HERDSA 2012: Final general session – connecting with the community.

Today I’m sitting in a session whose theme is engagement and connection, with the community, with Vocational Education and Training (VET) and the university-school relationship. All of this goes to our greater role in the community, as knowledge leaders, as mentors and in giving value to the community as a whole. This post is the first of a couple that I want to make about this session.

It would be fairly easy to only think about the students who are already in your class and, given that they’ve got in, that it is up to the student to do all of the heavy lifting to stay there but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there are many students who, for reasons beyond their control, will have difficulty even making it to University, let alone staying there.

The first talk discussed the issues from the rural Canberra perspective. For those who don’t know, Australia is heavily urbanised with a coastal major city focus. There is still a rural community but with 201o numbers of rural population estimated at less than 2.5 million and steadily declining, Australia’s population heart is its cities. The declining rural employment sector and the movement of population, jobs and resources to the cities is leading to a drop in standards of living and rising unemployment. This is accompanied by a low percentage of families who have engaged in higher education and a very low level of attainment of the final years of secondary education. These low engagement rates with high secondary and higher ed make perfect sense when lifetime jobs are there without much further training, or with low levels of VET assistance, but become a trap once unskilled or traditionally apprenticed roles start to dry up.

The Commonwealth Government (that’s the Australian Federal Government for those who don’t know that we’re a commonwealth) has identified that they want to see a lot more low socio-economic status (SES) participants in higher ed by 2020 as they are largely unrepresented in the existing higher ed community. As people who did not traditionally attend University, this is a rich source of new students – assuming that we can solve some of the key problems in engaging, preparing and retaining these students.

Barbara Cram presented a paper on “Establishing a regional enabling pilot programme through uni-community engagement” which deals with the rural catchment area around the University of Canberra. Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is situated in the middle of a rural area and U Canberra sees itself as the University of the surrounding district. (The Australian National University is also in Canberra but, I believe, tends to focus on urban students from around Australia.) In the areas surrounding Canberra, roughly 8% of people have Bachelors’ degrees, well below the national levels, and, more depressingly, up to 50% of students who finish their schooling do not go on to either employment or further study. The social implications of this are profound – a community steadily heading towards disengagement and multi-generational unemployment, reducing opportunities further.

University of Canberra’s goal was to enhance regional participation in higher education in a thin market but what does it take to establish a new program in a regional town using a community-based participatory approach? The strategy is to use a community-based partnership strategy to develop community trust and to ensure that the community sees the value of the offering. Two course styles were offered: a community capacity development course (volunteer training and Certificate IV courses), or an enabling (university preparation) course. The community that U Can were working with, the town of Merimbula, decided that an enabling course was the best way forward.

The UCanReach program ran over 14 weeks, 2 evenings a week, and allowed participants to study three units: Learning at University, Communicating for Professional Futures (analysis of, and practice in, the range of text types of u/grad study), and Understanding Community (critical analysis, active participation, independent learning, primary and secondary research and academic literacy). The support provided here was considered critical to the success of the program, including in-house tutoring if students had particular difficulties and taxi vouchers to get people to the course if required. The support, from library resources to putting books into local bookshops, was based on the principle that all barriers to attendance should be reduced.

The overall results were very promising. From the 16 students who started, 14 stayed to the end of the course and, in an equivalence test to assess their University entrance rank, scored in the band 74-89 (out of 100). The benefits identified, through surveying, included the obvious educational benefits, economic and financial benefits, employment prospects, personal/family benefits and the community/social benefits. Ultimately, the last should be no great surprise, because there is less need to give support to these people and this reverses the overall trend of decline.

The major lessons learned here were that communities do place high value on university-community engagement but they need long lead times to ensure broad community-based promotion and ensures sustainable class sizes. Localisation into the community is important. You need to train local tutors in overall resources, keep links between the university and the students to maintain motivation, but relationship with other universities in the region is also important as enabled students may move to other Universities. However, support can’t finish at the end of the course. The presenter identified that there is still a need to provide scholarships for graduates wanting to study in Canberra.

The risks for the future, given how fragile this engagement is and that ongoing support is required, include the increasing costs for the students. When first run, the only cost was $40 for the textbook. Now, student amenities fees are going to add $200 for this. It is, of course, the mistake of privilege to make such statements as “well, if it’s important, then it’s only $200” and pick something that we perceive as a luxury for the target group to forgo. I found this talk interesting from many perspectives and also went up to thank the presenter for their efforts in trying to make a positive change to their region which, ultimately, will have great benefits for the community.

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