Barriers to campus life for public school students

Lack of representation in stupol is just “a very small symptom of a very big issue”.

Art by Deaundre Espejo

There is an unspoken sense of solidarity between former public school kids at USyd. We’ve spent much of our lives in sweltering non-air-conditioned demountables, with stories of our peers’ teen pregnancies and playground brawls during lunch break; we openly flouted school uniform rules with no punishment and lived in blissful ignorance of Latin, the inter-school rivalry of debating tournaments, and ‘Model UN’ (a phenomenon I doubt I will ever understand) only to have it dawn on us when we entered university how disparately wealthy other people our age could be. 

I am of a lower middle class background, but the norm of wealth at this university is so distorted that there is an unbridgeable gap between my own experiences and that of many of the people I’ve met since first year. Barriers to participating in campus culture become pronounced from O-Week but originate many years beforehand in a tiered schooling system delineated by class and unequal opportunity, having an effect on who gets into university in the first place. For public school students, and particularly working class first-in-family students (a category I don’t fall into), starting at university can feel like navigating an intimidating new terrain which everyone else was given a map to but yourself. The habit of asking what school people went to becomes a subtle form of exclusion, as does having to pay to join societies or go on pub crawls to become involved in campus social life.

After requesting data from the University on its yearly intake by school type, my first reaction was surprise that the number of comprehensive public school enrolments, at 28%, was not lower — close to the private school intake at 32%. Friends I showed the data to had similar responses, suggesting that USyd’s more privileged demographic is concentrated in our circles of Arts, Law, stupol and other extracurriculars, which perhaps doesn’t reflect the real cross-section of students.

Source: University of Sydney (unpublished data); chart created by Honi

I wouldn’t be the first to observe that the representation of public school students in campus culture, particularly student politics, is low. There are dozens of USyd Rants about the elitism of the University to the point of cliché, and it’s routinely brought up during election season, weaponised across the political spectrum to discredit candidates. The reality that I am writing this article in my capacity as an editor of this paper is an immense privilege most former public school kids would not be able to afford. Involvement in student media is largely inaccessible for students who work to support themselves and don’t have the connections or confidence to participate in extracurriculars. This, combined with the meagre stipend of an editor and the fact the role is decided through elections, creates an endless cycle where poor students are virtually locked out of a voice on student issues.

In my interviews with university students and education activists who went to public schools, the exclusive private school culture of debating was a common subject of discussion. Lia Perkins told me that she had wanted to do debating while at her school, Sydney Secondary College Blackwattle Bay, but not enough people were interested, so took up the opportunity upon arriving at USyd. “I went along to the first orientation for debating at uni and they talked a lot about how it’s open for anyone to join and you don’t need experience. Then I went the next week, which was the first week of debating. We were split into groups that would have to debate without much preparation beforehand. I was debating a group of four men and there were three people on my team and all, if not most, had done debating before. I ended up crying, it was not a good experience.”

Roisin Young Murphy, who went to Tempe High School, similarly described being put off ever going to debating again after entering a conversation about what high schools people went to and being made to feel like an outsider during O-Week. Roisin also lamented the loss of the Learning Centre, describing having to constantly catch up with peers: “Without the Learning Centre, I wouldn’t know how to write a university essay. My parents don’t have degrees and I didn’t go to a school where that sort of higher-level expectation was the baseline.”

Lia agreed that there was a big difference in confidence, both socially and in academic ability, that puts private school students at an advantage. “I think there’s a few things that give them more confidence: more attention as you’re growing up and as special people getting to access something; the culture that you’re an elite and therefore you must be an elite of somebody else. Smaller things like, they went to a private school that had Model UN; I didn’t even know that was a thing, but people did that at high school and were the President of their school’s finance society,” she said, laughing.

Lia went to a partially selective school in the non-selective stream, and in our discussion noted that selective schools were different to private schools, but that the prestigious ones “have people of the educated elite who would’ve gone to private schools if they hadn’t gotten into a selective school. They might’ve gone to the same school captain get-togethers with people from private schools too.” 

On entering student politics, Lia said she became involved after joining the Enviro Collective at the start of first year where there were other public school students who seemed familiar: “But then it was quite scary being involved in a big group that had people from backgrounds I couldn’t really imagine.”

