Turning disadvantage on its head

One of the Federal Government’s boldest responses to the Bradley Report on higher education released early this year was to provide incentives for universities to increase their share of disadvantaged students.

The thinking behind this move is simple: the Government wants to increase the percentage of graduates to 40 per cent of people under the age of 35 from the existing 30 per cent plus by 2020.

 The largest untapped group is the disadvantaged, although this group is already well represented at VU, which is one of only two metropolitan universities in Australia to meet the Government’s new benchmark for enrolments of low SES students.  

This means the University will receive a small but important funding boost of about $400 per student to continue and expand the English language and skills tuition we already do with students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds – about 50 per cent of our students – and from the lowest socio-economic quartile ­– 20 per cent of existing students.

Further grants are available to provide programs in what we refer to as “educational literacy”, or knowledge and awareness of tertiary education, to students in disadvantaged schools throughout our Western suburbs catchment.

VU plans to expand this work and to develop an institute based at the St Albans Campus that will provide research and training for teachers working with disadvantaged students.

And it doesn’t end there. There have been some other positive developments for students, including a recent ruling by the Federal Court which means that students earning more than $15,000 a year (about half of our students) may claim their educational expenses off their tax.

As Pro Vice-Chancellor Students Dr Stephen Weller explained recently, this is another small but positive gain for our students, many of whom are forced into the workplace for 20 hours a week or more because of their impoverished circumstances.

“Coupled with significant changes being negotiated through the Senate by the Federal Government, this court ruling is an important one for students,” Dr Weller said.

“The lifting of thresholds for parental income before students are eligible for Austudy or Youth Allowance, and the reduction in the age at which students are deemed independent of their parents mean that more students will receive government support.

“The other factor we can influence is the provision of more student jobs by the University. At VU we are working on increasing the number of part-time jobs available to students so that more are able to work on campus.

“Research from overseas shows that the provision of on-campus employment is one of the most effective ways of retaining students from low SES and CALD backgrounds.”

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