University of Western Sydney - A Case Study in Equity and Diversity

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Director, Equity and Diversity, University of Western Sydney

Presented at the Conference: “Reimagining Democratic Societies: A New Era of Personal and Social Responsibility?”
Oslo on 27–29 June 2011

Download Word version of speech [DOC, 218.5 KB] (Opens in a new window)

The University of Western Sydney

The University of Western Sydney (UWS) was established in 1989 from three existing Colleges. It operates under the University of Western Sydney Act 1997 and the associated University of Western Sydney By-law 2005. By now, it is a large multi-discipline university with some 39 844 students and 1286 academic and 1529 general staff. Its total net assets are well over 1.23 billion Australian dollars (A$) and its annual operation revenue is over A$558 million. UWS is spread throughout 6 campuses located in the Greater Western Sydney (GWS) and it has a particular responsibility to serve the 2 million people of that region.

The diversity of the economic, cultural, social and educational backgrounds of the people of GWS is the key to understanding the unique character of the university.

The GWS region is the third largest economy in Australia and is expanding rapidly, expecting to account for 25 per cent of all national population growth over the next 25 years. It includes significant rural areas along with fast-developing cities and urban centres such as Parramatta, Penrith, Liverpool, Bankstown, Blacktown and Campbelltown, each with its own character and identity. As many as 250 000 locally based businesses, small and large, demonstrate the economic diversity of the region.

Cultural and social diversity is a key feature of GWS. It is estimated that the regional population includes people originating from as many as 170 countries. In fact, more than half of the total GWS population is from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. GWS is a home to the highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians outside the Northern Territory and to a significant number of Muslim communities.

Historically, the GWS region was under-represented in higher education and the professions. The percentage of the population with post-secondary qualifications remains lower than in other regions of Sydney, but this is changing. Half the UWS students are of the first generation of their family to attend university and around 70 per cent of these are now drawn from the region.

UWS is well aware of its role as an agent of change in GWS. It aims to ensure that the education opportunities are fully open to “first in the family” students and to students from Aboriginal and any other communities where access to education was traditionally discouraged, or even thought to be not possible or appropriate. In other words, UWS acknowledges its important role in advancing Australia as an egalitarian and democratic society.

UWS describes its vision as “Bring knowledge to life in Greater Western Sydney through community and business engagement with our learning and research”. The “Our Mission” document describes the university as “a vibrant on inclusive intellectual community and being connected locally and internationally”. “Equity of access and inclusiveness and collegiality and participatory decision-making” are of explicitly stated values underpinning the operations of UWS.

Democracy and Equity

The concepts of Democracy and Equity are interlinked in modern societies. Australian democracy differs from that in the United States and some other Western countries. The principle of “fair go” underpins the Australian political system, its democratic institutions and national culture, while the individual civil and political liberties appear as being of lesser standing.

In fact, Australia has no US style Bill of Rights guaranteeing civil liberties and the Australian Constitution is silent in relation to numerous civil rights that are well recognised in the constitutions of other Western democracies. For example, the Constitution does not guarantee the fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of thought, belief and opinion, and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention; the right to a fair trial or due process; or equality of all persons in Australia before the law.

Australian democracy is characterised by its egalitarian focus and by reliance on government programmes to deliver equity or “fair go”. For example, women’s suffrage was introduced as early as in 1894 in South Australia and the concept of minimum wages legislated for in 1904 and sealed by the "Harvester Decision" of the High Court in 1907. Australia achieved these egalitarian benchmarks well before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 announced, but never delivered, supremacy of social equality and economic rights and long before the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was adopted by the United Nations in 1966.

The structure of democracy at academic institutions in Australia relies on this national culture. Australian universities depend more on the underlying egalitarian nature of Australian society and on merit selections and appointments and less on electoral processes to choose its top officials. This allows UWS’s charter to declare a commitment to “collegiality and participatory decision making”, even though its governing body, the Board of Trustees established under the University of Western Sydney Act 1997, elects only 5 out of its 18 members. The UWS Academic Senate – a peak academic body that decides academic policy and accredits and approves courses - consists both of ex officio (25 members) and appointed members (3) as well as of members elected (25) from the academic staff and from the post and undergraduate student cohort. This societal based participatory democracy brings “Dewey’s Dream” closer to fruition at UWS.

Academic democracy and participation in decision making are more organised around concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion. This egalitarian focus is reflected in federal and state legislation as well as in academic charters and in implementation of policies and procedures.

The legislation requires that particular attention is paid to ensuring equitable treatment of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, students and staff from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds, people with disabilities (PWD), gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (GLBTI) people and students from low socio-economic status (LSES) position. The University of Western Sydney regards the legislative compliance as being only the baseline for its actions. The UWS official policies and leadership are clear that the University must go further than the minimum standard required by the legislation in the implementation of access and equity principles.

In practical terms it means that UWS is committed to recruiting and retaining students, academics and professional staff from a range of diverse backgrounds and to fostering an environment which celebrates this diversity and draws strength from it. This UWS commitment is focused on fairness for all and creation of an ‘equal playing field’, where civility and respect for differences are viewed as enhancing intellectual creativity and innovation, resulting in excellence, productivity and organisational strength. Access and Equity measures are here not just to secure enrolments from disadvantaged students, but to ensure that they have every opportunity to complete their studies successfully and gain solid employment.

