Student support: some pros and cons of the government’s reforms
The government’s legislation to amend the HESA Act (2003) and require all higher education providers to have specific student support polices in place and comply with them or risk fines worth thousands of dollars, is currently being debated. Higher education representatives recently gave evidence on the changes to the Senate Legislative Committee on Education and Employment.
There was a striking difference in the views of students and staff, and those of most of the peak body representatives.
Alison Barnes, President of the National Tertiary Education Union, summed up the argument in favour of the legislative changes, saying “self-reporting by providers is not enough to ensure there are the services in place.”
Bailey Riley, President of the National Union of Students, argued in favour of any measures that motivate “universities to do more for their students… we know that student support services are at a very terrible level of quality at this point in time. Students are not able to access support for simple things such as changing subjects or looking at their structures.” She also argued that the introduction of voluntary student unionism had led to the closure or downgrading of many services provided previously by student unions, and that now the universities offered these services they were not doing as good a job as students previously had.
Despite the evidence that financial reasons and the related need for many students to work while studying are contributors to students’ decisions to leave university (and the broader context of the increasing cost of living issues which many students are currently experiencing) – only one university representative drew attention to this issue, Prof. Harlene Hayne, VC of Curtin University and Chair of the ATN.
While Prof. Hayne agreed with points made by the Group of Eight (and subsequently by other higher education sector peak body representatives) about the challenges the proposed legislative changes will create – she was the only university leader to call for more government financial support for students.
It is a point I argued last week and which the Senate is also discussing through its recent ‘Matter of Public Importance’ debate on unpaid student workplacements.
In her remarks to the Senate Committee the Chair of the Universities Accord Panel, Prof. O’Kane said “it’s clear that support services need to be very good and we need to have a much better understanding of what those support services are. If you take Ms Riley’s comments from a while ago, there are things as simple as food. Food banks can be remarkably important.”
It seems something of a missed opportunity that in a discussion on student support and the cost of living crisis, the Chair of the Accord Panel chose to focus her remarks specifically on the merits of food banks, rather than on the inadequate level of financial support currently provided to students… Perhaps the Accord Panel’s final report will address the issue?