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Andrew Brown

Disadvantaged students 'set up to fail' without support

Liberal senator Sarah Henderson says more early support is needed to boost university attendance. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS) (AAP)

University students from disadvantaged backgrounds are in focus as attention turns to providing more support during early education.

Liberal senator Sarah Henderson says more assistance is needed throughout high school to boost university attendance rates.

In her first major speech since coming into the portfolio, following the resignation of Alan Tudge, Senator Henderson said without support, disadvantaged students could be left with university debts and no degree.

"Without first setting up Australian students with a functional education journey from the early years to schooling, university access based on disadvantage indicators will set students up to fail," she told the Universities Australia conference in Canberra.

"Students who gain entry to university through a disadvantage indicator and of lower academic preparedness must be adequately supported by government and universities to reach their full potential."

Boosting attendance rates is one key focus of an accord with the university sector, which will be finalised later this year.

Education Minister Jason Clare said it was critical to expand university access.

"If you are a child from a poor family you are less likely to go to pre-school, you are less likely to finish high school and you are less likely to get a university degree," he said.

"I want us to fix that."

Jason Clare wants to boost the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university. (Mick Tsikas/AAP PHOTOS) (AAP)

While the coalition has welcomed the accord and reforms to the sector, Senator Henderson said any changes would take time.

"The proposal is to stall for another two years before the government presents a plan, let alone takes any action," she said.

Senator Henderson said boosting student retention rates could be undertaken before the accord was finalised.

"School students have a right to know, for instance, whether the course in which they are enrolled or will be enrolled in will be taught online, face to face, or a mixture of both," she said.

"The mode of course delivery has a profound impact on the student experience."

Students should also be able to obtain refunds when courses are substandard, Senator Henderson said.

"There must be far greater transparency and accountability when universities fail to deliver."

The conference also heard from Business Council of Australia president Tim Reed on the skills needed by industry.

"The pandemic brought the inflexibility of our skills system into sharp focus, so business wants to work alongside the sector to make sure we're ready for the changes we know are coming," he said.

"Nine in 10 jobs in the future are going to require post-school education and training - to make sure Australians don't miss out we've got to get this right."

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