Welcoming Universities response to Australian Universities Accord


Having read the Australian Universities Accord from cover to cover and after reviewing some of the extensive commentary and analysis, our conclusion at Welcoming Universities is that there is much to commend, much that aligns with the work of Welcoming Universities and opportunities to deepen and extend the goals and intent.

We agree with the general assessment that the Accord is a ‘bold and visionary’ document that strives for a better Australia through education. The Accord also views higher education as part of the broader education system, understanding that educational inequity begins early and that there must be high-quality early childhood, primary and secondary education to improve higher educational attainment. Amid recognition of the value of free kindergarten and discussions of public schools being fully funded (to the Gonski recommended SRS level), it is pertinent to consider the current higher education landscape and how it should be reformed for the future.

The reference in the Accord to a ‘whole of student’ focus in higher education is significant “as opposed to simply enrolling disadvantaged students into a course and hoping they succeed” (page 2, Australian Universities Accord, final report). Needs-based funding is essential to ensure that students from equity groups under-represented in higher education receive the support they need. We encourage the federal government to prioritise this funding.

The Universities Accord is also commendable, albeit long overdue, in its mission to prioritise First Nations at the heart of Australia’s tertiary education system, recognising the invaluable role of First Nations led approaches and knowledge. The array of action-based recommendations, including establishing a First Nations Council to advise Ministers and the proposed Australian Tertiary Education Commission, underscores the commitment to enhancing First Nations participation and workforce inclusion. Moreover, initiatives like promoting access for First Nations students to fields such as medicine and expanding opportunities for PhD and postdoctoral studies demonstrate a concerted ePort to empower First Nations students in higher education.

Deeply aligned with our work at Welcoming Universities is the commitment to research the prevalence and impact of racism in the tertiary education system. We regard this as foundational to creating a university system that is safe and inclusive for all students, staP, and communities.

Several other commendable equity measures are noted in the Accord: paid placements, fee-free preparatory courses, various supports to extend opportunities in regional and remote areas, and building stronger connections between the VET, TAFE, and University sectors.

The Accord also outlines the layered experience of intersectional disadvantage, which aFects students who identify with multiple equity groups or barriers to university access and completion. However, the current definitions of equity groups are too limited for a ‘whole of student’ approach. Many student experiences are not considered in this framework. For universities to realise the target of 80% of working-age people with university attainment by 2050, more inclusive definitions must be considered, such as students who are the first in their families to attend university, carers, mature-aged students, students who experience cultural and racial marginalisation, students from refugee backgrounds, students who identify as LGBTQIA+, and students who are veterans.

The Accord recognises that the types of universities in Australia are currently very similar in size, study- area offering, delivery models, and business model. The Accord proposes, and we agree, that by diversifying

the type of tertiary education providers by size, shape, purpose, location, and focus, there will be more universities that meet the diverse needs of students and fewer barriers to access.

International education is also explored in the Accord, with some crucial insights. The Accord recognises that international education is part of the culture of the Australian higher education system and a fixture of the Australian economy. It also recognises that there have been failures in quality, a pressing need to diversify ‘markets’, and a need to ensure international students have access to safety, security, housing, and a positive educational experience studying in Australia. While positive, the term ‘markets’ entrenches international students in a business model and primarily positions them as a source of income. ‘Cohorts’ is a preferable term.

We also consider that international students are absent from the ‘whole of student’ focus in the Accord.

International students are not included in equity group numbers. Therefore, there is no nuanced consideration of international students’ support needs in calculating the university support structures required for equity groups. This also means there is no consideration of the requirement for culturally responsive and culturally safe support services for international student cohorts.

If international education is to remain viable in Australia, international students must be viewed as more than a market and recognised as critical to Australian education for diverse reasons. While there are references in the Accord to the role of international education being part of soft diplomacy and key for international linkages, the broader tertiary approach to international education must be more connected, compassionate, and inclusive. Similarly, while recognising that some international students are seeking a migration pathway, this needs to be connected and aligned with the Federal Government’s migration strategy.

International students, staF, and communities within Australian universities should be part of an internationalisation strategy that constructively and intentionally builds global connections.

Training and professional development are referenced in the Accord, ensuring that staP are highly skilled, supply quality education and that early career researchers are supported and grown (including a focus on the professional development of particular equity groups). In addition, we believe the report should have examined the experiences of all higher education staP, responded to the precarity experienced by higher education professionals and casual academics, and explored ways to build a robust, supported workforce that we regard as foundational to the sector’s viability. The Accord references the casualisation of the higher education workforce and the prevalence of temporary contracts. However, it asserts that these workforce arrangements are primarily considerations for institutions and their staP.

Welcoming Universities regard staF diversity as essential; they should reflect the populations they serve and include diverse perspectives and knowledge. We believe that surveying and examining experiences of racism within universities will reveal what smaller studies and anecdotal discussions have shown, that systemic cultural change is essential.

Broader employment data shows there needs to be more cultural diversity in leadership in Australia. “The data shows that although people from non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24% of the population, such backgrounds only account for 5% of senior leaders” (2018, Australian Human Rights Commission). A desktop analysis of senior leadership in Australian universities certainly reflects this.

This article by Sally Patfield on The Conversation summarises our reflections on equity in the Accord. Patfield acknowledges equity, as defined in the Accord, refers to parity of access to university, but with some understanding that supports are needed to ensure that students from designated equity groups will require assistance to pursue university education and ongoing support to complete their qualification, and then to move into more significant opportunities post-study without debilitating debt.

Parity does not remove inequity. It does not look at the experience that students (and staP) have in the university environment. While building aspiration is critical to more comprehensive higher education access and attainment, aspiration doesn’t remove the systemic barriers of exclusion people experience.

Patfield notes, “Equity is much more than physical presence or getting bums on seats. We must also consider what students are accessing, how they are supported, and how universities ultimately value and include them.”

Equity requires that universities become places of belonging. The Welcoming Universities network and Standard offer actionable ideas, approaches, and measures of success.

Creating places where everyone feels a sense of belonging requires systemic and practical change. Welcoming Universities exist to meet this challenge and to put many of these bold and visionary ideas into action with haste.


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