ANNA VIDOT: Bold, long-term change is the kind of challenge gauntlet that’s been thrown down for Australia’s universities. What they’re being told they’ll need to do to meet the challenges ahead for themselves and for Australia. Released today, the Australian Universities Accord interim report estimates that by 2050, more than half of Australian jobs could require a university degree – about 55 per cent of them. Currently, that number’s just 36 per cent and the report recommends changes to ensure that the higher education sector itself can attract and retain the staff it needs, as well as ways to make universities more accessible to poorer students and people living outside the urban centres.
Catriona Jackson is the chief executive of Universities Australia and on the line with us this evening. Catriona, is there anything particularly surprising in the future laid out in this report from universities’ perspectives?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We are really pleased with the five immediate actions that were announced by the government today. We’re only midway through this review, so there’s a long way to go. There are, I think, 70-odd really big ideas in there and 144 pages, so plenty more to go. But the five things announced by government today are all good, solid and really bode well for the future.
ANNA VIDOT: Particularly when those come to essentially setting up universities outside some of the more urban centres where we find them commonly at the moment. How does that look in practice? How does that happen in practice do you think?
CATRIONA JACKSON: As far as we understand, they’re actually university hubs. They’re not universities per se, so there are already some regional hubs. These are meant to be places that if you don’t live close to a university, there’s a place you can go. You’re studying with a university, but you get some learning support, you get some technical support while you’re there. It’s meant to bridge that gap. There’s a really big gap between regional attainment and city attainment. If you live in the CBD of Sydney, 60 per cent of the young people in the CBD, and similar in Melbourne, have got a degree. If you go out to the Hunter Valley, it’s 15 per cent. If you’re in places in regional South Australia, like Elizabeth, it’s seven or eight per cent. There’s a big gap in attainment and part of that is because they’re just not very close to a thing that looks like a university. Those hubs are important, but they’re certainly not universities. This is one of the five measures, it’s certainly a good one out of that five.
ANNA VIDOT: Those hubs, as they’re being set up in some of these other areas, I mean how are they going to choose what they’re offering? Because I assume as a hub it won’t necessarily be offering a full suite of a university degrees. Is this attainable, I guess, for someone in the middle of the city or would that be the goal that no matter what you wanted to study – you might be able to do that through these hubs?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The latter, pretty much. If they run the same as the regional hubs, the studying is provided by a university somewhere. What you’re doing is not replacing a university with the hub, you are getting assistance to study online. It’s a venue that you can get some learning support. The courses you choose from are all the courses that are available through any university around the country. Basically, it’s a learning support and tech support sort of venue.
ANNA VIDOT: When we hear that more jobs in Australia’s future are likely to require university degrees, what does that mean for the Job-ready Graduates scheme that has been very controversial so far?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I think we heard pretty clearly today from the Minister, and certainly this is what we’ve been saying, that Job-ready Graduates is unfair and it doesn’t work. It also took a very substantial slice out of overall funding to universities. What we have today is the continuity guarantee, which I don’t expect anyone outside of universities to understand, but what it means is there’s a two-year breathing space. Some funding is guaranteed for universities, which means that it’s fairer for students, a bit of breathing space for students, but also for universities so that the government can have a really good look, the Accord panel as well, at how they can fix the great big mess that is the Job-ready Graduates package but give universities and students some certainty while they’re doing that. We think Job-ready Graduates was aimed at apparently getting students to study different things from the things they instinctively wanted to study. It didn’t fulfil its policy objective and, as I said, it took a substantial slice out of university bottom lines.
ANNA VIDOT: How about jobs in universities themselves, Catriona Jackson? Over a long time, there’s been a lot of discussion around the security of employment for people and the pay rates. We know in our own university locally they’re going through a whole process at the moment. What does this report, I guess, lay out for you in terms of making it possible and attractive for universities to attract and retain staff to the levels you’re going to need to?
CATRIONA JACKSON: On a really big and important issue like that, we’ll be looking to the final report of the Accord, which will come around the end of the year, rather than the interim report, which is what we’ve got in front of us today. There’s a nod to it. The Minister will be having a discussion with his state and territory colleagues because outside of Canberra – the ANU is the only university established under a common a Commonwealth set of laws – all the rest of them, including the University of Canberra and the rest of the universities, are established under the state and territory laws. Having discussions around industrial things will have to happen at the state level. The Minister committed today, as one of those five actions, to have conversations with state and territory colleagues around three sets of things. What it constitutes to be a good employer, and I know that all my members strive to be good employers. We know there’s more we can do around casualisation, but at the same time, considerable work needs to be done in the rigidity of the enterprise bargaining system and the agreements that universities are stuck with. But also, there are other issues to discuss with states and territories given that they, in the main, have the acts that govern universities.
ANNA VIDOT: What else are you seeing in this interim report that suggests to you that there could be a different and more secure landscape for universities on things like funding?
CATRIONA JACKSON: A strong commitment to really have a good hard look at Job-ready Graduates and get rid of it. That’s the great big-ticket item. The other things that were announced today are immediate actions. We’re really pleased the government’s clearly been listening when we’ve said there are some things that are urgent. There are more places for Indigenous students, not just in regional areas but in city areas. If you get in, there will be a place. Uncapped provision for Indigenous students is so important in terms of us reaching parity with the non-Indigenous community. That’s a commitment we have called for as a sector. We cannot do it by ourselves, so we’re really pleased with. Also, part of the Job-ready Graduates scheme was a really punitive 50 per cent rule where if you failed in one year more than 50 per cent of your degree, you were locked out of any funding support for universities. We know that this particularly nasty rule has hit the most disadvantaged students the hardest and we’ve got lots of evidence of students who were just blocked out from university education. The students who have the biggest barriers to overcome were the ones hit hardest by that. It is good to see that gone. We are looking forward very much to the discussion to come. As I said, there are more than 70 big ideas in the rest of the paper which are there for debate and discussion and universities love debate and discussion. The Minister has asked us to really take part, as has the terrific woman Professor Mary O’Kane who is running the review, and we are looking forward very much to having a really robust discussion.
ANNA VIDOT: It’s going to be interesting to see. Catriona Jackson, thank you.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Thank you, Anna.