The University of Newcastle, Australia

CEEHE Equity Ambassador Announced

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Dr Liam Phelan will join the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) as our fourth Equity Ambassador.

Picture of Liam Phelan

Current CEEHE Equity Ambassadors include Dr Tamara Blakemore, Associate Professor Maree Gruppetta and Dr Sara Motta.

With a background across environmental justice and human rights campaigns, Dr Phelan is keen to help broaden and further discourses that promote equitable access to higher education.

We caught up with Liam to ask what he will be focusing on for the year ahead.

Have you always had a particular interest in equity? Do you think CEEHE has created a needed space for research and practice to take place around issues of equity in higher education?

I have had an interest in social justice as long as I can remember. Most of my working life has been about justice in various forms too. Equity and education is an area that is as important as it is challenging. And yes, I do think CEEHE has created a needed space for pushing forwards – and outwards – on equity research and practice. It’s been thrilling, frankly, to see the way CEEHE has grown and changed over the past 18 (short) months. It’s an honour to have the chance now to be part of CEEHE’s ongoing evolution.

What will your role as Equity Ambassador involve and enable you to do?

I’m very much looking forward to working together with colleagues – professional staff and academic staff – to broaden and deepen our collective understandings of equity and how to achieve it. A real strength of the Ambassador role is that it provides the space to bring folks together. We already have lots of folks right through UON with significant expertise in the practice and theory of equity, in myriad forms. Bringing folks together means the opportunity to connect with each other, to share good practices with each other, and to generate new knowledge and understandings together too.

What will you be working on this year as Equity Ambassador? What are your goals?

My particular interests in equity and education are grounded in my education practice and research history. First, I’m interested in equity in relation to the online learning mode. This is an increasingly important area, and Dr Cathy Stone’s recently awarded NCSEHE Fellowship on online students’ retention and success is testament to the growing importance of this area. Around two thirds of UON’s postgraduate coursework programs are offered online. And at undergraduate level, we have increasing numbers of online courses included in on-campus programs, and one program offed wholly online (Construction Management), as well as the impetus to make more of the blended learning mode.  Beyond UON, online learning is increasingly common too.

Second, I'm interested in postgraduate students, and the potential benefits – to all students – of broadening equity discourses and practices to include postgrad students.  Folks might be surprised to learn that more than 12% of students in our postgraduate coursework programs have not previously completed an undergraduate degree. For these students therefore, postgraduate education is their introduction to university. And there is a much larger cohort again who have completed a bachelor degree, but some time ago. For these students also, postgrad study is also very unfamiliar. This is an important area in which equity discourses can be expanded into – and it’s an increasingly important area as postgrad qualifications become increasingly common.

Third, I’m interested to explore the role of staff dimensions of equity in higher education. As an institution we make a huge contribution towards supporting first in family students to access uni, and to succeed while they’re here. It’s worth noting that at the same time, we have many professional and academic colleagues here who are themselves first in family. Others again may not have experienced tertiary study for themselves or recognise it as a possibility. I wonder about colleagues’ life and learning experiences, and the contribution those experiences play in bringing to life our enduring commitment to social justice.


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