My mother left a violent home to study at university. Now I’m about to graduate medicine. None of this would be possible with higher university fees

I’m a fourth year medical student living in western Sydney. I love my degree and believe medicine is my calling. But if the “reforms” to higher education proposed by the Coalition government had applied to me, my life would look very different.

I grew up in a world of domestic violence, our family quietly suffering years of abuse at the hands of my alcoholic father. One night, my incredible mother bundled myself and my four younger siblings into the car, and we drove interstate to begin again. For the first time in a long time, we were safe, but overnight Mum became a single parent, with no child support and no job. She had been out of the workforce for years, and now she needed to find a way to house, clothe, and feed five young children.

So she did something a bit crazy. She enrolled in university.

She began a bachelor of nursing part-time, studying at night when we were all in bed, and working as a home-care nurse to pay the bills. She did it all so selflessly and without complaint, and to this day I don’t know how she managed. But she did. Mum graduated as a registered nurse while I was in high school, and went on to complete a postgraduate diploma in midwifery. This is the kind of thing that can be achieved when higher education is accessible to everyone.

My mum’s entry into university changed our lives – she now had a stable job with a real income. But more than that, she showed her children that they too could achieve the unthinkable. That no matter how poor you are, no matter where you’ve come from or what’s happened to you, you can change your future. My story is not unique, but that’s what makes it important. Higher education empowers the marginalised and disadvantaged people in our communities more than anything else I can think of. 

I am here today, 18 months from becoming a doctor, because like my mother, I could enrol in university without the threat of crippling debt or unfair repayments hanging over me. As the election approaches, we must remember that a Liberal government has not ruled out fee deregulation. Instead, they have simply shelved the unpopular idea, hoping we might be fooled into re-electing them by phrases like “flexibility to innovate” and “flagship courses”. These flagships courses are likely to include ones like mine – medicine – as well as dentistry and veterinary science; courses that already cost us about $50,000.

University should not be the property of the wealthy, and yet in some ways it already is. Medicine in particular has this problem. We know that over half of medical students come from the two highest socioeconomic categories. We also know that individuals from the lowest SES groups apply to these kinds of courses much, much less. They face more barriers, have less support, and question their capabilities. And yet the evidence tells us that these students do just as well, and sometimes better than their more privileged counterparts.

Additionally, women from low SES backgrounds are further disadvantaged by simply being female. I wonder if our prime minister, the self-professed feminist, would be concerned by this? I certainly am. 

I want to see more diversity within my cohort. I want more people from single-parent families, or migrant families, or Indigenous families, to know that they could be great doctors, or teachers, or lawyers, or business people. But this progress will not happen if we don’t fight back against the current government’s attack on higher education. 

How can we encourage people from low socioeconomic backgrounds to enter university when our government has ripped over $152m from the higher education participation program? How can we educate the next generation of thinkers if fee deregulation takes half of them out of the equation? 

I have had this conversation with people in medicine who came from schools like Sydney Grammar or The Kings School. If medicine cost $100,000, they would still be here. If medicine cost $200,000, they would still be here. But I wouldn’t. I do not have the financial security behind me to take on that debt. And in no way am I saying that these people won’t make good doctors; they have and they will. 

But can you imagine a future in which the only people who become doctors are simply the ones who can afford to? That isn’t equitable, and it’s not what’s best for our community. Diversity in the medical workforce has the power to improve healthcare outcomes for disadvantaged or minority communities. Its significance shouldn’t be underestimated.

Keep in mind that it’s not just the individual who benefits from higher education. Our society is enriched by the contribution of these people and the services they provide. 

I have not spent the last five years studying because I love being broke and sitting exams. I am here because I genuinely want to spend my life serving others. I believe my commonwealth-supported place in medical school is an investment by the government in our healthcare, and I think all higher education should be viewed in this way: an investment by all of us in the future. 

Invest in people like my sister, who will soon graduate as a social worker, and I guarantee you, she will change lives. Or people like my brother, the hardest working apprentice you could meet, who will not become a tradesman without Tafe. Invest in our innovators and problem solvers and social justice champions. 

Australia is made up of hard working people who were given a chance to become these things. We must protect our education system from those who lack the vision to see its significance in shaping the future of this country. We must protect it because people shouldn’t have to choose between pursuing their passions or sparing their family a lifetime of debt.

This is the transcript of a speech given by Bronte Teale as part of the Macarthur Higher Education Forum run by the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ community union group Greater Macarthur Community Unions. The National Tertiary Education Union and the NSW Teachers Federation contributed to the forum which had a focus on cuts to Tafe and higher education funding.

See original article on the Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/can-you-imagine-a-future-in-which-only-the-rich-kids-become-doctors

Add your comment