University education in Australia should be free for school leavers in 2022. This is particularly important given several factors that have made it harder for the current cohort to feel confident about their future.
Firstly, this cohort more than others has suffered two years of disrupted learning. The pandemic commenced when they started Year 11 and has continued throughout their final school year. Undoubtedly and widely reported, for students there have been significant mental health issues associated with the pandemic. These include students feeling uncertain, isolated and worried. It is well known in education and in educational psychology that when feelings of anxiety, loneliness and uncertainty predominate, learning is affected. Accordingly, there should be significant adjustments made to consider the disadvantages faced by this cohort.
Secondly, formal assessments for these students have been disrupted throughout the past two years. This cohort and their parents feel particularly concerned about whether they will get the university places they deserve. This fact alone requires direct reassurance. Such reassurance should come from senior bureaucrats, university Vice Chancellors and Education Ministers, State-based and national.
There are calls for more reassurance for VCE students facing delays to their university offers. Education consultant and CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association, Mohan Dhall spoke to 7NEWS about the delay. https://t.co/5zYfOfohG3 #7NEWS pic.twitter.com/2FXXCAGbVO
— 7NEWS Melbourne (@7NewsMelbourne) August 18, 2021
Thirdly, universities themselves face an uncertain future. Whilst an 80% COVID vaccine uptake may lead to some partial reopening of the international border, what is evident is that universities need an enrolment model that applies to the current and predictable future issues. One accommodation that universities have made is a mid-year or rolling intake. This is an important change. However, the universities cannot do as they did prior to the pandemic – having an overreliance on the “cash cow” of international students. With the new normal there needs to be a new paradigm. This paradigm needs to be based around accessibility for domestic students.
The universities have had around 18 months to adjust to the new and emerging situation. This includes assessing and adapting the way learning is approached and engaged with. It also means that there is a need for far more flexible delivery and a range of short courses for school leavers.
Other significant changes that need to be urgently considered include the removal of HECS fees and the introduction of what I call a “StudyKeeper”.
Abolish HECS during economic recovery for school leavers
I believe that HECS charges should be abolished for at least the first six months of next year for school leavers entering universities around the country. In addition to this, I think that the Commonwealth Supported Places (CSP) scheme should be expanded so that any caps on university enrolments be lifted at least for six months. This would mean that while we are in transition and undertaking economic recovery, students can access the tertiary studies they deserve and desire. It seems to me that authentic investment in higher education commences with this.
The need for a StudyKeeper wage
I also believe that for at least the first six months of 2022 there should be a “StudyKeeper” wage that goes directly to students for the payment of their tertiary enrolment fees. This would support those seeking to undertake a pathway in universities for tertiary study. The money should go directly to the learners, not the universities in the first instance, and should be released upon enrolment. This would enable school leavers to engage with tertiary education at no risk. This kind of investment should be a national priority
There are important economic reasons as to why a StudyKeeper wage supplement should be implemented. Firstly, it can be assumed that Australia will be in a period of economic recovery throughout 2022. In a time of recovery, unemployment is generally high and young people, typically the most overrepresented amongst the unemployed, will be finding work hard to come by. To help them improve their opportunities within the labour market, having access to a StudyKeeper wage will support them improving their academic credentials and make some more job ready. This is preferable to having high incidences of young people on welfare.
A fresh start
This idea of a fresh start or a new approach to accessing tertiary education is extremely important contextually. It recognises that the university sector has been hampered by the economic downturn induced by the pandemic. It further recognises that the current school leavers have been very affected by rolling lockdowns nationally throughout their last two years of schooling.
The ideas here intend to be the beginning of a very urgent conversation that should have taken place 18 months ago and at least should be on the national agenda right now.
We need to work urgently towards articulating and implementing plans that will address predictable issues that will otherwise arise.
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