Professor Warren Bebbington

Welcome to my blog: I look forward to hearing from you and reading your comments about our University. I hope this becomes a great melting pot for intellectual ideas, views and debate and I welcome all of your contributions.

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


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After 18 months of heated debate, bold reform of Australia’s higher education funding was deferred until at least 2018 in the nation’s federal budget last week while public consultation takes place.

Thus, the pace of policy reform has come near full circle for the Liberal coalition government, elected in 2013 proclaiming there would be no change for universities for at least two years.

After less than a year, education minister Christopher Pyne surprised everyone with a comprehensive reform package, which would have thrown open Australia’s much-admired public university student loans (HELP) to private colleges and preparatory courses, and deregulated fees.

To read my full article, visit the Times Higher Education Blog


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Combining our various arts and music schools and departments into a single multi-arts academy could mean SA would “lead the nation in creative industries education,” Douglas Gautier told a CEDA arts conference last week.

If only achieving national leadership in arts education were that simple. Would the Australian Ballet School produce better dancers if it merged with the Australian National Academy of Music?

Would Mel Gibson or Cate Blanchett have been better off at a multi-arts college than at NIDA? I doubt it: they would say that single-purpose training in Sydney’s famous dramatic arts school was the best and most focused they could have wished for.

The fact is that the specific educational needs of an aspiring dancer, a painter, a musician and an actor are utterly different. Creating a uniform pathway across the educational levels for one of them, as Flinders and TAFE propose for art in StudioSA, makes good sense. But trying to merge all the art forms in a single institution would achieve little but compromise.

And what unmet workforce needs would a large arts education institution meet? Finding regular work in the arts is tough. There are already two multi-arts academies in Australia–the VCA in Melbourne and WAAPA in Perth–and employment prospects for their graduates are always fragile. When I was Dean of the VCA, we had some hugely successful graduates, but also those who ended up selling real estate or driving taxis instead of in artistic careers. Adding an institution to Adelaide that would pour out unemployable graduates is about the last thing the State needs at the moment.

The truth is, what is really needed next in arts education from our existing SA universities and colleges is not an art schools merger, but innovation. We need to start producing young artists who can creatively combine their artistic talent with technological skill and entrepreneurial instincts to survive in the digitally-disrupted world which is ahead for them. We need sound artists who can market their music online, graphic artists who can master the new commercial realities in a digital world, performing ensembles which can create their own virtual venues where their audience is now to be found and grown.

We need educators in individual art forms to interface with their university’s non-arts fields, to create utterly new art that will find new audiences and international attention. The imaginative way young musicians are combining music with media and technology in the new Sia Furler Institute for Contemporary Music and Media at the University of Adelaide is an example of where we need to go next. These young artists are finding ways to combine music, film, new media, and sound engineering to create artistic outcomes at the cutting edge. They will find their audiences.

Arts graduates from innovative programs like this are no different from the founders of commercial startups–innovators who need an angel investor ready to help them scale up, promote their work to new audiences and export their creations to the world. It is investing in the promotion and export of the work of young arts innovators where our government needs to put its arts dollar, not in funding another educational institution.

After all, Adelaide is already the national leader in arts festivals–fabulous creative events that each year showcase to the nation fresh arts innovation from around the world. Would our festival directors fill their programs with the students of a local multi-arts academy? I doubt it. They will continue to seek front-rank originality and imagination, wherever they can find it. If more of it can be sourced from savvy, cross-disciplinary creative artists grown here, our arts educators will have succeeded.

Published April 28, 2016 on AdelaideNow.

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I spoke with Stephen Matchett from Campus Morning Mail and ABC yesterday re the value of ATARs. Contrary to some others, I believe that the ATAR is still a very important indicator to measure a student’s readiness for higher education. You can read more of my comments here also listen to my interview with Ali […]

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Sunday was glorious weather for the annual City to Bay Fun Run, and it was a pleasure to join over 270 University of Adelaide staff and students who competed – I believe the largest team in the event. Thanks to our sponsors, and also to those from Adelaide University Sport and the Engagement Branch who […]

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From the moment my youngest son entered primary school, it became clear he was different. Though he had no intellectual impairment, he could often not understand the teacher’s verbal instructions, his reading was slow and his speech at times repetitive and halting, he started to suffer high anxiety and became easily agitated. Outside the classroom, […]

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On Monday, I joined Premier Jay Weatherill in announcing a new series of postgraduate scholarships in sciences and mathematics in honour of Singaporean President, and University of Adelaide distinguished alumnus, President Tony Tan. The new scholarships will give postgraduate research students from Singapore the chance to live and study in South Australia—the University will waive […]

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The growth of families in Asia affluent enough to send their children to universities abroad will continue to be extraordinarily rapid for the next decade. What is not clear is where they will choose to send them, and I so welcome the State Government’s commitment to making Adelaide an energetic and vibrant destination for international […]

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In the midst of a cold, wet Adelaide winter, it is simply unfathomable that anyone should be sleeping rough in our city. And yet more than 6000 members of our local community are doing just that every year. This morning, 50 members of staff joined me, the Chancellor and over 2000 fellow South Australians to […]

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I spent the morning today at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, teaching second and third-year students about Mozart and Wagner opera, as part of the course, Music and Ideology. Ever since leaving an academic role for university leadership I have tried to keep at least some contact with students and my discipline: and indeed, most […]

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