This is shaping up to be an enormously important year for higher education in Australia. The Albanese government is aiming to deliver a historic by December, to create a “visionary plan” for the sector over the next 10 to 30 years.
The accord is underpinned by a review, chaired by former NSW chief scientist Mary O'Kane. On Wednesday, O'Kane launched a discussion paper, calling on stakeholders to come forward with “big ideas” and imploring them to be brave.
What are some of the key issues the accord will need to address?
The discussion paper
This includes questions about how the sector can deliver on national ambitions for skills, jobs and industry-led research. Questions are also asked about systemic problems in vocational education and training and domestic funding shortfalls.
It also raises concerns about the low rates of some groups enrolling in universities, casualisation of the academic workforce, rising costs and how to attract a more diverse range of international students to study in Australia.
Submissions are due back by April 11, with an interim report expected in June.
Job-ready Graduates was introduced by the Morrison government in 2021. It changed subsidy rates so some courses perceived to have better job outcomes (such as teaching, nursing and maths) received greater government support. Students in courses such as humanities ended up with increased fees.
Meanwhile, graduates in many disciplines such as humanities and business, have better employment outcomes than priority courses like science.
This is because while there are caps on the government-funded contribution, the amount universities receive through student loans remains uncapped. About 90% of funding for courses like arts degrees , meaning universities are encouraged to enrol as many students as they can.
Addressing the inconsistencies created by Job-ready Graduates is a major question for the accord. Though it is unclear what model might replace it, students and universities will be watching it with great interest.
The importance of a skilled workforce
The discussion paper highlights the role of universities in supplying a skilled workforce to support economic growth.
But the growth in people going to university has . In 1986, there were roughly the same number of young people aged 15 to 24 enrolled at vocational education institutions as there were at universities. By 2021, the split was 76% university and 24% vocational education and training.
The mixture of courses is important because about are in occupations aligned to courses in the vocational education sector. For example, some of the strongest job growth will be in aged care and child care.
The accord has been asked to find ways to have better connections with the vocational sector. This is a particularly difficult task as the vocational education sector is underfunded and in need of reform.
While meeting skills needs is a key priority of the accord, creating a cohesive tertiary education system is a major reform agenda that has so far proven elusive.
International education (the elephant in the room)
Revenue from international students has been fundamental to the strength of the university sector over the past two decades.
It is difficult to overstate how important this revenue stream has become. Universities receive two to three times the funding amount for an international student than for a domestic student. This extra funding helps subsidise other activities, .
With limited opportunities for more government funds, future policies around international education – and how this resource is shared – will be critical for the university sector.
A huge task
So, the accord has a huge task. It must tackle complex and diverse issues, from to the need for clearer links to vocational education, while making the best use of funds from international student fees.