Barriers to Full Access, Inclusion and Success

Laurie Ferguson

The most recent census shows that the Muslim proportion of my electorate rose from 17.1% to 20.3% over the intervening five years. In the adjoining electorate of Blaxland it reached 20.6% and for the region bounded by Auburn, Bankstown, Campbelltown and Blacktown it is probably about 10%. Clearly despite some conversions to Islam, this is fundamentally connected with the other reality that a phenomenal 51.15% of residents in Reid who provided a Census answer were born outside Australia compared to a national figure of 23.85%. Former residents of Lebanon, Turkey and Afghanistan constitute 12.2% of the population. Crucial to my contribution is the fact that the electorate, a number surrounding it and more particularly many of these groups per se are socio-economically deprived, large numbers having being accepted as refugee humanitarians. Similar patterns are found in the Bankstown and Fairfield regions and to a lesser degree Campbelltown.

Despite the fact that the University of Sydney, UTS and Sydney TAFE are readily available by public transport and that younger people have more access to motor vehicles these days, other major tertiary institutions are not as accessible. For decades the decision to construct Macquarie University rather than a western Sydney university exacerbated poor access for our areas. Thus UWS has been a crucial deliverer of tertiary education for western Sydney Muslims and other residents. They share with many of their fellow students the important factor that they are from families where the undergraduate is the first family member to enter tertiary studies.

It has been comforting and useful that the UWS administration and its teaching staff have been cognisant of these issues and attempted to cater for this reality in policies. An instance of that is the Muslim Harmony Project whose management seems representative and which has made initiatives on sensitive handling of security issues, availability of halal food, Ramadan Iftars, help with the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies and facilitation of broader discussion of Islamic issues.

I have been asked to address the issues of access, inclusion and success for Islamic students. At the outset, I note that Labor in Opposition has established a new portfolio of Social Inclusion. Our priority is illustrated by the fact that Julia Gillard indisputably one of Australia's foremost political personalities has been given the portfolio.

In the April edition of Mosaic, the publication of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, she wrote, "Social exclusion can happen as a result if problems that emerge during life, or it can start from birth. Being born into poverty or war or to parents with no jobs or low skills is obviously a major influence on opportunities later in life... . Migrants recently settled in Australia, and even those who lived in Australia for decades can be socially excluded... . Often social exclusion can be mapped to particular areas on our cities, our outer suburbs and regional areas but it doesn't start or end here. We need to understand that some communities face multiple and compounding social disadvantage, social exclusion can also result from being a person that is alienated by race or disability in other parts of the country."

Clearly, Julia recognises what we and our communities face and could soon be in a position to start tackling these challenges.

When we speak of barriers, the most patent is the nature of education in this country. Australia's educational and training performance has deteriorated in the OECD league over the past decade. This is shown in figures on the Government contribution to tertiary education, the number of science graduates, the percentage of our GDP devoted to research and development etc. However, there is one graph in which Australia is a bullet performer. With the exception of Japan and South Korea, on average Australia asks each individual family to provide the greatest percentage of educational costs from its own family resources. If an area is one of socio-economic disadvantage, this means that even Government Schools have become increasingly dependent upon the parent/school population resources, thus exacerbating the overall inequity of Education provision.

In the last quarter reported, unemployment in Auburn was 9.4%, Fairfield 10.4%, Campbelltown 9.1% and Blacktown S/W 11.0% when it was 4.5% nationally. The municipalities of Holroyd and Parramatta are also above the national average. This is interrelated with the high NESB presence, which is also reinforced, as noted earlier by the pronounced ratio of refugee/humanitarian migrants within that NESB population. It is illustrated by the fact that whilst Leichhardt and Marrickville accepted 3 and 74 refugee/humanitarians respectively over the years 2003/6, the figures for Auburn, Holroyd and Parramatta totalled 3,438.

The outcome is best described in the Planning Institute of Australia's 2001 Policy on Liveable Communities. It stated, "the increasing spatial concentration of poverty and affluence in Australia is driving a self-perpetuating process of social exclusion where certain groups and individuals in the population are becoming marginalised from mainstream society. Those people experience a lack of power and limited opportunities for social participation; they are often trapped in a cycle of entrenched disadvantage caused by factors such as unemployment, poor education/skill levels and low self-esteem."

What this adds up to is an educational experience that often has very dedicated students and teachers but is under resourced with a school parent community that has limited social capital to improve their predicament. A Granville school in recent years won a national award for inspiring NESB parental participation in the school community. It is a model to be commended and morale was thus lifted. However, I question the social equality of this now being so necessary.

Whilst the Islamic portion of the skilled intake from nations such as Malaysia, India, and Pakistan represents a slight counter trend, Islamic students are also battling in a community where until recent years they have had few role models and many parents cannot convey that experience of education to instil confidence in their children.

The evolution of selective schools has often lead to a denial of student potential because those schools rejected no longer have the core numbers for higher level studies. Additionally it has also heightened ghettoisation of schools as did the Greiner Governments change to the zoning rules. Initiatives in recent years to facilitate their studies at higher levels are overdue.

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Clearly the intense issues of African settlement are putting further stresses on the local education system. Education has often been interrupted for many, many years, parents are preliterate, there has been no experience outside the daily struggle to survive in the camp. Certainly, there have been spectacular efforts such as those of St Johns, Auburn with the huge number of Sudanese students taken. However, it is paralleled by an of element of withdrawal of students and parents from some schools now stigmatised as undermining academic success because of huge resources that have to be devoted to students with particularly pressing problems.

