Education is a human right, enshrined in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and embedded in the history and government of this fair nation. Socrates advocated that a key to learning was through human experience – “The unexamined life is not worth living” – and who better to learn from than those who have had considerable life experience in all capacities?
The Rudd and Gillard governments have been very proactive in their aim to increase participation of Australians in higher education, with the noble and ambitious goal of more than 40 per cent of the population achieving a bachelor degree within the next 12 years. Much focus has been placed on encouraging students – primarily school leavers – from backgrounds of disadvantage, with a number of pathway programs to back them on their journey through education, the workplace and through life.
However, little thought is given at a political level to a sector of those from considerable disadvantage: adults, with some experiencing multiple disadvantage which has contributed to social and workplace exclusion.
For the last decade the Clemente program that was developed by American author and social critic Earl Shorris has been reshaped for Australia. Australia is one of more than 20 countries to have embraced Shorris’s vision to provide free and open access to quality educational resources.
Adults who might otherwise have felt that educational opportunities have passed them by, who may be suffering from financial, health, educational and social setbacks, are participating in a process that emphasises being involved in effecting change.
With its right to education mantra, Clemente appealed to the very core of Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Mission – of enhancing dignity and the wellbeing of people and communities, of justice and equity for all and a commitment to serving the common good.
Since 2003, ACU has been one of the key partners in the quest to provide an opportunity to change direction for Australian adults. In that time, partners have included the St Vincent de Paul Society, Mission Australia, The Benjamin Andrew Footpath Library, the Sisters of Charity, The Smith Family, Ballarat City Council, Ballarat Cares, Centacare, Central Highlands Regional Library Co-Op, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Sisters of Mercy, Common Ground, Cat; legal companies Minter Ellison, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Baker & McKenzie, Carroll & O’Dea, Lander and Rogers; Flinders, Griffith, Edith Cowan Universities and the University of Ballarat; and the Cities of Ballarat, Yarra and Brisbane.
The Clemente program continues to grow and develop. Courses are offered in nine locations, not usually on university campuses, including in Brisbane, Sydney (Surry Hills and Campbelltown), Melbourne, Canberra and Ballarat. Clemente students undertake a 12- week humanities-based program at no cost to themselves. Academics from the participating universities run small classes, often in collaboration with the generous support of individuals such as Australian author David Malouf and organisations like the Bell Shakespeare Company.
Students are given valuable access to literature, theatre and to discussions with experts, – culminating in assessment of the units. Students who successfully complete the course are awarded with a certificate of liberal studies, that for some is a springboard to further tertiary education.
Those who participate in the program report consistently improved measures of financial, medical and emotional wellbeing. Many show signs of reconnecting to the communities they felt isolated and excluded from. In the first economic analysis of the program, reported last year, students said they felt more engaged and in control of their lives.
The study, We’re Part of Our Own Solution, compared the cost of providing the program to the savings government would make in terms of people accessing healthcare, housing assistance, and financial support and found there was a potential cost offset of $14,624 per student. This is nearly three times the cost of program delivery per student. The findings are a culmination of three years of research. It has significant implications for Australia’s national higher education and social inclusion agenda, with the authors of the report recommending the Commonwealth Government fund community embedded socially supported learning across Australia.