06 Feb Equity through Engagement: another chance to succeed
It is richer now, and its population is growing; it has the industry, the complexity and sophistication of metropolitan life; its self-assurance is increasing. Equality between human beings was at the centre of the Australian dream – the most noble of the aspirations that sprang from its early hardships. The problem today… is to make that dream become a reality.
There are those who believe the Australian dream is owning your own home. Others believe it is wanting your kids to have a better life than you have had (along with an increasing realisation that this is sadly becoming less likely). The journalist, academic and historian, Norman Mackenzie, who helped found Britain’s largest university, the Open University (quoted above) believed that the Australian dream of the ‘fair go’ was coterminous with being given another chance to succeed.
In a few weeks the University Accord will set out how it plans to give the Australian higher education sector yet another chance to succeed in delivering against its ambitious equity targets by recognising the need to re-assert and re-imagine the social purposes of a university education. These are fundamental impulses driving the equity and engagement agenda across our nation which is necessary to meet the challenge of change. University engagement is now itself a near universal phenomenon and its diversity and ubiquity is a challenge as we seek to harness the educational means of overcoming what many now see as existential crises facing modern societies.
The twin pillars of democratic access and university engagement should be welcomed as an attempt to find and construct alternative knowledge around the themes and issues that have bedevilled communities of disadvantage. Engagement and widening participation and open access implicitly challenge the existence of elitism and social division in our society as a necessary step towards social progress, equity and social justice. If the University Accord is to make its contribution to a new and progressive social contract which fits us to deal with the issues facing us today, then it must make its public purpose clear. The agenda for social transformation is necessary and never more needed than in the third decade of the 21st century and into our near future.
The 21st century is entering an era with grave problems and challenges and for which only a critical and engaged education can offer hope for the future. The failures in globalism, the existential issues of climate change and global warming, the persistently embedded racism and social inequalities and injustices in our communities, the move to the digital world of communication and control, the presence of devastating global health pandemics and the threat of war and nuclear destruction all challenge us to find a better way of knowing and an improved curriculum; one that is capable of comprehending and overcoming the ‘wicked issues’ which will destroy our civilisation if left unchallenged. This is the evolving context of the contemporary ‘learning society’ where we leave the masses behind at our peril. We need an education system and culture which is fit for purpose to meet the challenge of change. In other words, we are confronted with the dire need to find an education and curriculum to meet this overwhelming sense of systemic change and its threats to our sheer existence. There are dire warnings that we literally face extermination of human species events within our lifetimes and these wicked issues are surely a manifesto for change for all. This agenda can no longer be implicit, however, since the existential issues facing humankind demand a more radical, conscious and transformative response.
In a world characterised by divisions and differences and still marked by forms of oppression and injustice, learning and education in general does not decline in importance. The existentially threatening issues which have come to the fore and into public consciousness and which force us all to address our future prospects for survival have come to consciousness since the explosion of mass higher education. They categorically impel us to address our future use and application of education and higher learning for the common good. Understanding the historical successes and failures of equity and engagement aspirations in Australian higher education should help us grasp the nature of such transformations so that the nature and necessary understanding for our future transformations can be constructed together through the legacy of a University Accord process that is given every chance to succeed.
And the dream remains: we need learning and university engagement for progressive social change above all.
Professor Jim Nyland
Chair, Engagement Australia