Way out west

Avani Dias explores class in the University community

It’s said that education is the vehicle for reducing societal gaps. It can teach you that discrimination still exists in many forms and that we should not take it for granted. But the last thing an institutional education will teach you is its own inadequacy. I have sat in government tutorials that condemn the west for their selfish attitudes towards poverty and destruction around the world, and have discussed discrimination against minority groups with friends at parties. But at the end of my four years here at university, my peers and friends have forced me to come to quite a confronting realisation about the “elite” educated minds of our country; that assumptions based on which part of Sydney you are from, are a precursor to knowing someone.

I live in a place tucked away in the south-western suburbs of Sydney – somewhere between the Shire and Liverpool.  If you ask me where I went to school, I reply with “Bankstown Grammar School” and feel the need to automatically follow it up with “but it was a really good school” to wipe away the looks of distaste. Needless to say, Bankstown has always had a negative stigma surrounding it – so much so, that my school decided to change its name to ‘Georges River Grammar School’ a year after I graduated. That a school would see the need to distance itself from a perception of a detrimental association with the lower class is a clear demonstration that class-consciousness is alive and well.

A Sydney University report confirms that a far smaller proportion of students from south west Sydney make the transition to university than the national average. Corey Payne, who is a former rugby player for the Canterbury Bulldogs, has studied at Sydney University as an undergraduate and is currently studying his Master of Commerce.  He focuses his time on helping students from the south western suburbs of Sydney go to university and was named NSW Young Australian of the year 2013 for his efforts in this field.

His passion for this came from the fact that he was brought up there, “I was born in Greenacre and raised in St John’s Park. I’ve lived here my whole life.” For Payne, the biggest problem he had when attending Sydney University was that people had no idea where he was from. He also had to travel three hours each way to get to class, which becomes a tiring journey when it happens every day. But he argues that there are many more barriers to success for kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds. “Financial, structural, ambition and aspiration – they’re the big [problems]. Combine that with peer pressure or with mum and dad saying that you should start earning money and adding to the family household income… it’s a lethal mix to prevent kids from studying at university.”

The University throws around words like ‘accessibility’ and ‘equality’ on a regular basis. The ‘Compass – your way to higher education program’ and the E12 admissions scheme are just two examples of USYD’s attempts at keeping its doors open to everyone. But it’s what happens beyond getting into university that is the issue. Knowing three people from your high school in the western suburbs, as opposed to half your grade from an inner-city school, adds to this problem.

One incident in my first year really highlighted that there was a bridge I’d have to cross because of the place I grew up. I had just started dating someone and we had previously discussed that I was from the western suburbs. He was from the North Shore. I took offence to a reference he made about my ‘broad accent’, “It’s just that, you’re an ethnic girl and you wear cool clothes… well I didn’t expect you to speak like that.” Even just last month, a close friend said that my ‘accent’ had “changed for the better” after my work in radio and “hanging out with people at USYD.”  It’s interesting that these two people are university-educated and incredibly intelligent, but their comments were offensive unbeknownst to them. I wonder if they would make concessions for my friends who live in my area, talk in a broad accent, and don’t wear the same clothes as me.

No university program, or early admissions scheme can eradicate the preconceived opinions that people have about the western suburbs. Perhaps the problem is that this in no way compares to the extreme racial vilification that exists, so why does it make me so uneasy?  Sydney University has forged itself as a diverse, progressive, and balanced place.  So that’s why it catches me off guard when judgments imposed on class difference are normalised…  even if it is in all their casual subtleties.

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