Australian universities face losing funding if students fail

Institutions face stiff fines and worse for breaches in student support policies, as government courts sceptical opposition

August 18, 2023
Source: iStock

Australia’s government is intensifying pressure on universities to shield their students from failure, as it seeks bipartisan support for its reform agenda.

Under proposals outlined in a discussion paper, universities and other institutions could lose eligibility for federal government funding – by having their names erased from the Higher Education Support Act – if they disregard their own “support for students” policies.

While this would be a “last resort” sanction for breaches “at the extreme end of serious non-compliance”, lesser transgressions could see institutions fined 60 “penalty units” – currently equivalent to A$18,780 (£9,423) – whenever students fail.

The punishment would not be applied to institutions with “compliant” policies that were “diligently applied”, the paper stresses. But the fine could stand “if the higher education provider did not apply measures in their own support for students policy” – even if just one student failed as a result.

The proposals follow the introduction of legislation to abolish the unpopular “fail rule”, as recommended by the Universities Accord panel. In an apparent manoeuvre to secure opposition support for the legislation, the government also vowed to mandate student support policies.

Campus resource: Student support takes a village – but you need to create one first

While most institutions already have such policies, the bill prescribes broadly what they must contain, with the details to be supplied through changes to Australia’s higher education provider guidelines. The new paper outlines the proposed changes.

It says the policies would have to stipulate processes for at least nine different types of assistance, including “crisis” arrangements, special consideration mechanisms and non-academic supports like financial advice.

The policies would require annual updating, with “assurance mechanisms” to ensure they were “faithfully and fairly implemented”. Institutions would have to report on their compliance with the policies “twice yearly, annually or at other determined intervals”.

Most universities could probably tweak their existing policies to match the mandated format. But demonstrating compliance could be harder, particularly if privacy rules restrict their ability to document interventions to help students affected by things like literacy problems or “a significant life event”.

The proposed changes would also amplify universities’ reporting obligations. The government appears to consider them politically necessary to secure bipartisan support for the Universities Accord.

While the Liberal Party-led opposition is understood to support the bill, its members have expressed scepticism about universities’ commitment to struggling students. Former education minister Dan Tehan told parliament that the fail rule had been introduced to prevent students “racking up” debts because universities were “churning” them through unsuitable courses.

“Think long and hard about what you’re doing here,” Mr Tehan advised the government. “This was about holding universities to account…and you want to take that away. Do you know who will suffer? It’s the students.”

Fellow Liberal MP Aaron Violi told parliament of his “serious” misgivings about the benefits of university education. “There is an obligation on universities to do a much better job at ensuring that students complete their courses and that it leads to meaningful employment outcomes.”

The bill has been referred to a Senate committee to report on 13 September. Responses to the discussion paper are due two days later.

Universities Australia chair David Lloyd said the sector had no objection to “reporting and transparency”, but changes introduced through the accord should reduce the system’s complexity.

“Complexity comes with overheads and reports,” he told the National Press Club. “If we can get to a more streamlined, less complex system at the end of this journey, we’ll have a better system as well.”

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Reader's comments (1)

This is very good news! As the parent of an international student, I am living the scenario where my son was lured to get admitted in an unaccredited 3-year bachelor course towards Medicine with no employability prospects. We were wrongly advised by the University representative at an international education fair and now paying the high price. i.e. our whole life savings. The University did not provide proper support and added pressure to complete 4 semesters practice work in one semester. That caused added pressure on top of Covid, closed border, online classes, no access to materials, no induction, no guidance. As an international student, checking late at the university due to closed borders, no help or special consideration was provided. The university uses students to provide counselling and we could feel that they were not trained to conduct this activity and no follow-up on asks and questions. No help/support provided to help students specially when getting low grades and performance degradation. The only communication that regularly reached to us was "Payment required!!". While we have registered an appeal, we do not see any solution. Is there any authority that can be reached to file a complaint?