how members of its governing body are chosen need to be a matter of public and open debate.

The Report also suggests that the Job Ready Graduates package should be terminated before it does more harm, especially to women and disadvantaged students who are most adversely affected by the massive hike in fees for humanities courses and the 50% pass rule to continue enrolment. It also suggests that there needs to be more active management of workforce needs due to the fact that Australia has severe skill shortages in multiple economic sectors and inadequate numbers of new graduates in several professions, including teaching and engineering. This is one of the functions that would be served by the proposed Tertiary Education Commission. Although one of my colleagues has argued that this is a rejection of market solutions, I would argue that it is to the contrary a proactive reconfiguration of how market demands should be met by a more interventionist state. It seems unlikely that it will involve a recalibration of what social and economic functions the AHES should be serving.

Minister Clare has repeatedly given the impression that no new or additional AHES funding will be forthcoming from the Federal Government. How he thinks a doubling of the number of undergraduates over the next three decades will be possible without providing the system with more funding or further trashing the quality of student education remains a mystery. Several Labor members and staffers have privately intimated to me and colleagues that because (they believe) university reform is not a vote winner, increased funding and major systemic reform will not be on the table. What that almost inevitably means is even more focus by universities on increasing international student revenues, no action on domestic student fee indexation, and a greater emphasis on property development and exploiting additional investment revenue streams. It is a shameful indictment of past and present government priorities that private schools continue to receive more funding than Australia’s public universities, while government expenditure as a proportion of all AHES revenue has declined from about 80% to less than 40% since the early 1990s.

James Guthrie and I have previously called for a Royal Commission into public university governance and finances. Unfortunately, the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report does little to reassure us that that is no longer needed.

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