A Labor higher education reform
by David Reeves
Generational reform; that is the billing of the current Universities Accord process. Not since 1987-1991 when John Dawkins sat in the chair currently occupied by Jason Clare has there been a process of prospective breadth, a ground-up re-examination of the policies, regulatory settings, and funding metrics that shape Australia’s higher education sector.
By firing the metaphorical starters gun from the hallowed, stained-glass halls of the University of Sydney’s inaugural Bradley Oration (named for Denise Bradley, the policy-lantern of Labor’s last attempt at university reform), Clare set off a critical chance for Labor to reshape a post-18 education system. A reshaping that highlights national needs, taking up the challenges and the opportunities faced by Australia in the 21st century, post-COVID domestic and geopolitical landscape.
Having been in Government for just on eight years since 1996, it is also an exceedingly rare chance for Clare to tackle such a mission based on Labor and social democratic values. Matching the task of advancing a sovereign industry base, the climate crisis and evolving global threats, and of course knowledge for the sake of knowledge, to those core values: egalitarianism, opportunity regardless of background, the power of knowledge, and the fair go. After sitting in opposition as Conservative governments enacted policy directly opposed to such values, Labor must not waste this chance.
The most Labor of ideas and ideals
Though the case of urgency for all points outlined in the Accord discussion paper may be made, indeed beyond to the very purpose of the sector, from the outset ‘equity’ has been forefront. Writ in the fabric of his conception of sectoral change, Clare has placed equity as the guiding value. Himself the first in family to attend university — a Labor story, yet still far too few from working class areas — and marrying with the Government’s social agenda, equity is central to the Accord.
For purposes here, it is also critical to define what many speak of as ‘equity.’ Largely, it means levelling the field to engage post-secondary education amongst groups traditionally excluded i.e. First Nations, those with a disability, low-SES, rural etc. For many, it involves quotas, though these are debated, while other voices simply push for greater parity with participation from traditional student pools i.e. middle-class, metropolitan etc.
Arguably, if the outcome of this process is a set of policy and regulatory settings that expand access and increase participation amongst such traditionally underrepresented groups, many will consider it a worthy success.
Yet, as a true Labor remaking of higher education, driven by a view of education as the paraclete to break cycles of disadvantage, of the democratisation of knowledge and opportunity, this simplification is naught but a disservice to those very individuals — a series of platitudes delivering few actual opportunities. If we acknowledge university education was designed traditionally for those from privileged academic foundations, it is the castle in the sky — for what does it deliver but the chance to enter high education, Yet none of the support to succeed, in turn setting up a higher risk of failure, and debt, from the outset. Most cruel indeed.
Where too often we have seen lowest-common-denominator behaviour in the post-secondary education sector (i.e., predatory approaches to international education), how can we ensure equity is not another such tale? Given the learnings from the demand system, its successes and failures, this risk is real — the risk of more students ill-prepared, seen as enrolment statistics, and not provided the tools to reach potential and succeed through their work. The result, disillusion, and debt.
What demand achieved, and what it did not
Labor’s last attempt at meaningful reform of universities was the introduction of the demand-driven system. The demand system was to be the panacea, expanding university beyond its traditional cohorts. This worked by removing government-imposed limitations on course enrolments and per-student funding, enabling more students to be enrolled and hence reversed the inflation of entry requirements i.e. increasingly ATAR scores. Such conditions were theorised to increase the opportunity across diverse student cohorts.
However, did it actually do that?
The answer is less than clear. Perhaps the most in-depth analysis to-date, by the Productivity Commission in 2019 two years after caps were reintroduced, pointed to real gains and worthy achievements. Yet simultaneously, the failures and inefficiencies it highlighted for all to see should sound a warning to the simplified, tick-box version of equity occupying certain stakeholders and sector advocates at present (Productivity Commission, 2019).
Universities Australia (2023), a noted champion of the demand system (along with the former Pyne proposal, by-the-by), eagerly points to gains made during demand: a 66 per cent enrolment increase amongst low-SES participants; 105 per cent increase in Indigenous undergraduate enrolment. Likewise, rural and regional undergraduate participation lifted by half, while the figure is 123 per cent for individuals with a disability.
These are laudable successes and should be championed. But in context, for they fail to present a comprehensive narrative.
Such increases were part of an overall explosion in student numbers: by 2016 approximately 60 per cent of those 22 and under were attending or had attended university. The demand system resulted in significant equity enrolment gains, yet even larger increases in non-equity enrolments. Across low-SES and first-in-family, participation gaps closed. For rural, and particularly Indigenous, despite enrolment increases, it did not keep pace with mass growth amongst metropolitan and middle-class enrolments, hence those gaps grew and the attainment gap compounded — a perverse outcome (Productivity Commission, 2019). This shadows the complexity of the issue of equity, in favour of simplistic views of success.
