18 April, 2024
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Australian university student safety watchdog set for 2025 entry

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University students heading to classes next year are set to be the first to receive bolstered protection under a new watchdog with the powers to investigate sexual assault complaints if institutions aren’t doing enough. 

An independent student ombudsman will be stood up as part of a new plan to stamp out gender-based violence and will have the power to consider whether decisions and actions of universities are unreasonable, unjust or discriminatory.

Once a complaint has been escalated to the ombudsman, it can then recommend the uni take specific steps to resolve the issue, including the refunding or re-crediting of fees or changes to policies.

 Education Minister Jason Clare told AAP expects a student ombudsman to be in place next year. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

A gender-based violence unit will be set up inside the Education Department to ensure universities comply with recommendations the watchdog comes up with to remedy complaints.

Legislation is being worked through and is expected to hit parliament in the coming months, before the ombudsman is in place early next year, Education Minister Jason Clare told AAP.

A separately legislated national code will set out minimum standards and obligations universities have to prevent sexual violence and what actions they would need to take. 

The code has also been slated to come into effect in early 2025.

Greens senator Larissa Waters, who sat on a damning inquiry into universities that found the sector failed to adequately respond to sexual assaults, has called for the legislation to be prioritised.

“We have an open mind about whether a special new unit within the Education Department or direct ministerial intervention would achieve the best compliance results,” she told AAP. 

“Whatever the enforcement body looks like, it must have a big stick to ensure compliance with recommendations.”

The first tranche of reforms responding to the report will likely target people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mr Clare wouldn’t pre-empt the government’s response to the recommendations, set for the coming months, but flagged helping these people graduate university was a focus. 

“The report says that there should be completion bonuses that are paid to the university if they’re successful in helping to boost the number or the percentage of students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he added. 

“At the moment the completion rates at university for students from from poor backgrounds is lower than the national average.”

Independent MP Allegra Spender called for revamped HECS repayments, saying the current scheme where indexation is applied to the full amount incurred by the student, and not the amount remaining after some has been paid off, was unfair.

 Independent MP Allegra Spender wants HECS repayments revamped to make them fairer. Image by Lukas Coch/AAP PHOTOS 

“We wouldn’t accept a bank charging you interest on a full mortgage when you’ve already paid it down,” she told AAP.

The way student debt is repaid could also be a way to ease the financial burden, Mr Clare said. 

Letting people on lower wages pay less in HECS instalment each year could save someone on $75,000 about $1000 in repayments.

Ms Spender has called for the indexation rate to be tied to the lesser of inflation, wages or the government bond rate to ensure profit wasn’t being made off student loans.

Universities are also split on a proposal to make education more accessible and equitable through a $10 billion fund to be spent on infrastructure like student housing, classrooms and research facilities.

Public universities and the Commonwealth would both contribute to the fund and while the accord doesn’t suggest a specific levy, it says better off universities “with the financial means to pay a higher proportion should be expected to do so”.

Universities Australia Chair David Lloyd defended the fund against suggestions it was a tax on wealthier institutions, saying the peak body’s members would welcome it.

“(It’s) not positioned as a tax, it’s positioned as a co-contribution fund for the future,” he said.

While most universities have lauded the report more generally, some of their leaders maintain the future fund would have the opposite effect by stripping money from institutions and making it harder to implement the rest of the accord.

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