^ Back to top

Issues to be addressed

In early to mid-2000 the university had been experiencing some difficulties in securing some of its equity objectives. For example, difficulties emerged with the accommodation of religious and other needs of Muslim students into the broader university framework; bullying in the workforce become recognised as an industrial issue undermining good workplace relations; lack of tolerance and conflict developed between particular student groups , e.g. Muslim and GLBTI students; serious accessibility problems were identified as impacting on people with disabilities; and a number of issues were identified relating to sex discrimination and gender equality.

The University decided to undertake a review of its access and equity policies and implementation structures and strategies. As a result a new five year Access and Equity (E&D) Plan was developed, the Equity and Diversity unit was restructured and the former Australian Human Rights Commissioner was appointed to head the E&D unit.

Advancing Democracy through Equity and Inclusion

The E&D unit initiated a range of new initiatives to implement the Plan and to address identified problems. It also took measures to advance culture of democracy, respect and inclusion and to provide better UWS engagement with its diversity for the future. The main initiatives are summarised below.

Policy development

First, a whole range of existing UWS E&D policies were reviewed and updated and new policies, procedures and guidelines developed to support, promote and instil equity and inclusion; for example: Bullying Prevention Policy; Carer’s Responsibility in the Workplace Policy; Disability Policy; Discrimination, Harassment, Vilification and Victimisation Prevention Policy ; Employee Assistance Program; Equal Opportunity Policy; Indigenous Education Policy; Indigenous Employment Policy; Occupational Health and Safety Policy; Sexual Harassment Prevention Policy; Student Code of Conduct; and the Women’s Representation on University Committees Policy.

E&D principles were also incorporated into all important Academic and General Staff Agreements 2009-2012, including a number of consultation requirements in the agreement about workloads and management of change. The main democratising force of the agreement is in its procedure for misconduct. Allegations of misconduct are to be determined by an independent committee which hears evidence and allows the staff member the ability to cross examine witnesses. This means that academics are free to comment with the knowledge that there job is not on the line should the management of the institution disagree with that comment .

In September 2007 E&D unit organised a national conference “Access, Inclusion and Success – Muslim Students at Australian Universities” for university administrators and teachers involved with Muslim students. Its aim was to review policies and programmes relating to Muslim students and to explore issues such as further advancement of Muslim friendly culture in academia; effective teaching to Muslim students; participation of Muslim students in university life; local Muslim community educational aspirations and involvement with UWS; university role in contributing to an understanding of Islam in Australia; catering for the religious and social needs of a diverse Muslim student community; dealing with cultural tensions, e.g., associated with gender, discrimination and promoting respect for difference; and the issue of specific needs and resources.

Valuing and learning to engage with diversity

An institution which values diversity is, by its nature and its experience, more likely to be more democratic and fair and equitable in its relationships with all its members and other stakeholders. A range of different activities were undertaken over the time to build respect, understanding and inclusion among UWS students and staff. Below are a few examples of such activities.

In 2007 UWS established an Ally Network to educate, inform and provide visible support for GLBTI people, to eliminate discriminatory attitudes and behaviours and to create a respectful and inclusive organisational environment at UWS. The Allies work with UWS staff and students to forge cultural change, to challenge non-inclusive attitudes and behaviours and provide support and referrals to GLBTI UWS staff and students. The Ally Network puts on regular events and seminars.

The Network has some 70 members. An Ally is a volunteer member of the UWS community (staff or student) who are identified by the display of an official Ally sticker, provide a “safe zone” that is a welcoming and confidential environment for GLBTI staff and students and demonstrate leadership in the areas of respect and inclusion for GBLTI staff and students. In order to become an UWS Ally they need to complete a training session to develop a better understanding of GLBTI people, issues and culture and of relevant UWS policies and procedures

Secondly, major initiatives were undertaken to provide students and staff with a disability with a physical, working, learning and social environment which enables and enhances their educational and employment experience. In 2007 UWS undertook a major review of disability policies and practices which resulted in major improvements to its Disability Policy and additional resources for Reasonable Adjustments. Reasonable Adjustments are administrative, environmental or procedural alterations in the employment or learning situation which remove barriers for people with disabilities so that they can perform the inherent requirements of the job or course of study.

The University of Western Sydney has also developed a five year Disability Action Plan, which among other things provides for a centralised funding scheme to purchase equipment for Reasonable Adjustments for staff. Over A$ 100 000 has been allocated for equipment each year, including specialised furniture and computer software and hardware. In addition, accessibility of all buildings and grounds was audited by an independent consultant and an implementation schedule adopted to ensure full accessibility to all buildings and transport at university campuses.

