Reaching for the Stars

My op-ed in today's Canberra Times is on the importance of improving access to university.

We Can't Cut Our Way to Being a Clever Country, Canberra Times, 18 July 2014

Inhabiting planet earth just isn’t enough for Nicholas Badullovich. He dreams of working for NASA with space as the new frontier. As a Star Wars fan, the former Moruya High student is the youngest of five children and the first in his family to go to university. He is now studying science at the Australian National University.

This didn’t happen automatically. Nicholas had help through a Labor-championed and target-driven social equity program that aims to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into university.

It’s called the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program. The program works to ensure that Australians from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the ability to study at university get the opportunity to do so. It funds universities to undertake activities and implement strategies that improve access to undergraduate courses for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as boosting the retention and completion rates of those students.

The participation and partnership program’s key target is that by 2020, 20% of higher education enrolments at undergraduate level should be students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This goal matters because people are our best assets and Australia’s future productivity will rely on a skilled and professional workforce.

With a letter of commendation from his school principal and visits to the Australian National University campus while at high school, Nicholas was able to jump real but invisible barriers. ‘There are lot of misconceptions about university. I never saw myself in academia before but came to see what was possible.’ Nicholas says his first year was tough but he’s now doing so well that he plans to go on to do a PhD.

In our region, fifteen regional high schools from Goulburn to the Snowy Mountains, Batemans Bay to the far south coast have partnered with the Australian National University and the University of Canberra to run camps, host visits by regional students and send undergraduates into high schools to raise awareness of tertiary study. Through the program, parents and carers also become familiar with university life, helping to develop ‘cultures of possibility’ that will spur students on to further study.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne slashed funding to the participation and partnership program in the May budget. The $51 million set aside for the program was cut by nine per cent. This government seems happy to let the postcode into which you are born define the destiny of young people like Nicholas, instead of supporting them to achieve their full potential.   

There’s early evidence that the program is meeting its main goal of increasing university access. Since 2010, offers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the participation and partnership program across our region have increased by 27%, and Australian National University enrolments have risen 28%. While it’s too early for reliable retention figures, that’s a significant increase in the number of young people accessing university.

Overall, the Rudd and Gillard Governments delivered a massive new injection of funding into universities. One in four students at Australian universities today is there because of Labor.

As with other participating institutions around the country, both the Australian National University and the University of Canberra have widened their catchment without compromising educational standards. They are also reaping the benefits of a more diverse university community. Let’s face it, as campus life is far more interesting when a cross-section of people can learn from each other’s life experiences.

There’s evidence that early investment in education can pay big dividends. While the outcomes of the participation and partnership program’s work with younger students won’t fully be known for a number of years, the program has enormous potential and should be given time to blossom. By cutting back funding for the program, Minister Pyne is effectively cutting off pathways to a better future for many young Australians.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Badullovich has become an Australian National University ‘Community Ambassador’ (what they call an ‘Aspiration Agent’ over at the University of Canberra); tutoring at a regional homework centre and mentoring others of school age to stretch their horizons so that they too plan for university study. He tells high school students that ‘no question is too silly’. 

Australia needs more stargazers like Nicholas. But we’ll have fewer if the government persists with its cuts to smart programs to encourage more first-in-family students to attend university. We can’t cut our way to being a clever country.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Member for Fraser. 

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