Even more disturbing, the outcomes. This is where the fiction of ‘participation as equity’ is shone bright for the limited, fraudulent view it is. Highlighted by Andrew Norton and Ittima Cherastidtham (2018), for too many students in equity groups, university meant no qualifications, higher dropout rates, and large debts.
By the Department of Education’s own figures, by age 25, equity groups in the demand years: had a 12 per cent lower graduation rate; 10 per cent higher dropout rate; lower employment rate in managerial or professional roles; and earned approximately $100 less per week. Indeed, 21 per cent of students with literacy, numeracy, and ATAR scores below pre-demand levels left university without a qualification by 23, almost double the norm (Productivity Commission, 2019). Those whose school performance would have enabled entry pre-demand? Higher graduation rates, higher employment, greater employment in managerial roles, and few leaving without qualifications.
This is at the heart of the HECS-HELP debt explosion across Australia, seeing drastic upswings in debts exceeding $50,000 (Convery and Nicholas, 2022). At such scale, HECS moves from an affordable, well-designed system to one impacting the next life stages, such as buying a home, growing a family, and the foundations of later-life prosperity; a recipe for income wealth yet asset poverty. For those with the debt, but without a qualification, a segment that grew at rapid rates with demand, it is many times worse.
Finally, though the system nomenclature was of ‘demand’, equity speaks to ideology and values, while demand speaks to markets. Yes, an argument may be made that the market in question was not the labour force, but instead the universities, with enrolees the customer. But if so, how did that align to the preparation of students for their future, necessary knowledge, skills etc? The answers, we know now, is with varied outcomes i.e. nursing v engineering. Simultaneously, the ill-fitting aligning between a values or ideology driven focus — equity — and such economic realist labour language as demand remains. One more to the mixed bag.
The cause of the mixed bag?
Though various reasons behind this mixed bag of outcomes have been noted — outcomes mirror the strengths and weaknesses of our school system etc., I highlight one critical reason.
And it is this that forms the heart of concerns amongst numerous stakeholders regarding the current tenor of the equity debate within the Accord: as implemented, equity was conceived as an issue in and of itself, a question of enrolment statistics, and not performance and outcomes results. By conceiving equity as a series of data points, we lost track of the human impact, and most vitally, human outcomes. In effect, why drive at equity in higher education?
To repeat such a folly would be to once again service rosy institutional data, at the cost of missing the true opportunity to impact lives and break cycles of disadvantage. For so many across the continent for whom university education continues to seem out of reach, it may even be considered a breach of our social contract.
For true Labor reform, excellence, success, and equity are the two sides of one coin
How then to avoid such a breach of responsibility, and fulfil the Labor legacy of higher education? The answer lies in equity having an equal, meaningful partner in excellence and success.
For our current system, too often energy is expended to keep equity and excellence as mutually exclusive characteristics. How often do we hear excellence discussed with the most simplistic of measures, for example ATAR scores, a time capsule of past performance with little context for strengths or failures of schools and systems, rather than student potential? Likewise, equity as nothing more than enrolment statistics, whether students succeed, fail, churn, or burn?
These are simplistic measures, designed for reporting statistics and marketing campaigns, while strenuously avoiding meaningful consideration of real-world impact. If not completely meaningless, it leads them to such a precipice . And as long as kept simplistic and separate, will remain thus.
However, through marrying the two, a reform of higher education representing the best of Labor values is possible.
At worst, the simplistic views and approaches are guilty of the most paternalistic thinking — a view that any quality of offering is good enough for those without monetary means, First Nations peoples, and others excluded. However caring if they actually succeed and achieve — equal commitments to excellence and equity — speaks to the worthiness of a quality education for all, and the necessary structural supports for all students to grasp the life-altering chance.
Under such a marriage, excellence is delivering the best possible outcomes for students in an environment of systems and structures to realise their potential: demonstrate achievement of their sustained work and effort. It will clearly look and function differently across settings, communities, and educational contexts. Rather than continuing the fiction that Australia’s sector is of a single tier, let us match excellence to context. This has the added benefit of establishing guiderails for meaningful accountability for public funding.
Concurrently, regarding equity, rather than markers risking exclusion, how about a system where students match to opportunity, with systems to support potential and determined effort for success. This will cease the fiction that all students in equity groups have the same needs as one another, a single, monotone bloc, rather than individuals facing specific challenges and systematic barriers.
Be clear, such a system would be one of hard work, high academic standards, and not one of equity of outcomes. We can breach no lowering of standards, but likewise, those who argue extension of higher education beyond its traditional cohorts somehow equates to dumbing down are guilty of privileged condescension. This is about egalitarian opportunity. There are systematic barriers to success for various student cohorts, too-often state buttressed. Economic opportunity springs to mind immediately, the state of too many public schools, and of course the myriad of hurdles First Nations students face. These set up students, whether school leaver of mature enrolees, for harder paths for success — and must be navigated via funding, systems, and approaches across institutions.
