Though students from low socio-economic backgrounds make up one quarter of the community, only 15.7% enroll in higher education, according to the Department of Education and Training.
There’s no single solution to the education gap – it takes a team effort at multiple levels. At the tertiary level, the University of Sydney’s Widening Participation and Outreach (WPO) is a group working to improve participation of under-represented groups in higher education.
WPO’s mission is “to prepare, motivate and engage young people, with the support of their communities, to access, participate and succeed in higher education”. In particular, the vision of the work is “to create and sustain a university in which the brightest and most promising students, regardless of their cultural or social background, can thrive and realise their potential”.
The organization works with teachers, families and community influencers – as well as high school students themselves – to help students make informed decisions about their future, and ready them for the academic challenges of high school and university.
Katy Head is an Alumna of Teach for Australia (Cohort 2011), and is currently Manager, Strategic Projects for WPO. She manages schools outreach projects, which includes a variety of programs for high school students.
This year, one of the key strategic undertakings Katy is leading focusses on “improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student engagement in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)-related subjects, degrees and professions, and overall participation in higher education”.
What does this look like in practice?
Katy hosts in-school and on-campus workshops and experiences for high school students, to engage and immerse them in university life.
Recently, she helped facilitate a week-long residential program called Bunga Barrabugu – a five-day opportunity for Year 11 and Year 12 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to explore a subject area of their choice and experience being a uni student. “It’s designed to enrich student achievement through academic skills development, subject-specific exam preparation strategies and workshops focused on well-being resilience and cultural identity – and enable students to feel confident about University being a place for them,” Katy explains.
As a Teach For Australia Associate (Cohort 2011), Katy taught at Caroline Chisholm Catholic College in Victoria. She had been working at the University of Sydney previously as well, in Government Relations, supporting the development of grant applications and government policy responses.
“It was during this time that I was first confronted by the shameful anomaly of disproportionately static rates of participation in higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and students from low socio-economic backgrounds,” Katy says. “I felt called to do more than write about the issues and challenges, to move beyond the rhetoric of barriers to inclusion by trying to affect positive change as a teacher through Teach for Australia.”
Now at WPO, she admits that as someone who is passionate about students, she doesn’t get to have as much contact with them as she used to: “The limited scope for student engagement, when compared to the influence of a classroom teacher, is something I find quite personally challenging.”
But it’s Katy’s background in the classroom that informs her current work. “I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to channel my energies into meaningful work that I could not be doing with the same insight, effectiveness and reflexivity were it not for my experiences through Teach For Australia.”