You cant eat a degree. Jason Clare’s companion challenge

In the green valleys that loom above Tasmania’s east coast, and the stoic communities in the west, you’ll find some poster children for the Accord.

The once in a generation transformation of the model of higher education, pondered by successive governments but perhaps now more likely, aims to find ways to help marginalised individuals and people from low socio-economic backgrounds to make their way into higher education.

But here is Jason Clare’s challenge. If you can’t afford a bus fare out of town, let alone accommodation and fees to study even a week away from home, then you need technology. And in those not particularly remote areas of Tasmania still without decent mobile coverage, then even if you can afford a computer, it will have to operate offline.

Access to technology is just one part of the solution, but an important one. This week there was an interesting thesis published by Dr Mary Jo Madda, a Senior Program Manager at Google and UCLA student, looking at the value of after school coding programs for kids from black and latino neighbourhoods. The study found that access to technology and also humans to guide them in the use of it significantly increased their skills and knowledge – or technological social capital.

Across the Atlantic, Anisa Abeytia, the Senior Digital Inclusion Project Lead at International Rescue Committee of the UN High Commission for Refugees has looked at the importance of technology in allowing Syrian refugees to find their place in Swedish society in a paper also published this month. She has been looking at ways to use technology as a form of digital inclusion, to speed up the process of getting jobs and access to higher education for people in marginalised groups.

A third paper out this week from Dr Esther Doecke at Victoria University looks at the strategies that families employ to help their students achieve at school, comparing experiences in the Australian and German school systems. The paper finds that despite significant differences in school systems, families play an important role in deploying strategies that help students to perform.

“A new era of concern is evident amongst families,” DrDoecke writes, due to a common perception that a child’s future is increasingly dependent on school success and in turn, achieving university qualifications.

The findings give rise to an obvious question – what of the opportunities for success of those children who don’t have family support?

New approaches that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional campus responsibilities will need to be implemented alongside Accord reforms if they are to gain traction with marginalised constituencies.

Correspondence education programs, relying on sending materials to far-flung students via mail, were slayed or shuttered as the internet grew and while they may be irrelevant for other countries, they may still have an appeal here in some form.

Look beyond the grand promises of network coverage maps and start talking with communities and you suddenly discover that a mobile phone is useful only as a paperweight across swathes of the country. Sitting in my mother’s house in Benalla, in central Victoria, I can’t raise a result from Google. Driving from Melbourne to Sydney, the people on the other end of the line start cursing you somewhere near Gundagai.

The other factor rarely considered in the rush to pull people to campuses is the significance of country to Indigenous people; of family and connection to people of many cultures. Is it reasonable for policy makers from stable, upper-middle income families with choices and a relative wealth of disposable income to assume that we can solve access to education issues if we still require students to uproot themselves to access it? Online education is viable for a proportion of those who can’t get to campus, but what about the rest?

The challenge of the Accord (and with many higher education strategies) is that it may fail to achieve its goals if it is supply-driven and provider-centric. Have a look at the submissions and you are not going to find many from lower socio-economic communities from Huonville to Humpty Doo, where students struggle to access university. The poor folk that our system benevolently seeks to assist are frequently misunderstood, and the issues misdiagnosed.

Even if higher education became free, how does that help a student who can’t afford rent or food? Fee reform is critical and can have substantial benefits for those who are already able to attend, certainly, but doesn’t address the equity and access issues for a significant portion who will continue to be shut out.

The papers out this week are a valuable reminder of the opportunities that await if the Accord can address more than provider-centric policy challenges. There are many opportunities for greater digital inclusion.



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