Sunday, October 19, 2014

Graduation ceremonies a celebration of Australia's cultural diversity

One of the joys / delights of being a university chancellor is presiding over graduation cermonies.

Most of their families are uninhibitedly proud, even as some of the graduands feign all shades of cool.

As students receive their testamurs they are greeted not just by enthusiastic clapping and cheering but at the University of Western Sydney, over which I preside – and as a reflection of the increasing number of Arabic, Indian and African background students – ululating.

The ceremony conveys an important story. Unfortunately it's often only half told.


The great majority of those in the audience, whose children are the first generation of their family to enjoy university, recognise the magnitude of the achievement and the possibilities it represents. By creating an institution open to all students of ability, no matter what their background or family circumstance, Australian society is continuously revitalised.

Both Gough Whitlam and Robert Menzies before him had the vision and foresight to see higher education as the gateway to economic and social mobility. They understood that education is about widening opportunity not lowering standards.

Universities need to provide the teaching and support that guarantees the educational capacity of students when they complete their courses of study. Armed with a degree (and the learning that it represents), graduates have a world of career options opened to them. Their personal achievement is reflected not only in the higher lifetime earnings they are likely to enjoy but also a richer and more rewarding life.

The proportion of Western Sydney students of low socio-economic status who gain entry to UWS is almost twice the national average. That's scarcely surprising given the region's lower education and skill levels, higher unemployment, poorer health standards, worse infrastructure and fewer cultural facilities. The metrics tell a tale of two cities.

Yet disadvantage is only part of the story. There is a second interwoven narrative that sits alongside the traditional evocations of economic obstacles and social deficit. It goes to the heart of the dynamism that marks the extraordinary energy of Western Sydney and the brash but distinctive confidence it is starting to exude. Central to this is its vibrant ethnic diversity. 

The traditional lands of the Dharug peoples are now home to the largest Aboriginal community in Australia. In large measure that reflects the movement of Indigenous families to the area in search of a better life. Increasing numbers of their children are gaining entry to UWS. They will be the community leaders of the future.

Western Sydney is also the chosen home of increasing immigrant populations, particularly from the Middle East and Asia. Fairfield, Westmead, Harris Park, Rhodes, Homebush West and Parramatta are the new bustling migrant neighbourhoods of Australian life. 

Around a third of the domestic students who attend UWS come from families that speak a language other than English at home. The second languages of most of our bilingual students are Arabic, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Filipino/Tagalog or Korean. Increasing numbers of our students come from the Pacific islands.

We need to stop thinking about this archetypally Australian process of migrant settlement in terms of barriers of language and discrimination. Migrants (and refugees) bring entrepreneurial drive and ambition for their children. Young people brought up in two cultures possess an additional asset that can enhance their educational qualifications in business, law, medicine, nursing, teaching, engineering or community work. 

The public return on the government subsidy invested in the human capital of graduates will only be fully realised if that positive value of diversity is recognised. Education, after all, is about maximising the economic and social return to the wider Australian community not just improving lifetime opportunities for the students themselves.

Ethnicity, in this profound sense, has positive characteristics. Think of it as "hip-pocket multiculturalism". It is  the productive diversity than can be liberated by a university education.

As the Prime Minister and NSW Premier lead business delegations to India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia, it is clear that the linguistic and cultural attributes of Australian students can help to create new opportunities for trade and commerce. 

Earlier this year, in the Griffith Review, Kathy Marks provocatively argued about "How the Westies Won". Not won, I think, but winning. The potential of Western Sydney is limited only by our imagination. The key is to unlock through education the aspirational energy that exists. Equally important, we need to recognise the cultural skills and family ambition that graduates from diverse backgrounds can bring to building a stronger nation. The students who shake my hand are the future face of Australia.

Peter Shergold, the former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, is now Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.

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