Australia: Better access to higher education for Indigenous students in major reform of the sector

published 20 July 2023 updated 28 July 2023

The Australian government has announced a set of reforms aiming to increase access to higher education for Indigenous students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. All Indigenous students will be guaranteed a Commonwealth-supported place at the university of their choice.

While 3.8% of Australians are Indigenous, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander students account for only 2.06% of domestic university enrolments. Furthermore, elite universities enroll a below than average number of Indigenous students.

The measures announced on July 18 by Federal Education Minister Jason Clare aim to dismantle the barriers preventing Indigenous Peoples from accessing higher education. The measures expand a funding guarantee that previously only applied to Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander students in regional and remote areas. All Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander students who are eligible for the course they apply for will now enjoy Commonwealth support.

In addition, the Government will:

  • Introduce new study hubs to increase learning in the outer suburbs and regions
  • Eliminate the 50 per cent rule that saw students lose government funding if they failed more than half of their subjects
  • Improve governance at universities
  • Extend a grant program for another two years, and require universities to spend remaining funding on supporting underprivileged students

The government hopes that the new measures will double the number of Indigenous university students in the next 10 years. The number of Commonwealth-supported university students is expected to double from 900,000 to 1.8 million by 2050.

Higher education in Australia undergoing major reforms with union support

The announcement of the new measures to boost student equity coincided with the release of an interim report from a panel of experts tasked by the Federal Education Minister with putting forward recommendations to transform Australia's university sector. The actions announced originated in the proposals of the Higher Education Review Panel.

The panel is set to deliver its final report proposing broader changes in the sector in December.

Education International member organisation the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) contributed to the work of the Higher Education Review Panel, highlighting four key priority areas:

  • Secure and valued higher education employment;
  • Higher education funding reform;
  • Governance and regulation;
  • Sustainability and equitable access to higher education.

NTEU welcomed the first measures announced and the fact that the panel was receptive to input from higher education unionists, but warned that more work was needed to reform the sector.

The union also released a report on public attitudes on issues in higher education that includes a comprehensive analysis of the challenges faced by the sector, from funding cuts to precarious employment, and much more. Key findings include:

  • Federal government funding for universities has fallen from 0.9% of GDP in 1995 to 0.6% of GDP in 2021, implying a $6.5 billion reduction in funding in 2021 (equal to 46.5% of the current higher education funding;
  • 83% of Australians said they were concerned that universities focus on profit at the expense of education, with 50% being very concerned;
  • 79% of Australians agreed that Vice-Chancellor salaries should be capped so they are not paid more than the Prime Minister;
  • Casual employment grew 78% faster than total sector employment in the decade prior to Covid.