Landmark Universities Accord presents ambitious vision for higher education and future workforce

26 February 2024

The Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE) has welcomed the Australian Universities Accord Final Report’s emphasis on increasing investment in research and development (R&D), enhancing diversity and inclusion, and prioritising critical skills. 

The recommendations present far-reaching interventions to remedy the decades of neglect to the Australian higher education system and if implemented, will make Australia smarter, more prosperous and globally competitive. 

ATSE welcomes the sharp focus on increasing R&D investment through a whole-of-government approach. 

“It is crucial the government undertakes a strategic national funding review and sets an increased R&D investment target of at least 3% of GDP, with a clear roadmap on how to get there,” ATSE CEO, Kylie Walker said. 

“The recommendation for government research grants to fully fund the cost of university research is a critical to ensuring Australia’s universities remain world leading. It will help universities to commit to and produce world class research without compromising the teaching and education quality.  

“Together with stable and ongoing funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), this will unlock stability for Australian university research and open the way for long-term and visionary thinking,” said Kylie Walker. 

Among other diverse and underrepresented groups, the report positions Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples at the heart of the tertiary education system. 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are severely under-represented in STEM, making up only 0.5% of the population with STEM qualifications.  

“Targets aimed at ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are participating in higher education at the same rate as population representation are essential for addressing the vast disparity. Doubling Commonwealth Supported Places (CSP) by 2050 and increasing support for under-represented groups will boost Australia’s potential to train and maintain a diverse STEM-skilled workforce. 

“Additional support for regional education will further ensure all Australians have equal access to higher education, regardless of their postcode,” said Kylie Walker. 

The Academy also welcomes the recommendations to support life-long learning. Developing a system of stackable qualifications and increasing research students’ stipends could be a gamechanger for enabling greater diversity in higher education. This will require a rethink of the Australian Qualification Framework but would result in a far more accessible higher education system. 

ATSE welcomes the recommendation for the Australian Government to lay out a staged approach to implementation, overseen by an Implementation Advisory Committee. 

“This landmark report, which has brought together all higher education stakeholders to outline a bold vision for the sector, must not be left to gather dust. The necessary changes cannot be achieved through small reforms. 

“Implementing these recommendations in full will clear a path towards a thriving, inclusive, achieving higher education sector,” said Kylie Walker. 

ATSE thanks Professor Mary O’Kane AC FTSE, Chair of the Review and an ATSE Fellow, for leading the review, and looks forward to working with the Government to implement its recommendations. 

ATSE endorses the following key outcomes of the report: 

  • Increasing tertiary attainment target to meet future workforce needs, targeting increased participation of low SES, regional and remote, Indigenous, and people with disabilities; and providing needs-based funding for historically underrepresented cohorts. 
  • Linking new attainment targets with Closing the Gap targets. 
  • A campaign to build aspiration for tertiary education (ATSE’s 2022 report Our STEM Skilled Future recommended raising the profile of STEM careers to showcase their accessibility and attractiveness). 
  • Better interfacing between institutions, including vocational institutions – as recommended by ATSE’s submission. 
  • Replacing the Job-Ready Graduates cost model. ATSE’s 2020 submission to the Job-Ready Graduates consultation highlighted unintended impacts of the model and noted its ineffectiveness at achieving its objectives. 
  • Making HECS-HELP fairer by deducting repayments prior to indexation and preventing loans from growing faster than wages. 
  • Providing payment for undertaking mandatory placements. 
  • Increasing stipends for research students. Creating additional income support for research students was recommended in ATSE’s submission to the interim report. 
  • Developing minimum standards and providing extra professional development for university educators. 
  • Increasing Commonwealth Supported Places for national priority areas – such as clean energy, critical technologies, minerals and defence. 
  • Student safety initiatives including the new National Student Ombudsman. 
  • Improving quality and relevance of international education. 
  • Increasing ARC funding for fundamental research, providing stable and ongoing funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), and creating a pathway to fully fund university research. These important reforms have long been advocated by ATSE. 
  • Including First Nations knowledge in the National Science and Research Priorities – as recommended by ATSE’s submission to the draft Priorities. 
  • Creating a National Research Evaluation and Impact Framework – as recommended by ATSE’s submission, there is a need to improve metrics to better reflect the value of universities. 
  • Providing more opportunities for early career researchers – as recommended by ATSE’s submission. 
  • Creating an Implementation Advisory Committee to get to work on making the recommended reforms. 
  • Better aligning universities with vocational education. 
  • Creating a Centre of Excellence in higher education research. 

ATSE considers that the following recommendations may be impactful, but refinement is needed to ensure value: 

  • Creation of a National Regional University. 
  • Creation of a Solving Australia’s Challenges Fund. 
  • Establishment of a Tertiary Education Commission. This could provide vital oversight to the sector but must be implemented such that it doesn’t create needless bureaucracy. 
  • Funding micro credentials as Commonwealth Supported Places. 
  • Creating a ‘Jobs Broker’ for students to find part-time work and placements relevant to their studies.