Speech: Professor Liz McKinley graduation address

Elizabeth McKinley, Professor of Indigenous Education

Occasional address to the Melbourne Graduate School of Education Graduation Ceremony, Royal Exhibition Building

15 December 2015

Deputy Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Dean of Education, ladies and gentleman, and graduands all.

I wish to begin today by congratulating the graduands on all your hard work. But most of all, I want to congratulate you for choosing to be part of a profession that can really make a difference to young people’s lives.

It is a goal of democratic societies that all students should receive and achieve a high standard of education, irrespective of their family’s income, their social background, or ethnic group to which they belong. We live in a country where we believe every child is deserving of an equal opportunity for educational success. Unfortunately this is not the case. Equality in education still remains one of Australia’s, and indeed the world’s most enduring educational challenges. This is true for many of our students who for one reason or another face social barriers. And it is particularly true for Australian Indigenous students.  While our education system is meant to expand opportunity for all students, it delivers to most Indigenous Australian students an experience that is less than the best we have to offer.

Thirty-six years ago I too were sitting at graduation. In the 1970s I was an Indigenous woman studying for a science degree at the University of Otago. After graduating with my chemistry degree and having completed a year of secondary teacher education, I was ready to embark on a teaching career. During my time at university and teachers college I was the only Indigenous person in my classes.

While what I did was unusual at the time in New Zealand, I want to tell you the story of another Indigenous woman. Her name is Dr Margaret Williams-Weir. In September this year the Graduate School of Education dedicated the lounge on the ground floor of our Queensberry Street building (now known as the Kwong Lee Dow Building) the Dr Margaret Williams-Weir Lounge in her honour. Margaret, a member of the Malera and Bandjalang people of Northern New South Wales, is the first Aboriginal graduate from any Australian University. Margaret graduated with a Diploma in Physical Education from the University of Melbourne. During her life she gained three further degrees, including a doctorate. On receiving her diploma Margaret went into teaching and held positions in Australia, Canada and England. She also worked for the Australian Teacher’s Federation, as the Aboriginal Education Coordinator.

Margaret made it to university through her own achievement having gained matriculation (the equivalent of the VCE today). However, with no funds to pay for tuition and board she was fortunate enough to have the help of others who believed Indigenous Australians should have access to the same chance of success of their non-Indigenous peers.

Janet Deans, a young 19 year old woman at the time and who had a deep commitment to social justice, was the driving force for raising the funds for Margaret to attend university. She raised enough money for the cost of tuition for the first year of study and, in addition, Janet shared some of her own secondary teaching scholarship monies with Margaret to assist with her living expenses. Janet continued to raise money during Margaret’s time here at university so she could complete her studies. As one could imagine, they became lifelong friends.

In addition to Janet’s assistance Myra Roper, the then principal of University Women’s College (and now known as University College), arranged for a residential scholarship for Margaret. It is the very first scholarship University College awarded and they now they award 40 residential scholarships each year. Sadly Dr Margaret Williams-Weir passed away in October this year.

Margaret’s achievement in 1959 is nothing short of remarkable. She must have been an extraordinarily strong and courageous person. She never found it easy attending university and found it difficult to fit in with other students in her course because her background was very different to theirs. However, Margaret completed her study and graduated. A significant part of this success was due to the encouragement of committed others.

This is a remarkable story of private philanthropy and support. For me support from others was also critical to my achievements and it may well have been for you. Being the first of my five siblings to attend university, I had no experience in the wider family to draw on. This presented me with challenges. Gaining entry to university is different from realising that ambition. Luckily I had some committed teachers who believed in me and helped me to apply for university and residential hostels. But most importantly, they were able to provide material and support to help my parents understand.

We all rely on support in our lives to succeed in our endeavours. We tend to take it for granted as much of it comes from families and friends. But not all young people are able to access the necessary support required to realise a dream of educational success. Students from backgrounds where the knowledge of educational success is not available need social, cultural and emotional encouragement from their teachers and schools. It is very important in our work of educating young people, particularly those who are less advantaged, that we include families.

You are equipped with what is needed to help students who are less advantaged than others. As educators you can make a difference. As you leave today this is what you need to do.

Make sure you give all your students teaching that is purposeful, energetic and engaging. Hold them all to high standards. Expose them, as much as you can, to a wide range of experiences and learning. Ground your work in the community and take advantage of the culture the children bring with them. Pay attention to their social and ethical development. Recognize the reality of race, poverty and other social barriers, but make the children understand that barriers don’t have to limit their lives. And above all, no matter where these children come from, it is imperative that you act as if their possibilities are boundless.

Take the next few weeks to celebrate your achievements. Celebrate them with the people who have supported you through the good and the hard times – family and friends – and thank them for all they have done for you.  Enjoy yourself because in the New Year you will be part of Australia’s most important work – realising the potential of all its’ young people.