Last week I put in an application to be an outreach ambassador at my university, to work with high school students from low socio-economic and Indigenous backgrounds and encourage them to continue their education at uni. One of the desirable qualities in the position description was ‘has an understanding of how disadvantage affects education.’ I thought: well, as someone from a regional high school, and someone who was involved in this sort of work with the NSW Priority Schools Program for several years while in school myself, I definitely feel like I can say yes to that. So I made the shortlist and was asked to attend the selection day last Friday.
There were about thirty five potential ambassadors in the room. We were given some background on the Outreach team and their work, what would be required of us, and spent some time working on individual testimonials which we then delivered to each other in smaller groups. I was amazed at how many first year students there were, and not so surprised at the huge proportion of science/engineering students and college kids. In another activity, we were asked to draw the ideal ambassador on butcher’s paper in small groups.
It was here that I started to question some of the things going on. Many of the things my group chose to represent as attributes of an ideal ambassador were straightforward: friendliness, organisational skills, patience, enthusiasm. Thinking of the emphasis on low socio-economic areas and Indigenous students, I threw in ‘cultural sensitivity’ and ‘awareness of own privilege’ – two things I think lie at the basis of any social justice-type work. But as soon as the word ‘privilege’ left my mouth, I was shot down. My fellow group members frowned at me. ‘I don’t think that’s necessary,’ one girl said. ‘Surely everyone is unique and has challenges of their own?’ Well, yes, I thought. But there’s a difference between individual challenges and institutionalised or generational disadvantage. But I could sense the hostility, so I said ‘ok, I won’t add it then,’ and we moved on.
Later in the day’s proceedings we were asked to do a role-playing activity, where we were given a scenario and had to think about how to best deal with the situation, before acting it out for the other groups. My group was told that a high school student had approached us and said that they didn’t think they were smart enough for university. We came up with a range of ideas to talk about: the differences between high school and uni, options of getting into courses for students with low OP scores, the balance of social and academic at uni, ways of finding support. As we were thinking, I realised that not all of the things we were saying were probably that easy to actually see through in practice – especially getting into uni without a good OP ranking.
However, it was the group after us which really left me thinking afterwards. The scenario was similar to ours: a student comes up to you and says that they want to go to uni, but don’t think they can afford it. Both groups came up with a range of solutions to the issue – but as I listened, it struck me that some of these people really seemed to have no idea of how things worked in real life.
‘First of all, you don’t have to pay for uni, because HECS covers that,’ they said. (And yes, that’s true enough.) ‘Secondly, there are so many scholarships you can apply for at uni. You can also get Centrelink, which is great and really easy, and you can also get a part time job. Lots of people have them, and you can even tutor – the pay is really good, like $35 an hour!’
Let’s deconstruct those suggestions a bit, starting with scholarships.
When I applied to UQ, I searched every web page for any scholarships I could find. I found some UQ-link scholarships valued at around $1000 a year for low SES students which I couldn’t apply for since I had taken a gap year. I applied for the generic academic scholarships, but wasn’t successful in getting anything because you needed to have an OP 1 to be considered. And that was all I found. Anything else that I dug up was a bursary or prize given to students already enrolled, and valued only at a few hundred dollars or less. Hardly enough to make a student who thinks they can’t afford to go to uni change their minds!
So scholarships aren’t feasible for living off. What about Centrelink? Well, yes, many students are eligible for Youth Allowance or Austudy/Abstudy, but it’s far from easy to apply for and far from easy to live on. The Centrelink system works on the basis that if you don’t tick their boxes perfectly, you don’t get anything. If you aren’t independent (by working enough or by being 22 or older), then anything weird or out of the ordinary in your family can make it a lot harder to even get Centrelink payments. And if you’re like me and live off your payments, then you need to know how to be really careful with your money – because there’s not a lot of it, and you’ve got to get it to cover rent and groceries and electricity and internet bills, not to mention anything extra like medical costs or supporting family members or textbooks for uni.
What about jobs? Well, by all my lecturers’ accounts, uni is meant to be a full-time job in itself. Of course, a lot of students do work alongside uni, and I’m no exception. But finding a job that is flexible enough to fit in with your uni hours, that pays well enough, that is a reasonable distance from your house is not that easy in itself. If you’ve never worked before it’s even harder, because very few places will hire you with no experience, and the places that will prefer those even younger than you, because they can get paid less. As for tutoring at uni? Well, I’m not sure where the people in that group got that from, but from what I’ve seen in my three years at uni, you can’t tutor until you’re a postgrad – so how you’re meant to tutor as a first-year student is beyond me.
The presentation highlighted that for many people, the idea of disadvantage seems to be something ephemeral, something that exists more in a person’s head than anything else. And I realise that it’s important to be encouraging and motivating in this sort of work. But not at the expense of being realistic. Things like financial disadvantage are real and powerful, and have a huge impact on people’s lives. Along the same lines, I don’t think encouraging Indigenous students to come to uni will be as easy as saying ‘you just have to give it a go!’ I’d like to hope that at some point in the proper ambassador training, someone will sit down and say ‘this is what disadvantage looks like – this is why people find it hard to make the decision to come to university.’
Perhaps I’m too cynical for this ambassador position, but I’d feel like a fraud telling high-school students from backgrounds of intersecting disadvantage that it’s all so much easier than they think. Because I’m pretty sure that it’s not. And that is so important to recognise.