VC column: Australian Universities Accord update

06 September 2023
Professor Nick Klomp
Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Nick Klomp

From the Lectern with Professor Nick Klomp, Vice-Chancellor and President, CQUniversity Australia

Originally published in CQToday

There’s been a lot happening on the national landscape in recent weeks – the surge of the mighty Matildas through to the World-Cup semi-finals, for one – so you can be forgiven if you missed the recent publication of the Federal Government’s Australian Universities Accord interim report.

I’ve mentioned the Accord process in a previous piece; it’s a year-long consultation around university legislation, policy and funding that, once finalised, promises a once-in-a-generation shift in the delivery of post-secondary education in Australia.

The publication of the Accord interim report signals the pointy end of the process, and the report’s 70-odd “considerations” for the future of higher education and training paint a largely positive picture for regional communities.

Above all, I have been really pleased to see the interim report’s emphasis on equity and access for underrepresented people – the regional, rural, remote, First Nations, and mature students for whom CQUniversity has long been a university of choice. 

Encouragingly, many of the apparently innovative ideas outlined in the report are nothing new to CQUniversity; they represent business-as-usual in our mission to provide quality education to all who seek it, regardless of their background or circumstances.

Particularly notable in the Accord Report is the goal to increase higher education participation to 55 per cent nationally; this will require another 300,000 students in the system by 2035, and an additional 900,000 by 2050. 

This won’t be easy, but the nation urgently requires hundreds of thousands more qualified workers to fill current and future jobs. And metropolitan universities have already effectively “maxed out” their local school leaver markets, so it is the regional universities that will play a pivotal role in broadening access. 

Part of the approach must involve keeping as many of our bright, talented young people in the regions as possible, given so many are lost to the bright lights of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. We know that students who study in the regions tend to stay in the regions after graduation, which has an incredible compounding effect on regional prosperity, productivity and lifestyle.

Elsewhere, our untapped reservoirs of prospective students, including mature learners and underrepresented individuals, present a rich opportunity for growth. The biggest challenge will be raising aspirations, demolishing the barriers to access, and providing supports that allow for a seamless student journey; these initiatives are within our grasp but they won’t be cheap and they certainly won’t be achievable under our current funding arrangements.

Seizing an opportunity like this requires more than just good intentions. It demands a comprehensive plan from government, universities and communities that together recognises the unique challenges and strengths of regional universities and TAFEs. 

A differentiated funding model – one that recognises the significant costs of providing higher education and training in regional communities - is essential to facilitate this increase in post-school participation. As we stand at the crossroads of a transition from mass to universal participation in tertiary education, we must ensure that regional institutions like ours are equipped to play our part.

Keen eyes will have noticed the concept of a National Regional University mentioned in the interim report. While this is an intriguing thought experiment, it goes without saying that CQU’s focus remains fixed on widening access and participation while achieving fair funding for regional universities – a priority that the distraction of a National Regional University will not satisfy. Let's direct our resources where they will truly make a difference and foster the transformative change we seek.

The publication of the interim report is by no means the end of the road on the Accord process. Rest assured, CQUniversity is actively engaged in ensuring the federal government understands our viewpoint, that regional universities like ours play a critical role in this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Our vision for a more accessible and equitable tertiary education landscape is unwavering.

In closing, I am filled with optimism for what lies ahead. The interim report presents a pathway to a brighter, more inclusive future for higher education in Australia. And it is our regional universities – like CQUniversity – that are best positioned to lead this progress.