Australian universities will bid for the allocation of 20,000 new government funded places set aside for areas of need and students from underrepresented backgrounds, the federal government announced Wednesday.
The new places will be allocated over two years from the start of 2023 with an investment of up to $485.5 million over the next four years.
The announcement fulfils a Labor election promise and comes ahead of a landmark Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra next month.
The places will be targeted at areas of skills shortage like education, health, engineering, and technology, and must go to people from low-socio economic backgrounds, rural and remote areas, First Nations people, people with disability and first in family students.
Education minister Jason Clare, the first in his family to go to university, announced the places on Wednesday.
“Where you live, how much your parents earn, whether you are Indigenous or not, is still a major factor in whether you are a student or a graduate of an Australian university,” he said in a statement.
“I don’t want us to be a country where your chances in life depend on your postcode, your parents, or the colour of your skin.
“The delivery of this commitment is the first step to achieving this.”
Mr Clare flagged more equitable access to higher education in his first major address in the Education portfolio last month, and has also pledged $20 million for research into student equity in higher education.
Tertiary education is also a key plank in the new government’s plan to solve Australia’s skills challenge.
University providers will need to demonstrate the places will go to addressing areas of skills need as identified in the government’s Secure Australian Jobs plan and by the National Skills Commission.
“Investing in more university places in industries where we need skilled workers will help to make our economy more productive. This policy will also ensure more Australians have the skills they need to get sustainable, well-paid jobs into the future,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers said.
The university sector welcomed the places and the recognition of tertiary education, which will have representatives at next month’s invite-only skills summit.
“More than half of the nearly one million new jobs projected to be created over the next five years will require a university degree, which is why it’s vital we skill-up Australians today to ensure we can meet the challenges and embrace the opportunities of tomorrow,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said.
The National Tertiary Education Union also welcomed the placement but is questioning universities’ ability to properly resource the placements with permanent staff.
“Universities employ more than 250,000 people yet only one in three workers enjoy secure, ongoing work,” NTEU National President Dr Alison Barnes told InnovationAus.com.
The union wants the “fundamentally flawed” Jobs Ready Graduate Package to be urgently reviewed. The former government’s policy cut fees for courses that led to jobs in sectors like health and teaching but increased the cost of other degrees, like arts and law.
“The package resulted in an overall reduction in funding per student — a key area that must be addressed alongside any increase in places,” Dr Barnes said.
Luke Sheehy, executive director of the technology focused university group ATN, said the targeted placements was a welcome move towards a three way partnership between universities, industry and government.
“As ATN said before the election, three-way partnerships between government, industry and educators have the capacity to deliver bold and innovative policy ideas that will help shape and foster our future prosperity,” he said.
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