Job Ready Graduates legislation is an initiative for opportunities for regional Universities

Published 09 October 2020

There has been anxious political debate about proposals that change the fee structures and level of government support for higher education in Australian universities. There have been arguments for more, for less, or for the status quo. I see something different - at a moment of challenge, Australia is investing yet again in education.

The model for changed presented by Commonwealth Minister for Education provides greater support for subjects (medicine, health, STEM) where it is argued the country will need more graduates over the next decade to support economic recovery and growth. Given it is public money that funds the model then this does seem like a reasonable way to progress at a time in history when Australia will report its biggest Federal debt ever.

The debate has been between key decision makers, and those who want to score points or those with votes to be negotiated. They have been blending multiple points of reference in a bid to argue for, and more determinedly against the 2020 Higher Education Funding reform package.

However, there are many global sources of independent evidence which show positive growth in student enrolments for both ‘rich’ (High SES) and ‘poor’ (Low SES) students regardless of fee levels.

Evidence also exists to highlight the growth in opportunity and access for women, Indigenous Australians and more generally the increasing levels of participation across all geographies. Evidence that cost is not generally deterministic of participation, largely because of Australia’s income-contingent loan scheme seems to go largely unnoticed.

Data which show improved whole-of-life earnings as a function of educational attainment, and the emerging analysis of quality-of-life years correlated against educational opportunity are being discounted in favour of emotive personality-bound narratives. Key reports are ignored.

It is argued, for example, that Humanities would be significantly affected by the reforms; this despite multi-source evidence that HASS student enrolments have proved resilient to changes in fee structures and, indeed, grown in countries that have pursued a subject-based differential contribution model.

Should Australians not be concerned that international students form a higher proportion of those completing key postgraduate STEM based courses given an estimated 75 per cent of the fast-growing knowledge-based occupations require STEM skills and knowledge? Why is there not deeper concern for the fact that Australian students are ill-prepared for careers of the future? There are many other arguments to be made.

In the Job Ready Graduate reforms, I see a different pattern of opportunity, especially for regional universities. The additional places, the directed support for remote, rural and regional students, the long, long overdue investment in research infrastructure and new opportunities being created for so many.

Australia’s regional universities contribute more than 1.7bn dollars per annum to the macro economy of this country and are critical drivers of social cohesion and development in the communities they serve.

I welcome investment in linkages with industry as well as recognition of the unique and critical role of regional universities in their communities. All of these proposals are ignored and dismissed as being second order to the positional arguments, anecdote and hyperbole of those who see only the impact of COVID 19 (not to be dismissed by any means) and the consequences of ‘group think’ around the structure and funding model of a significant proportion of Universities.

As a regional university which routinely operates above the CSG cap, the reforms create much (desperately) needed opportunity. Our international student body is small and very targeted around our commitment to international development – this year we have maintained some 85% of our in bound students through online support. The aggregate burdens of drought, bushfires and then the SARS COV 2 pandemic proved more than challenging - collectively they ripped out our main corporate streams of business revenue – and hindered the activities which support our community –directed endeavours.

There is no plan B, no alternative to the Higher Educations Funding reforms. Without the reforms UNE would have to rethink our growth agenda and expansion plans for Tamworth - a city with one of the lowest national rates for participation in higher education. Without the reforms, plans to further enable university participation in the remote rural domains of Moree and Taree would have to be stepped out over much longer periods of time. The campus upgrades and business diversification models being developed for UNE Armidale and UNE Metro in Sydney would also be delayed.

Some 40% of our students are drawn from remote, rural and regional communities, over 60% are women and the majority are first generation students who study in distance mode whilst working part time, raising families and participating actively in community life. They depend heavily on scholarships and sponsorship to see them through their studies.

The 2020 Higher Education Funding Reform package is a pragmatic rather than elegant piece of legislation. It bundles an economic needs model together with structural reform measures and important equity dialogues. But for remote, rural and regional students and their communities it offers support now and creates future opportunity – it supports their commitment to place and recognises the challenges which arise when participation requires dislocation.

OECD research confirms there is abundant evidence that national strategies for investing in education return a handsome dividend and stimulate faster productivity growth and higher aggregate productivity levels. Now is a moment to be pragmatic and invest in the future skills needs of regional Australia – the 2020 Job Ready Graduate proposals serve that purpose.