Guest Post: ‘Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word’

This week a former student of mine posted a link to a piece she had written for the University of Sydney student newspaper, Honi Soit. I read the story (feeling proud, impressed, and agreeing with her the whole time), and quickly asked if she would mind if I reposted the article here as a guest post on my blog.

Lauren checked with Honi, and Honi were fine with it (thanks editors!). Which makes me happy, because I think this story about the systematic exclusion of disadvantaged students from university is an important one to tell. As a ‘first in family’ university student from Sydney’s Southwest, I too have experienced the cultural and financial barriers to university success.

So here, with kind permission from the author, Lauren Pearce, and the original publisher, Honi Soit, is the article…

Christopher Pyne, equity goals, and the p-word

Lauren Pearce thinks those advocating to keep USYD “prestigious” often do little more than lock out the disadvantaged

by Lauren Pearce, published by Honi Soit on October 15, 2013.

I’m going to drop the p-word: prestigious. There’s really nothing wrong with that word. The only real issue is if you keep applying the word to yourself, justly or otherwise. Then you start to look like another p-word: pretentious.

On Thursday, 10 October Tony Abbott emerged in Melbourne to assure reporters the university reforms that Christopher Pyne announced earlier were to be put on a back-burner. These changes would mean a cap on university places as opposed to the “demand-driven system” currently in place and the axing of equity goals that encourage students from low-SES backgrounds to enroll, a move that Pyne stated would ensure quality but which had been criticised by the NTEU as detrimental to students from low-SES backgrounds and regional students.

Since Labor’s reforms were announced in 2011 there has been a slight upswing in the number of low-SES students attending university. Department of Industry higher education statistics show that out of the total students who commenced in 2012, 16.9% of them were from a low-SES background, up 9.1% from 2011. The Gillard government aimed to reach 20% by 2020. USYD falls far behind that percentage. The University’s White Paper, published in 2010, states that only 7% of our student population was from a low-SES background, a number the Paper aimed to increase to 12% by 2015. One method to help achieve these targets was to introduce the E12 scheme in 2013, which provided early entry and a scholarship to 124 students from a low-SES background, including myself. That number is expected to double in 2014. The White Paper’s also found that concerns regarding a student’s disadvantaged background being an unnecessary drain on university resources were “unfounded”.

As a student from a low-SES background, hearing Christopher Pyne effectively say I am “the poison that would undermine [universities’] reputation[s]” stings. An article by Avani Dias inHoni Soit two weeks ago demonstrated that students from western Sydney experience casual and serious discrimination by their peers. Pyne’s comments showed that his government endorses this kind of quiet discrimination and highlighted a real cultural problem.

How are students, who as Dias highlighted have enough barriers to attending university, meant to feel welcome when they know that both the Federal government and their peers are looking down upon them, because of where they grew up, or went to a public school? As a nation, and as a university population, are we too busy trying to be a “prestigious” institution that we’re blind to how pretentious we’ve become?

Image by Lauren Pearce

Opinion article in Honi Soit. Image by Lauren Pearce

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  1. #1 by Luci on October 30, 2013 - 10:56 am

    Great post. I am concerned that Chris Pyne’s elitist attitude regarding universities is just the tip of the ice berg. He is so out of touch with the less privileged that it skews his perspective and the decisions he is making leading the Education portfolio – including the decisions he makes at primary and secondary school levels that are going to grow the gap and make it harder still for kids from low SES backgrounds to get into university.

    One thing that stood out for me watching this week’s Q&A (in addition to the plan to sell off HECS debt to private companies!!!) is when he mentioned making the NAPLAN an online test next year. Now, to make a national education test an online one, you need to assume that all schools have enough quality computers and internet access for each student to do test.

    In my daughter’s small public school that means they would need at least 79 working computers (for year 3 & 5 students) with suitable/quality internet access, situated in a room suitable for exam conditions. But reality is the school has only 40 ageing desktop computers spread out over 10 classrooms and old internet cabling in the school causing lag time.

    Do you think that would skew the NAPLAN results at all, considering that private schools are generally speaking better resourced with technology than public schools?

    If I was the paranoid type, I might suspect that they’re building this disadvantage in on purpose, allowing private schools to continue to claim they’re “better,” to push for increased privatization (in Q&A he additionally pushed for the ‘independent’ public school model), and this will have impact on growing the gap and making it harder for the average Aussie kid to get into university.

    Anyway, I’ll stop ranting now ;) If it’s okay, can I give a little plug to my daughter’s school fundraiser? We’re trying to raise money for improved technology in our school – if you can help by sharing the link it would be great – the link is http://villageraised.com/fundraiser/help-darlo-go-digital/

    thanks :)

  2. #2 by TroyMartin on November 3, 2013 - 5:36 pm

    Love it. Coming from a family where I am the first to finish high school and attend university, it does amaze me the ignorance of so many people about opening the sandstone universities to all. Like all education settings it is what the student puts into the balance of social and academic life.
    I read an article by Richard Ackland about the judges at the High Court, NSW Supreme Court and the NSW District Court, the majority have attend the University of Sydney. This is the university of the first women law students in Australia, the university of Charles Perkins.
    Having read about the Sydney Push and their presence at the University of Sydney, it has been a melting pot of social and cultural backgrounds and it should stay that way. If a government has to intervene to legislate for diveristy, so it should.

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