University of Newcastle's history of backing disadvantaged students deserves support

Commitment: Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy receiving an honorary doctorate in 2014 for her work investigating institutional child sexual abuse.
Commitment: Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy receiving an honorary doctorate in 2014 for her work investigating institutional child sexual abuse.

IN 1996, at the age of 36, I completed a year of studies under the University of Newcastle’s Open Foundation program to see if I was up for a degree.

I started with a friend. She had two children and, like me, worked full time. Studying for a degree a couple of decades after completing my High School Certificate was a gift I had always promised myself. I would earn the tertiary qualification I’d deferred years earlier when I left school to work.

My friend signed up for a year of Open Foundation out of necessity. She had a low-paying, unfulfilling job, a mortgage, two children, and her husband had died suddenly a year earlier. She looked ahead to a life that differed significantly from the one she’d planned. She was on her own.

It was both a sobering situation and a liberating one. Years earlier she thought about becoming a teacher but pregnancy and her husband’s ability to support the family pushed the idea out of her mind. Then her husband died and everything changed.

I met a number of women who saw Open Foundation as a path to a university degree and a career after events like the death of a partner or end of a marriage. There were men and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s who left school for various reasons, worked and then decided they were ready for tertiary education. We all, in our own ways, lacked confidence.

I made a living by writing and had done well at school but I worried about whether I was romanticising university, and whether the reality of trying to study for a year and then start a degree while working full time and raising three teenagers was beyond me.

I look back on that Open Foundation year with enormous fondness. My friend and I studied hard, struggled to work out footnoting, agonised over assignments and got a thrill at the end when we qualified to start our respective degrees. I chose an arts degree. My friend studied education and specialised in teaching children with severe behavioural difficulties. She became an outstanding teacher.

I would have completed the Open Foundation program if there had been a cost – even the $3200 the Federal Government is now telling universities they should charge from January, 2018 under changes announced in the Budget.

That kind of charge would have stopped my friend. She wasn’t confident. She was alone. She was financially strapped and every cent counted. A relatively expensive course to see if she could study to be a teacher would have been too big a gamble at that time. It would have put her off. It would have been the community’s loss as much as my friend’s.

The Hunter should strongly oppose these changes, which will hit regional and remote Australia the hardest. It’s regional universities which have championed enabling courses like Newcastle’s Open Foundation, and Newstep and Yapug for indigenous students, to help people – and particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds – get the better jobs that governments tell us we’re supposed to obtain.

Tendering out these courses, charging fees and restricting places – all proposed – to save $30 million a year cannot be supported by anyone who has attended a University of Newcastle graduation, and spoken to the many people who credit the university’s enabling programs with changing their lives.

The skills I needed to investigate institutional child sexual abuse I learnt while completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Newcastle, and it started with my Open Foundation year.  

This story Hunter region should fight to preserve uni access paths first appeared on Newcastle Herald.