Thirdly and in addition to the development of new Bullying Prevention Policy and Guidelines, it was decided to develop a number of activities and educative programmes to increase the awareness of the UWS community about bullying and bring about a necessary cultural shift to combat this adverse behaviour. In 2009 the UWS initiated an Anti-Bullying Awareness Campaign which was aimed at both UWS staff and students across all campuses. The campaign activities included messages and letters from UWS Vice-Chancellor, inclusion of anti-bullying issues on senior and departmental UWS staff meeting agendas, development and distribution of anti-bullying posters, postcards and other materials, creation of dedicated website with a blog and anti-bullying resources, development of training modules and university wide consultations on prevalence of bullying.

^ Back to top

Communicating with the broader community

2009 was declared by UWS as The Year of Respect and Inclusion. It targeted the whole of the university community, staff, students and the local greater Sydney area community and ultimately the global community. It was an innovative strategic communication and education initiative designed to celebrate the diversity of UWS and promote respect and inclusion. It also aimed to reaffirm that academic excellence flourishes in a respectful and inclusive environment, where dialogue is possible without discrimination, bullying, harassment and vilification.

The Year of Respect and Inclusion project involved the whole of the university community and was supported by the university top leadership and officially launched at a highly visible public event by the Honourable Robert McClelland, Federal Attorney General.

In keeping with the multi-faceted nature of the project a variety of communication methods were utilised to ensure that the message reached as wide an audience as possible. The methods included extensive use of print and electronic media, development of a series of posters aimed at staff and students on identified themes, such as, respect and inclusion, anti-bullying, student and staff conduct, disability, and cultural and religious diversity. There was also series of zines aimed at students to accompany the themed posters. These posters and zines were created by UWS Design students with input from final year UWS Marketing students .

UWS was proud to initiate a series of international conferences on issues relating to human rights education (HRE), with the involvement of Australian and international speakers from all continents. The first International HRE Conference “The Human Rights, Peace and Intercultural Dialogue” was hosted by UWS in November 2010, the second at KwaZulu Natal University in Durban in November 2011 and the third will be held at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow in December 2012.

The conferences moved the topic of equity and inclusion beyond the university setting. They were organised to explore the role of HRE in advancement of peace, democracy and multicultural understanding around the world; to highlight HRE international best practice, key trends and achievements and to foster HRE across the world and to build networks and dialogue. In Sydney, there were over 360 participants from 35 countries and every continent, with 150 men and 210 women. There was a broad representation of civil society with a large numbers of students, activists, human rights advocates, NGO workers, HRE practitioners, government representatives, teachers, academics and others interested in human rights education.

Finally, the E&D unit continues to organise a series of UWS Open Fora and seminars. The Open Fora address topical issues of relevance in globalized world. The Fora focus on social justice and “fair go”, involve Greater Sydney community and promote academic excellence, lively discussion and popularisation of knowledge.

Conclusion

Dewey’s balance between knowledge delivery and the interests and experiences of the students requires a culture of acceptance and inclusion. The post 2006 E&D changes have delivered major and lasting changes to the UWS culture.

In summary, it could be argued that major effort was made to ensure that differences among people are valued; that each person is treated with respect and dignity; that judgments and decisions are based on fairness and merit; and that consultation with people is encouraged, in particular regarding decisions and policies that affect them personally.

At the University level, the concepts of equity and diversity are now well incorporated throughout the university structures, functions and responsibilities. Significant progress was made to ensure that access, advancement, awards and the recognition of success are firmly based in personal achievement and not on irrelevant characteristics or barriers. Furthermore, the system of monitoring and addressing allegations and incidents of discrimination and harassment has been significantly improved.

At the workplace level, UWS has become a much better place to work in. The number of conflicts and formal complaints or negative media reporting has significantly diminished as new measures impacted on the university culture and the effect of inappropriate and artificial equity barriers was significantly reduced.

The gender balance has improved across university employment structure and the UWS was again named in 2011 by the Equal Opportunity for Women Agency (EOWA) as “Employer of Choice for Women”. Also progress was made to reduce the gender pay equity gap.

UWS student satisfaction as measured on the national Course Experience Questionnaire has remained stable at 84 per cent in 2011. Retention of first-year bachelor students has also increased to 80 per cent in 2010-11, compared with 77 per cent in 2004-05. There are increasing numbers of students now nominating UWS as their first preference, retention rates are improving, the number of undergraduates going on to postgraduate studies has doubled, and more mature-age students are being attracted to the university.

Last but not least, the UWS engagement and standing in greater Western Sydney has improved. In particular the Muslim Students conference and other measures improved UWS standing as a Muslim friendly university and improved relations between UWS and the Muslim community of Sydney.

This UWS commitment to equity has been widely acknowledged, Australia wide. For example, after the new focus was announced in November 2006 the Australian Universities Quality Agency (AUQA) referred to UWS as the ‘University of the People’. The AUQA audit of May 2011 commended UWS for ‘its clear and strategic focus on advancing its mission for the benefit of the people of GWS’. The success of the international conferences on human rights education added to the UWS standing worldwide.

To conclude, a respectful, inclusive environment with focus on equity advances, academic excellence and quality outcomes brought UWS closer to achieving Dewey’s dream. The long term benefits include attraction and retention of a diverse staff and student population that is reflective of the local community, improved teaching, learning and research outcomes, as well as engagement of local communities and building of more harmonious community environments.

^ Back to top