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Australia should capitalise on its migrants’ skills

15 November 20140 comments
Peter Shergold

Peter Shergold

One of Australia’s leading academics has outlined the importance of educational opportunities to people from migrant backgrounds while urging the nation to utilise their unique skills.

He said encouraging many migrants harboured “productive diversity than can be liberated by a university education”.

Professor Peter Shergold, a former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and now Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney, said having educational open to all students of ability, no matter what their background or family circumstance continuously revitalised Australian society.

Writing in the Fairfax media, Professor Shergold said: “One of the joys and delights of being a university chancellor is presiding over graduation ceremonies”.

“Most of their families are uninhibitedly proud, even as some of the graduates feign all shades of cool.

“As students receive their testamurs they are greeted not just by enthusiastic clapping and cheering but at the University of Western Sydney, over which I preside – and as a reflection of the increasing number of Arabic, Indian and African background students – ululating.

“The ceremony conveys an important story. Unfortunately it’s often only half told. The great majority of those in the audience, whose children are the first generation of their family to enjoy university, recognise the magnitude of the achievement and the possibilities it represents.

“By creating an institution open to all students of ability, no matter what their background or family circumstance, Australian society is continuously revitalised,” he said.

Professor Shergold said that both Gough Whitlam and Robert Menzies before him had had the vision and foresight to see higher education as the gateway to economic and social mobility.

“They understood that education is about widening opportunity not lowering standards,” he said.

“Universities need to provide the teaching and support that guarantees the educational capacity of students when they complete their courses of study.

“Armed with a degree, and the learning that it represents, graduates have a world of career options opened to them. Their personal achievement is reflected not only in the higher lifetime earnings they are likely to enjoy but also a richer and more rewarding life,” he said.

Professor Shergold said education was particularly important to people from disadvantaged socio-economic areas and backgrounds. And that Australia should capitalise on the unique talents and skills of migrants and their children.

He said about a third of the domestic students who attend his university (UWS) come from families that speak a language other than English at home.

“The second languages of most of our bilingual students are Arabic, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tamil, Filipino/Tagalog or Korean. Increasing numbers of our students come from the Pacific islands,” Professor Shergold said.

“We need to stop thinking about this archetypally Australian process of migrant settlement in terms of barriers of language and discrimination. Migrants (and refugees) bring entrepreneurial drive and ambition for their children.

“Young people brought up in two cultures possess an additional asset that can enhance their educational qualifications in business, law, medicine, nursing, teaching, engineering or community work.

“The public return on the government subsidy invested in the human capital of graduates will only be fully realised if that positive value of diversity is recognised. Education, after all, is about maximising the economic and social return to the wider Australian community not just improving lifetime opportunities for the students themselves.

“Ethnicity, in this profound sense, has positive characteristics. Think of it as ‘hip-pocket multiculturalism’. It is the productive diversity than can be liberated by a university education.

“As the Prime Minister and NSW Premier lead business delegations to India, China, Vietnam and Indonesia, it is clear that the linguistic and cultural attributes of Australian students can help to create new opportunities for trade and commerce,” he said.

Professor Shergold joined the federal public service in 1987, working firstly as head of the newly established Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Having become deputy secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1990, he was appointed the CEO of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.

Between 2003 and 2008, as Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, he was Australia’s most senior public servant.

Cesira Colleluori
AMES Staff Writer