SAGE applauds the outcomes of the Universities Accord Final Report, released on 25 February by Minister for Education Jason Clare. 

Under Professor Mary O’Kane’s leadership, the review panel has made the important, future-proofing decision to tackle growing inequity in education and plan to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds. 

The Accord sets out an aim to equip 80% of the Australian workforce with a degree or a VET qualification by 2050—a goal that Minister Clare says “can only be achieved by making the higher education system far more equitable”. 

We agree, and affirm that this shift requires holistic, systemic change. If student equity is at the heart of the Accord, then there must also be a corresponding focus on building equity in higher education workplaces. 

Supporting staff is critical to equity goals 

“Students don’t exist in a vacuum,” said SAGE CEO Dr Janin Bredehoeft. “When they’re learning, they are part of a university’s overarching workplace culture. 

“We need each institution to be progressing its equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives as a whole, taking into account all the people who participate in its structures and systems.” 

Students from diverse backgrounds need to be able to see staff with careers in research, teaching and professional roles experiencing equitable treatment, in order for them to imagine themselves progressing.

“The barriers that keep underrepresented and disadvantaged students from accessing education are often the same problems that prevent diverse staff from thriving in the workplace. We can’t think of these issues separately.”

Sexual assault highlighted for urgent change

We especially welcome the extraordinary and very positive news that there will be a National Student Ombudsman to improve safety in higher education.

The Ombudsman can enforce greater transparency and institutional accountability around student complaints of sexual misconduct, while expediting and simplifying pathways to reporting and pursuing complaints. Implemented correctly, it will be a strong pathway to justice and support for victim-survivors, and will support universities to review and systematically improve their safety measures.

We note that sexual harassment isn’t isolated to students. A 2023 survey found reports of workplace harassment had jumped more than 50% since 2018, up to 29% of respondents.

Combined with the Respect@Work legislation which recently came into effect to improve staff safety, the creation of the Ombudsman has potential to make real positive change in the sector.

Supporting equity in the research workforce

We also welcome the Review’s recommendations that support equitable participation for students who are also university staff, including higher degree by research (HDR) students and early-career researchers.

For many people from underrepresented groups, the move into a research role is a point of career attrition, where they are more likely to be pushed out of academia by barriers to equity. Instead, the Accord’s suggested measures will help people move to the next stage of academic careers. These include: 

  • raising the minimum stipend and making part-time scholarships tax-free (supporting women and other equity groups, who are more likely to pursue PhDs part-time)
  • providing dedicated PhD scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships for First Nations researchers
  • ensuring that HDR students receive holistic career training that includes the development of entrepreneurial, business, teaching and leadership skills.

SAGE also applauds attempts to improve job security for researchers by supporting longer-term funding. Funding scarcity in universities is a key driver of negative workplace cultures that disproportionately harm the wellbeing of researchers from equity groups and increase the likelihood of them leaving the workplace. 

To reduce funding pressure in universities and increase opportunities for postdoctoral candidates, the Accord has proposed the establishment a minimum percentage of competitive grants that run for 5 years or longer. We commend the Review for addressing this root cause of inequity and exclusion. 

Unpaid placements need review

The Accord has also highlighted “placement poverty”—financial stress caused by mandatory, unpaid work experience placements—as an area for serious reform.

The panel says that giving students financial support for placements is essential, to ensure that students can meet their placement requirements “without falling into poverty”. 

SAGE welcomes this important intervention in an area that has disproportionately large impacts on students from marginalised groups. We also note that unpaid placements are often required for training in careers that disproportionately attract marginalised students, including feminised workforces such as nursing, teaching and psychology.

Dr Bredehoeft points out that there are plenty of alternative models that can be introduced to alleviate the strain on students.

“When I was training as a nurse in Germany, I not only received compensation for my studies but also for my placements. I even had access to dedicated student accommodation. It’s a stark contrast to the experiences of unpaid placements in feminised industries in Australia.”

“Compensating students for placements is a crucial step in recognising and increasing the value of our feminised workforce.”

Equitable funding is good in principle

Providing funding to higher education institutions on a needs basis is an important part of the Accord’s plan. 

But how that works will be critical, says Dr Bredehoeft.

“How, when, what, who? We need to know the details. Institutions need to know what they can expect in order to make commitments to ensuring better equity outcomes—and to understand the amount and kind of work it will create. We need to explore this and be specific.”

SAGE supports organisations to continuously improve their equity, diversity and inclusion, and as such we believe that, given equitable opportunities, all universities have the potential to achieve excellence. 

“In principle, it’s a great idea to allocate funding based on the real cost of serving each university’s unique demographic,” said Dr Bredehoeft. “Staff must be adequately resourced to support the growth in equity students, if we are to set them up for success.” 

“We trust that the Government will continue to work closely with universities to develop a practical, sustainable funding model that can fulfil its laudable policy goals, and look forward to learning more about how needs-based funding will operate.”