She observed that student activism can seem intimidating from the outside or inaccessible for students working to support themselves. “A lot of people don’t want to go to a collective meeting because they don’t know anyone going even if they agree [with the politics]. I’ve talked to people who work nine-to-five and can’t go to meetings because they’re usually working during the day — I often have to miss out on meetings if I’m at work. Those are definitely barriers.”

These barriers mean that it’s predominantly not working class people who end up speaking for working class people in the student left, as was amusingly on display at a September SRC Council meeting. “If the people doing the activism aren’t the people experiencing the issue, there’s a disconnect there, and I do think that may have a negative effect,” Lia said. “But I do think there is a section of the student left that are from a working class background and that’s why they’re attracted to it.”

Lia’s perspective is that of a former public school student who became involved in student politics early on. Contrastingly, another student, who wished to remain anonymous, described wanting to avoid stupol altogether as a first year, saying that it “felt like a dick-measuring competition between selective and private school kids who would just want to be politicians.” They observed that some students who went to private schools would talk down their social position out of embarrassment: “People who did go to an elite private school should recognise and be upfront with that privilege and not hide it.”

Dashie Prasad, a former Queer Officer of the National Union of Students, went to Chester Hill High School, a public school in Western Sydney: “It is the closest school to the Villawood Detention Centre, so a whole bunch of students that come to the school are actually refugee students and immigrants and being based in Southwest Sydney, really close to Fairfield, it has the highest new immigrant intakes. It’s mostly ethnic, migrant communities.”

Like everyone I spoke to, Dashie said that most students from their school went straight into work or TAFE rather than to university, and that trades programs were encouraged more than academic extracurriculars. “For a lot of kids from those backgrounds, they’re like, why the heck would I spend an extra four years [at university] doing unpaid internships when I can actually go and start making a living from Year 10 to look after myself, take care of my family. It never practically makes sense for them … When rich kids come to the uni they’re often like ‘this is a rort, the university system is stealing from students.’ But it’s like, the povo kids out West figured that out already.”

Dashie sees representative roles as having an even higher barrier for involvement than extracurricular activities. “That cultural aspect of who-knows-who really becomes apparent when it comes down to election time, and when it comes to who’s even involved in it at all … Coming from a public high school, our SRCs aren’t doing the same networking as I think a lot of private school SRCs do.” Students who went to public schools are more likely to see their goal at university as just getting their degree and a job, rather than thinking about leadership roles and extracurriculars.

As the discussion turned towards education activism, Dashie emphasised the need for a stronger “long-term vision for what fully-funded public higher education looks like, what the fight for that looks like, what our vision for that is and what that practically means.” They observed that there are problems with private school kids behind that fight not recognising what public education in Australia actually looks like, and the lack of quality it has: “Even the demands for fully-funded public education right now are lacking because that just means underfunded universities with the way that the Liberals would deliver that.”

Dashie believes that the university student movement should engage more with public and low-SES high school students to encourage them into left-wing values and spaces, rather than letting universities do the work of bringing them in, which they said encourages them to become “neoliberals who believe in the system.” One way this could be achieved is by SRCs doing outreach at events like the Western Sydney Careers Expo, where the only representatives are student ambassadors picked by the university. “We should be giving out information to high school students about which universities we consider as good or bad because high school students are the ‘customers’ of the university,” Dashie said.

“If we want to challenge the university on capitalist lines, I think supporting university staff members and the NTEU as well as showing solidarity with the NSW Teachers’ Federation is a great place to start but the other part is ensuring that its student population is as diverse as possible and aware of the university’s harm, and I think that can be done by engaging with high school students.”

Overall, they stressed that the lack of representation in stupol is “a very small symptom of a very big issue” — a self-perpetuating cycle that isn’t going to disappear without very active efforts to engage working class and former public school students in the short-term, and a large-scale transformation of the education system in the long-term.

A system overhaul is needed: for the abolition of private schools and standardised testing, to designate equal funding per student, reform the public curriculum so that it encourages students to be aware of their work rights, and deliver a free and democratised education system holistically across schools and universities. 

For Lia and myself, our “strongest politics in high school was being against private schools.”

Education activism doesn’t start and end at university, it starts in every high school student who sees the injustice of how students in private schools have been granted better opportunities, simply because of the wealth of their parents. It is time we engage with these students and build a holistic education movement that bursts the privileged bubble of student politics.