Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to appear today.
My name is Catriona Jackson. I am the Chief Executive of Universities Australia, the peak body for Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities. I am joined by my colleague Professor Margaret Sheil, Vice-Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology, and Deputy Chair of Universities Australia.
Can I start with acknowledgement of the Gadigal peoples on whose land we are on today and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
I would like the record to show our support of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Response to the Australian Universities Accord Interim Report) Bill 2023.
This legislation will help universities to do their job for the nation, and we are grateful for the Albanese Government’s focus on quickly implementing the priority actions announced with the release of the Australian Universities Accord interim report in July.
Universities Australia has long called for the extension of the demand driven system to all Indigenous Australians, regardless of where they live. This legislation will bring us closer to realising this outcome.
Attending university is one of the greatest opportunities you can have in life, which is why we need to extend that opportunity widely. Uncapping places for Indigenous people living in metropolitan areas would go a long way to closing the attainment gap and addressing decades of disadvantage.
We have also previously raised concerns about the 50 per cent pass rule introduced under the previous government’s Job-ready Graduates package. This measure is punitive. Our members are telling us that most students affected by this rule come from one or more equity groups.
Its removal is a very welcome step, and we look forward to the government exploring further changes to student funding models that are fairer for students and provide the resources universities need to educate the next generation.
This Bill also aims to strengthen accountability and reporting for higher education providers to ensure students are properly supported to study. Our universities are committed to working with government on these issues to ensure we are providing the best possible learning environment for students.
At the same time, there are several aspects of the Bill that we believe may have unintended consequences – in the short term for students and universities and in the long term for the sector.
We have previously expressed concern around the timeline attached to the government’s consultation paper to inform updates to the Higher Education Provider Guidelines, which will give effect to the new Support for Students policy.
To that end, we were very pleased to learn yesterday that the consultation will be completed, and the draft guidelines available, prior to the Bill being debated in parliament in October, and we look forward to providing comment on the draft guidelines.
As we understand it, the amendments also require providers to give a report to the Minister about their compliance measures in this regard. We are concerned that this measure may conflict with the regulatory obligations and existing processes of the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and may create an undue administrative burden.
In effect, universities must currently report to TEQSA any measures related to the conditions legislated in HESA and the TEQSA Act. The amendments would mean that universities would have to duplicate reporting of the same student support policy measures.
To avoid duplication of reporting and to ensure maximum resource allocation for the proposed measures, we suggest the proposed Support for Student policy amendment could be more effectively implemented through TEQSA, which has direct responsibility for regulatory and compliance activities, rather than the Department of Education.
There is also the issue of the legislation entering into force and providers not having enough time to develop, implement and then report on measures that have been put in place to support students.
We recommend that the Bill not come into force immediately. Providers need time to fully understand their obligations under the new policy and make the necessary changes to continue monitoring student success.
I’d like to reiterate our support to end the 50 per cent pass rule and we look forward to engaging further with government to ensure that the implementation of this important policy change serves the policy intent to the maximum extent possible.