As a new generation of students start their University careers, one group arrived by a different path.
For Michael Jeffrey, university was always part of the plan.
“I’ve always had that aim and dream I would end up here,” he says. “I never really thought of anything else to be honest.”
Yet a tertiary education was never a given for Michael, financially or in terms of his background. Coming from Dubbo in central west NSW, other paths seemed more likely. “I think I was a little bit of an outsider in my community, actually wanting to go to university,” he says.
A graduate of Dubbo College, Michael took advantage of the University of Sydney’s Early Offer Year 12 (E12) scheme for NSW students that are experiencing financial hardship or attend a government-identified lower socio-economic (SES) or regional or remote school. He intends to pursue further study in astrophysics once he’s completed his Bachelor of Advanced Science.
“I wouldn’t have gotten into my degree without E12; I don’t know where I would have ended up otherwise,” the high-achieving student says.
E12 was established to implement the federal government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), which aims to address Australia’s widening education gap.
The program also reflects the University’s policies on diversity and social inclusion and since the first intake in 2013, around 350 students have successfully applied each year.
Mary Teague is head of the University’s Widening Participation and Outreach which works to increase the access and participation of students who might otherwise miss out on a university education. She credits the scheme with providing disadvantaged young people access to an excellent education at the University, supported by a transition-to-university package.
I wouldn’t have gotten into my degree without E12; I don’t know where I would have ended up otherwise
The resources offered by E12 might seem modest: an early conditional offer, a small reduction in the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank (ATAR) requirement, $5,000, an iPad, mentoring opportunities and a student union Access Card offering discounts, with additional accommodation scholarships available.
But the power of the program is undeniable.
“E12 offers us early engagement with students,” Teague explains. “They’re motivated to do well in the HSC and meet the ATAR requirement to get here. It really impacts on their approach to study in the last few important months of preparation for their exams.
“It also takes a lot of the stress out. They know if they do well in their trials, they’re likely to get the mark they need to obtain a place at the University.”
This echoes Madalyn Busby’s experience. Lively and engaging, Madalyn attended school in Taree in NSW’s Mid North Coast and moved to Sydney for university. Now three years into a Bachelor of Arts in Media and Communications, initially she doubted she could obtain the marks required for her desired course.
“The ATAR was around 98.5; I thought there’s no way I’m ever going to get that,” she says. “E12 made a massive difference. In the end I was about .5 of a mark off, but that .5 could have really mattered.
“I’d always looked at it as the ideal course that wasn’t really attainable. Then all of a sudden it was attainable, which was just so exciting.”
E12’s reduced ATAR is the major benefit of the scheme, but Teague is adamant it is not a handout.
“Educational disadvantage can equate to 10-15 marks on an ATAR,” she says. “E12 isn’t about bonus points. It’s about acknowledging deep-seated and long-standing educational disadvantage from the beginning of some young peoples’ engagement with education.”
Laurie Yutuc attended St Marys Senior High School in Western Sydney and is now studying a Bachelor of Commerce at Sydney. He describes the application process for E12, which seeks to identify students with the necessary skills and capacity for higher education.
“Half of the E12 application is seeing you as a person and not just looking at your marks,” he says. “It’s really important to demonstrate the things you do outside of class, even if you don’t think it’s relevant.
“I worked in a part time job in retail on the weekends, played social sports, was vice captain of my school and involved in the student representative council (SRC). Any experience that requires you to work in a team or problem solve can be applicable.”
The selection process is effective. From the beginning of the program, E12 recipients have tended to outperform their fellow students who entered the University on a higher ATAR.
Teague puts this success down to two factors.
“By the time they arrive these students have already unlocked what they want to study and why they want to be here,” she says.
“Students from disadvantaged backgrounds also tend to be very resilient and motivated. It was hard to get here so they make the most of their educational opportunities.”
She also appreciates the contribution these students make to the broader University community.
“Thanks to E12, we have an amazing group of young people from diverse backgrounds who can offer an understanding of the world that is remarkably different from many students that attend Sydney.”
It’s not just the E12 students who are affected. As Teague says, “It’s very moving when parents speak of their hopes for their children, and pride at what they’ve achieved. Because university was not in any way beyond them in terms of capacity, but often the opportunity wasn’t there.
“The whole university community benefits from having diverse perspectives, it positively impacts on all students education and is part of the University’s core values.”
The students themselves are convinced of the value of tertiary education.
Madalyn recommends engaging in genuine soul searching before deciding what course to do.
“Look at your strengths and see what you can make of them. For me it was, ‘I know I like writing so what can I do with that?’ Find a way to make your passion into a career.”
Laurie believes the university experience is worthwhile in its own right.
“People shouldn’t get too caught up in choosing a degree, thinking it will lock them into a career they won’t want to do for the rest of their life.
“It’s doesn’t matter if you have a Bachelor of Arts, Commerce or Science, in the real world people really look for experiences and skills that you’ve built.”
For Michael, it’s important to aim high.
“I think kids from our area always doubt they can actually achieve anything,” he says. “They need to start believing they can achieve their goals in a university environment, because it can be done.”