Labor commits almost $6m to improve university access for disadvantaged students

The Labor government has committed millions to expand the reach of UNSW's ASPIRE program to transform lives by boosting access to tertiary education for disadvantaged communities.

UNSW staff and students with ASPIRE ambassadors and Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith

UNSW students and ASPIRE ambassadors, Professor Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Equity Diversity and Inclusion at UNSW, Professor Ian Jacobs, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor, Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith and Gavin Greenfield, ASPIRE Operations Manager. Photo: Richard Freeman

A premier outreach program at UNSW Sydney that gives school students from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to attend university will receive $5.9m in funding over four years under a Labor government.

The ASPIRE Program, which began as a pilot program in 2007, introduces students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to university life from kindergarten to HSC through multiple school workshops and visits to campus.

The program currently engages with about 12,000 students each year through 54 partner schools in rural, regional and metropolitan areas of NSW.

Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith, who announced the election funding on Thursday at UNSW, said the investment could extend the program to 40 more partner schools.

“The ASPIRE program gets great results. It is breaking down some of the barriers that children from disadvantaged communities face in attaining a university education. Those barriers include financial vulnerability and attainment gaps associated with literacy and numeracy,” said Mr Thistlethwaite.

Ian Jacobs, Eileen Baldry and Matt Thistlethwaite

Professor Ian Jacobs, UNSW President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Inclusion and Diversity at UNSW and Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith. Photo: Richard Freeman

“In the Kingsford Smith electorate, the ASPIRE model has already been successfully demonstrated at JJ Cahill Memorial High School, Matraville Sports High and La Perouse Public School. This funding is part of a commitment to ensure we are making tertiary education more accessible for all Australians regardless of where you live and how wealthy your parents are.”

Mr Thistlethwaite said about half of the year 12 students at Matraville Sports High, an ASPIRE school that is now a UNSW School of Education partnership school, are now going on to tertiary education, which is likely to increase to nearly 60 per cent by next year.

Professor Eileen Baldry, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Equity Diversity and Inclusion at UNSW, said the funding will not only expand the number of students who have an opportunity to come to UNSW but widen access and open pathways to other post-school education.

Professor Baldry pointed towards UNSW’s 2025 strategic priority to trial offering places and ongoing support over the next four years to the top students from NSW’s most disadvantaged schools irrespective of their ATAR.

“This provides even greater impetus to raise scholarships for the increasing numbers of students coming through the ASPIRE program,” said Professor Baldry. 

The ASPIRE program has already seen a 155 per cent increase in offers to university for students from disadvantaged schools in NSW since its 2010 launch. From 2015 to 2018, university offers to students from ASPIRE schools increased by 77 per cent, compared with only 34 per cent in non-ASPIRE schools.

The program operates by running workshops in schools, mentoring and school holiday programs, hosting a range of activities on campus and organising residential camps for regional students from across the state.

Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith with ASPIRE student ambassadors

Matt Thistlethwaite, MP for Kingsford Smith with ASPIRE student ambassadors. Photo: Richard Freeman

The expanded program will also provide a new STEM program focussed on the disadvantaged communities in which those schools are situated.

Students from low SES backgrounds remain significantly underrepresented at universities. Only 14 per cent of all school leavers who started university in 2014 across Australia came from low SES backgrounds.