Students from disadvantaged backgrounds should be eligible for fee-free university places in industries facing chronic shortages, the sector’s peak body has urged.

In a pre-budget submission to the federal government, Universities Australia has called for financial support for students from underrepresented backgrounds, similar to a Commonwealth scheme providing fee-free TAFE places.

The peak body’s chief executive Renee Hindmarsh said such a scheme could help to abate higher education enrolment numbers, while also boosting the number of graduates in sectors experiencing workforce shortages.

“Fee-free TAFE is a worthy endeavour that should be replicated for universities considering the nation’s need for university graduates is increasing,” she said.

“Education is one of our most valuable assets in preparing Australia for future skills challenges, and meeting those challenges is essential to driving our economic growth and prosperity.”

Nearly 300,000 students enrolled in fee-free TAFE places up to the end of September 2023, passing early estimates for the year of 180,000 places.

An additional 300,000 places have been made available for students in the TAFE sector between 2024 and 2026.

Ms Hindmarsh said the government should match that commitment for vocational education to the higher education sector.

“Australia requires more university-educated workers to drive economic growth and prosperity, but as demand for graduates grows, less Australians are going to university,” she said.

“Fee-free university for disadvantaged students in areas of critical national priority could help attract more people to university who otherwise wouldn’t pursue a degree. This is what the nation needs.”

The calls come following the release of the interim report for the Australian university accords, a major review of the sector.

That report called for changes to help more students from disadvantaged backgrounds graduate.

The accord panel had been examining 70 policy ideas on changes to Australian universities.

Ahead of the May federal budget, the peak body also called for an increase in the number of Commonwealth-supported university places, along with pathway programs to increase the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Universities Australia also said government investment in university research should be bolstered to 0.65 per cent of GDP, the average in OECD countries.

Activities to counter foreign investment in universities should also be considered, the submission argued.

“The 2024/25 budget is a chance to turn reform ideas into real action and support a university system that delivers in Australia’s social, technological and economic needs,” the submission said.

“At a time when Australia desperately needs more of what the higher education sector does for the nation, universities are more financially vulnerable than at any other time in history.”

Andrew Brown

(Australian Associated Press)

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is general in nature and does not take into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Please consider whether the information is appropriate to your circumstance before acting on it and, where appropriate, seek professional advice.