Initiatives such as that of Margaret Vickers at UWS in suggesting the alignment of trainee teachers practical work commitments with assistance in adult literacy and/or homework assistance for children should be endorsed, massively funded and expanded in regions such as ours.

Another truth is that Islamic women's expectations need to be lifted. There is still a degree of community belief that women's roles lie with marriage and truncated educational expectations. For those who do not wish to admit this point, a simple recourse to ABS statistics and daily experience in this region would soon persuade doubters otherwise. I weekly witness the success of confident, capable, articulate Islamic women but their performance and lifestyle need to be given more prominence.

When I attended Sydney University, I was privileged to enrol with about thirty students from my Higher School Certificate class. Some of these people remain my friends 37 years later. Many students from our region do not have that same social network for reassurance and friendship. If they come from a school which is nearly monocultural from a marginalised community there can often be a sense of loneliness and stigmatization. Alienation can be very extreme.

One of my concerns with constant assaults on public education and the search for alternatives is that we face pressures to tribalisation and a lack of experience and connection with the broader society and its challenges. When they have to be faced later there can be of enhanced difficulty. 

What is especially troubling is the intellectual weakness of many of these attacks on public education. I cite comments by Chris Bonnor in the Spring 2007 edition of "Dissent" magazine, "The OECD's programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) confirms this: when the socio-economic background of schools' intake was also taken into account, any advantage for private school is no longer visible. Barry McGaw, the author of the report concluded that the observed superiority of these schools in raw student test scores 'appeared to be due to the students they enrol rather than what they do as schools'."
Recent decisions by Sydney's Catholic Archbishop will also limit one stream for mutual understanding and Islamic acculturation. I know a number of Muslim families, some personal friends, who sent their children to Catholic schools. Sometimes it was to advance their understanding of other cultures; often for perceived disciplinary or educational gain. Regardless of the reasons the children were better equipped to go out into the big world.

The community, the university, the politicians need to promote the successes of the Islamic community in academia and the professions. It was greatly moved when I witnessed the Palestinian Club in my community recognised its successful HSC performers for a number of years. The General Union of Palestinian Workers has simultaneously honoured such success as have some Lebanese village associations. 

I note at this stage the initiative of Macquarie Bank mainly at the behest of my former Liberal Party colleague Ross Cameron forming the Sydney Leadership Dialogue. This is a group of young people who seek to utilise their skills and energy to solve problems of our city, particularly challenges facing the Islamic community and tensions between the wider society and Muslims. Amongst activities have been a post - Cronulla forum, discussions with politicians about contemporary events and they are playing a key role in the upcoming Art of Islam exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Nevertheless, the predominant barrier stems from international tensions, the claim by suicide bombers to be carrying out Jihadist work for religious purposes and consequently enhanced suspicions. The recent "National Fear" survey by Mark Balnaves of Edith Cowan University is informative. He delineated enhanced fears by Muslims in this nation. Anonymous interviews elicited views that the media was controlled by the Government, ghettoisation and greater Muslim fears for safety. Under assault many members of the community have sought withdrawal and greater identification with sometimes narrower values.

I have noted the challenge to many ethno specific and/or religious schools not just those of Islamic persuasion, in preparing students for the wider world of work, study or broader social interplay. My presence at an event such as this today reminded me of my last attendance at an Islamic related day at your institution.

It was held under the auspices of the Lebanese Muslim Association and I commend them for their initiative. It certainly drove home the omnipotence of media with enthusiastic students vying to answer a range of questions about contemporary music and entertainment, which I, due to my advanced years had no knowledge of. However, there were aspects of the event which I found depressing and somewhat disillusioning. They are pointers to how not to do things.

There was the academic who took the simple line of least resistance by regaling Muslim students with what were admittedly spectacularly sensationalistic and clearly derogatory headlines about the community. However, he did not have the courage to simultaneously point out that many of the headlines were based on the unfortunate comments of Sheik Hillaly and to pose the question whether due to his keenness for media attention and an inability to master English he had worsened tensions. Similarly, I attended a workshop for students to help them undertake the very necessary role of articulating their response to negative media stereotyping. That was a good aim. However, it was accompanied by the simplistic approach of one person conducting it. That was that the ABC and Sydney Morning Herald were noble but virtually everyone else in Australia was the ever hostile enemy.

That is simplistic and counter-productive. Certainly, Australia has many faults from the subjugation and continuing marginalisation of indigenous people, through the White Australia Policy to a contemporary lack of access and equality. However, we should acknowledge in our search for progress and attempts to affect public opinions that in a relative sense we are a successful multicultural society without many of the extreme conflicts of other nations.

My recipe for success encompasses efforts to engage with the broader society whether on the football fields, in the community organisations around local struggles, in the school councils and tuckshops, in the unions and in charitable efforts such as Red Cross. Robert Putnam's recent work illustrating the obstacles to community and cooperation in areas of diversity and difference is a challenge we have to overcome by greater interaction.

I finally believe that whilst it is right and proper to be appalled by the Australian intervention in Iraq, the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the massacres of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, there needs to be a broader human rights based activity by Muslim students. The Muslim Community was not too vocal about Saddam Hussein's oppression, is not active around the murder of black Muslims in Southern Sudan by state sponsored Islamic militias or in focusing on the rights of Filipino, Pakistani and Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Restrictions on over Muslim religious rights in Western Europe should be accompanied by a questioning of the plight of Christians and non believers in the Islamic World. The recent fate of 400 murdered Yezidis in Kurdistan, is as worthy of our anger as America's cavalier approach to the bombing of civilian areas in Afghanistan.

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