Academic journal article European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, The

Yearning for Learning: Engaging the Disengaged through Socially Inclusive University-Community Partnerships

Academic journal article European Journal of Social & Behavioural Sciences, The

Yearning for Learning: Engaging the Disengaged through Socially Inclusive University-Community Partnerships

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Social injustices continue to be experienced by marginalised groups in Australia today and many Australians still face ongoing adversity or multiple forms of disadvantage in their lives, including mental health and physical problems, homelessness, interrupted schooling and joblessness (Snapshot, 2011). Dr Robert Fitzgerald, a Commissioner with the Australian Government Productivity Commission, argues that the concept of wellbeing should be broad and embrace the notions of 'economic and social participation, social cohesion, and personal autonomy' (Fitzgerald, 2008). Yet many people in Australia, and elsewhere, still remain socially excluded for numerous reasons, including low income, crime, unemployment, disability, and family disintegration. When experienced in combination, 'these problems can result in cycles of poverty, spanning generations and geographical regions' (Gillard & Wong, 2007).

Compounding these problems is the lack of opportunities available to people within these groups to participate in education programs that are both socially inclusive and responsive to individual needs. This is particularly so for those currently under-represented and lessadvantaged by their circumstances, including members of the Indigenous community, people with low socio-economic status and those from regional, rural and remote areas in Australia. The level of participation by these groups has been static or falling over the last decade signalling a clear message that this imbalance needs to be redressed. Education is known to be a key social determinant of health and wellbeing and this makes it all the more important that opportunities to participate in education are made available to ensure all citizens share in the benefits of a developing society (Wertheimer, 1997; Scull & Cuthill, 2010). Benson et al. (2007) suggest that access to university education for people who might otherwise be socially excluded can provide opportunities for them 'to gain confidence and capability to take control and re-engage purposefully in a changing society' (Benson et al., 2007).

Building an internationally competitive higher education system in Australia is regarded as a key determinant in its economic and social progress and in ensuring it maintains 'a high standard of living, underpinned by a robust democracy and a civil and just society' (Bradley, 2008). Traditionally, the two major foci in higher education have been teaching and research, while more recent developments have included a third element, or 'third stream activities' (Bradley Review of Higher Education, 2008). Although there is some difficulty in providing a clear definition for the diverse range of activities included in this element, there is general acceptance that these activities relate to university 'relationships with and contributions to other sectors of society' (Webber, 2008). In a globalised world where social problems are affecting an increasing number of people, the need for purposeful engagement by universities in the broader society and with their local communities remains a priority and has provided the impetus for the development of new partnerships and initiatives that are mutually reciprocal and effectively blur the boundaries between formal educational institutions, such as universities and schools, businesses and the wider community.

Working in partnership

Strong community-based initiatives that bring together an array of institutions for collaboration and partnership provide one approach towards addressing the need for increased participation in educational opportunities and have the potential to 'build a culture where learning is valued and promoted throughout life' (Kearns, 2005, p.48). Yet partnerships are not always easy to establish; if they are to be successful, there is a clear need for clarification of expectations (Social Inclusion Board, 2008, p.4) and an alignment of values to ensure there is a common understanding of the aims, culture and practices expected (Beck, 2006). …

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