A world of higher learning and opportunities can be found on university campuses; but disadvantaged students often must see it to desire it.
When I was 11 years old, I went with a church boys’ club to visit Melbourne University. We raced around the campus, past imposing scientific laboratories and through the historic cloisters. We swam in the Beaurepaire Pool, and had a snack in the Union House among the undergrads.
Those were the days of the Space Race and the Cuban Missile Crisis; the campus was dotted with lab-coated young students who to my child mind seemed intent on putting a man on the moon. We overheard conversations for and against communism, god’s existence, and more. The atmosphere seemed to quietly embrace some higher purpose. As a child from a labourer’s family with no background of university study, it made an indelible impression on me, and sowed in my mind the first seed of awareness of what a university symbolised.
It may seem curious that the guide for my first visit to a university campus was a church boys’ club leader. But in those days, it would not have occurred to the public primary school I attended that excursions to a university had much value for a group of low-income students, most of whom were not expected to be at school longer than the age of 16. Were it not for the enterprising zeal of that university-educated club leader, this little adventure would not have come to pass. Back then, only 6 per cent of school students went on to university, there was little point exposing the mass of them to it.
But the child is father of the man, as Wordsworth wrote. Wise educators today know that childhood forms the adult, and the pathway to success in tertiary education begins in primary school, where the seeds of aspiration for university study can be sown. While many young people have these seeds sown by the example of graduate parents, many in disadvantaged families do not. The Commonwealth’s Higher Education Participation and Pathways Program (HEPPP) was established with generating such aspirations in mind. The idea was to help universities design strategies to improve access for students with low-socioeconomic status, and to enhance their retention and completion once they get there.
At the University of Adelaide in 2013, we were fortunate to win one of the largest grants in the HEPPP scheme, for our multi-year Journey to Higher Education project, through which, in co-operation with the state education authorities and other universities, activities are now conducted in some of the most disadvantaged primary schools in our city. We implant aspiration for university study in the minds of children, many from backgrounds of chronic unemployment and lack of education. Later, in disadvantaged secondary schools, we assist them with preparation for university admission. Once they are at university, we offer support to improve their retention in our degree programs.
It may seem puzzling that Adelaide University, one of the oldest of Australia’s sandstone universities, would be at the forefront of the HEPPP grant recipient list and a leading promoter of outreach to low-SES schools. But since its beginning in 1874, U of A has been committed to access for students of ability, regardless of their economic circumstances. Our founder, Dr Augustus Short, was determined to create something different from the playground for male aristocrats he recalled from his days as an Oxford don. At Adelaide, he admitted women as full students – the first university in Australia to do so and only the second in the English-speaking world – and from the outset, he offered scholarships to make university attainable even to the most deprived young people of the colony. It is a tradition we have sought over the past four years to recapture.
Undoubtedly, the most impressive part of our HEPPP activities is the Children’s University, also known as CU. This is a UK-originated program that takes children aged 7–14 from the most disadvantaged schools, brings them onto campus, gives them small study tasks and extracurricular experiences that they log in a CU passport, and then confers a certificate on them. This presentation takes place at a gala CU graduation ceremony on campus, complete with academic procession – the children in mini-academic gowns and mortar boards. Through this program, Adelaide is now reaching 4600 children a year from deprived schools in the state. The effect of a taste of university on their families, which range from Somalian refugees to third-generation welfare dependents who have never been near a university, has been profound.
U of A holds the Australian franchise for CU, through which we are now developing branches in other universities, from Newcastle to Darwin. We expect soon to see CU in New Zealand as well.
Sadly, our work may soon need to wind down. In the May federal Budget, the Commonwealth announced that the HEPPP scheme that funds these projects will be wound down to half its size over the coming three years. Large programs like ours will inevitably lose their funding, or have it significantly reduced.
This was a difficult decision to understand. A major aim of the demand-driven system (DDS) was to lift the participation of the disadvantaged in university study to 20 per cent of national enrolments. But the system has failed to improve low-SES enrolments in universities by much: the increase has been just 1.7 per cent. The assumption was that simply removing enrolment limits in universities would draw in disadvantaged students. Clearly, more than this is required to interest, prepare, attract and, most importantly, retain the disadvantaged in a university. The HEPPP grants have been a more active and effective way of achieving this objective, and against the billions being consumed by the DDS, have done so at insignificant cost.
When I was 11, university students still wore black gowns on campus – a quaint spectacle that contributed to the indelible impression my visit to Melbourne University made on me. Today, we would hope that our campuses wouldn’t make so otherworldly an impression on visitors. But they remain an unquestionably powerful symbol of discovery and advanced learning at work, and certainly no institutions were ever so important to our nation’s economic future. They should be places where able students can always enter and succeed, whatever their economic circumstances. With the future of university funding far from settled, we can only hope that wiser minds prevail, and that the proposed cuts to HEPPP are abandoned.
This article was published 25 July 2016 in the Campus Review