Australian opposition gives qualified support to accord reforms

While offering no assurances over her party’s stance on forthcoming legislation, shadow education minister is a ‘big fan’ of preparatory courses

May 22, 2024
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Australia’s opposition has declined to say whether it will back the higher education reforms announced in last week’s budget, insisting that it will scrutinise the legislation before adopting a position.

But shadow education minister Sarah Henderson signalled strong support for the government’s proposal to fund free preparatory courses, telling a Sydney forum that she was “a very big fan”.

“One of the things that universities are doing really well is providing those enabling courses,” she told the Australian Student Equity Symposium. “Opening that gateway [means] providing…students with the best opportunity to succeed at university, and those enabling courses are incredibly important. Some universities are better funded [for them] than others. That [needs] to be addressed.”

Inconsistent and inadequate government funding has forced some universities to bankroll preparatory courses from their own resources. The 14 May budget allocated A$350 million (£184 million) to “fee-free uni ready courses”, with education minister Jason Clare confirming that places would be uncapped.

“We’re effectively moving to a demand-driven model and funding these places properly,” he told the symposium, citing departmental estimates that take-up of the courses would double by 2040. “The accord team recommended that we significantly increase the availability of these courses, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Ms Henderson was less enthusiastic about the government’s plan to introduce payments for students on practical placements. “It looks positive but there are many students who’ve missed out,” she told the symposium.

She questioned why payments had been limited to students in disciplines like nursing, teaching and social work – occupations for which state governments were the primary employers. She said there had been no indication that state governments would contribute to the payments, despite statements to the contrary.

Instead, state government entities were charging universities for placements. “Why should universities be paying a fee to place their students to work in schools and hospitals? [That] just seems so wrong to me.”

Ms Henderson said the budget contained “some very lofty ideas which will cost many billions of dollars. There is no funding for any changes in course costs,” she noted.

While acknowledging “controversy” over the former government’s Job-ready Graduates (JRG) programme, she said one of its key aims had been to lower fees in disciplines like teaching and nursing. The government’s intent to “overturn” JRG risked raising the cost of these courses, she warned.

“I await further clarification from the government as to how it intends to continue to fund those low-cost degrees, and also deliver its election commitment.”

Ms Henderson flagged strong support for the budget allocation towards a national student ombudsman, but criticised the axing of the former government’s Destination Australia scholarships scheme to help pay for such initiatives. “That’s a very important program,” she told the symposium. “We introduced [it] to encourage Australians to study in the regions, to ensure that our regional centres [and] universities continue to thrive.”

She expressed scepticism about the accord goal of more than doubling domestic university enrolments by 2050, against a backdrop of deteriorating results in schools. “You can open your gateway as wide as possible, but we need those students coming through your front door.”

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