Equally so, this cannot be a pathway of guaranteed success. By leveling the playing field of opportunity, work, perseverance, and potential take the lead. Then we truly can have a system where success or failure is a personal story. At present, it is a cruel neoliberal trick for too many. Yet in challenging such systemic barriers, nor can we fall for the equity of outcomes fallacy, for it is a fundamental betrayal of egalitarian values. More so, it does naught for the students themselves, institutions, nor the nation most of all. It degrades the value of degrees, harming the student; over time it chips away at institutional reputation; while for the nation, it fails to produce the knowledge and skills needed for economic uplift, fails the core task of a readiness for future innovation, and contests, and amplifies the social cost for a social subset who feel betrayed, excluded, and deceived.
University is about what may be learned and mastered, what may be achieved in an environment structured to support such outcomes. There are institutions that already do so exceedingly well. The University of Newcastle’s approach sees success at the heart of equity, and their results speak to this, with strong pathways programs that provide the critical middle-ground between school and university to develop those skills that will be tested at the Bachelors level, sector-leading success rates (i.e. graduation), and consistent systems matching student potential and hard work with measures to overcome barries (ATN, 2023). It is the opposite of the opportunistic, cynical view of equity somehow deserved of less. At heart, a Labor approach.
How to secure equity and excellence for outcomes
The Accord Discussion Paper called for big, bold ideas. Here is a simple one, to the heart of our challenge here: make institutions accountable for performance in equity. Set the markers for success: where institutions exceed, they will be funded to expand and grow. For those that don’t, enrolment places will be shifted to those that succeed and do the work.
The surreal and perverse system at present in effect says to students, particularly those already facing barriers, you alone are responsible for passing or failing. Never mind the dream of a post-18 education you were sold, nor empty promises of a pathway to degree attainment. Little thought to the deep inequity of designing a system so suited to students from intellectually and economically privileged backgrounds, then tossing those without such luxuries in the deep end. Pass less than 50 per cent of eight courses, wave goodbye to HECS-HELP.
If we want change, truly placing excellent equity at the heart, this disdainful narrative must flip. Make institutions responsible — reward those with the systems, and demand accountability from those without. Yes, students must be accountable for their performance, but this is on the institution to engage. Government should seek wider accountability.
With the power of the state to collect data and statistics, deliver funding, and define metrics, imagine the possibilities of a system where universities that perform strongly in the entwined equity and excellence per above are rewarded, and funded to expand. For those who fail to implement effective measures, a loss of cap places. Then make performance public, informing prospective students. It may not be perfect, but it is lightyears from the current edifice to pseudo accountability.
Under this approach, clear markers for expected success amongst equity enrolments would be set by government. These would be realistic, but bold. These are the markers universities measure against. It will be on them to implement effective support systems, matching potential with rigorous academic quality. On a biennial or triennial basis, government would acquit outcomes against the metrics for equity students, making the results public. Churning students would not count as avoiding responsibility for their outcomes. Likewise, regulatory and audit systems may be used to ensure academic quality as well as detect any massaging of the figures.
Such measures would also inform the provision of capped funding across institutions. Ultimately, it is about setting a system where institutions that place the support of equity enrolled and funded students, the excellence of matching their potential and hard work to attainable outcomes, as a priority are empowered to grow. In turn, students are better served by a system that proudly proclaims they are worthy of a first-class education, matched to supportive systems, the strength of their will, resolve and work, and the necessary information to inform choices.
The Accord is the chance for Australia to remake its university system, securing the great national benefits it delivers for decades to come, as well as serving the diverse communities to whom we owe the educational social contract. In a sector where the impact of piecemeal change has been a growing disconnect between funding, mission, and potential, overarching reform is an opportunity to be seized, for it is a single opportunity — we cannot come back in five years having fluffed it.
Never has the prerogative been greater for true Labor reforms; placing those values of egalitarianism, communitarianism, and looking beyond one’s wealth to one’s potential at the centre of a sector that exists to serve the public good. This will require a government brave enough to drive public policy solutions to service such values.
In doing so, it calls for a government brave enough to require policy solutions to carry depth of ideas — equity is a rightful focus yet must be matched with excellence for those students. After all it must serve them. This should then be repeated across all priorities for the Accord. If they can achieve that, the Accord will go down as Labor’s latest, greatest reform of our knowledge nation.
About the author
With a background in the public and private sectors across a range of portfolios, David Reeves is a strategic advocacy and public policy expert. Currently leading federal government engagement and policy for one of Australia’s leading universities, he is also pursuing a PhD, and is active across Labor Party forums. The views expressed are his own.