Universities Accord Final Report criticised by student unions for lack of urgency


Some of Australia’s most prominent student unions have criticised the Australian Universities Accord Final Report for failing to provide immediate and detailed action to address student poverty. 

The long-awaited report, released by Federal Minister for Education Jason Clare, outlines 47 recommendations aimed at overhauling the university sector in its first major review since 2008. 

Overseen by an expert panel, the report’s recommendations broadly propose ending unpaid student placements and repealing the Job-ready Graduates scheme which saw fees for arts, humanities, communications and social sciences degrees more than double. 

National Union of Students (NUS) President Ngaire Bogemann, who attends the University of Melbourne, says that while the union welcomes the recommendations in principle, without a time frame for their implementation, the report fails to acknowledge the situation’s urgency. 

“Students are struggling right now, and we need action right now,” says Bogemann.

The criticisms come after Clare told the Australian Financial Review last week that the report was “a plan for the next decade, and the one after that.”

“We can’t do all of this at once,” said Clare. 

“The government has essentially told us: ‘We don’t have any further thoughts on this right now; you can wait until the budget,’” says Bogemann. 

The wording of the recommendations themselves, Bogemann argues, were shrouded in ambiguity, a sentiment echoed by University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) President Disha Zutshi.

“The report is so late; it is so unclear. It definitely makes us doubt the direction the recommendations are going to go,” says Zutshi.

Recommendation 14, for example, which proposes “the Australian Government work with tertiary education providers … to introduce financial support for unpaid work placements,” stops short of stipulating the value of any financial support. 

“‘Financial support’ isn’t good enough. All students deserve a wage for [compulsory unpaid placements]. In any other area, not paying your workers is illegal,” says Bogemann. 

The NUS’ submissions to the Accord called for immediate paid placements for all students at a minimum wage rate. 

“We know that students on placement are having to give up paid employment and enter the casualised workforce, things that really add to their financial stress and have an undue impact on their mental health,” says Bogemann. 

It is a reality for Master of Journalism student Brendan Kearns who has just commenced a mandatory unpaid placement. 

As a renter, Kearns typically works three to four days per week to cover his costs, but he has since had to reduce his working hours down to two days per week to account for 16 hours of unpaid placement. 

With a rent rise earlier this year, increasing cost of living expenses and a degree that does not qualify for Austudy, Kearns is unsure how he will manage financially, should his study load increase over the semester.  

“I’m a casual so I’m not covered by leave or anything like that. If I have to take more work off … it means I’ll have to find some other way to pay rent.”

He says the current expectation that students have to navigate unpaid internships while studying and trying to earn a living was to the detriment of their education. 

“Throughout your degree, work is something you have to focus on, just as much, if not more, than your study.”

“I’m paying $4,000 [in HECS] to go and do this internship. It’s not that it’s just unpaid, but I’m losing money from this in more ways than one.” 

As one of the many degrees impacted by the Coalition era Job-ready Graduates scheme, Kearns expressed frustration with the program that saw fees for communications and journalism degrees rise by 117% between 2020 and 2021. 

“I could be in $16,000 to $30,000 of debt, but by the end of this course, I’ll be in $60,000 of debt,” says Kearns. 

“I’d like to know what the plan is for students who got screwed over by that program.” 

While recommendation 16 suggests a repeal of the scheme, after only 1.5% of students altered their field of study following its implementation, it does not specify whether students currently impacted by the program would be compensated.

Bogemann, who was affected by the fee hikes herself, said that the union would have to “wait and see” how the government would interpret the recommendation, but that the recompensating of students had the full support of the NUS. 

“We want to see the wiping of HECS debt broadly, but particularly if the government takes up this recommendation. It makes no sense for past students to have to bear that burden.”

“Ultimately, we [the NUS] want free education and an education system that benefits students, not the corporate bottom line.”

Federal Education Minister Jason Clare has been approached for comment.

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