Labor plans to expand Children’s University

The Australian Labor Party has committed to funding the expansion of the Children’s University scheme, creating a network of partners in every state and territory in Australia.

After six years, operating in five out of eight Australian states, the national Children’s University scheme also expanded to New Zealand last month with a new branch in the city of Canterbury.

Based on a British model, the ‘university’ was first established in Australia at the University of Adelaide in 2013, and places a strong emphasis on giving children meaningful learning experiences via out of school activities.

Since then, more than 5,700 children aged 5-16 years have ‘graduated’ from the junior institution in South Australia and a total of 8,200 nationally.

“A donation of AU$5 million [US$3.5 million] from the federal Labor Party will support an expansion and create a national Children’s University network, with partners in every state and territory,” said University of Adelaide Chancellor, Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce.

Scarce is also chancellor of Children’s University Australasia.

He said the programme offered “superior educational experiences” for children aged between seven and 14 years, as well as volunteering opportunities for 15- to 18-year-olds outside of school hours.

Student achievements were recognised through the award of formal certificates at graduation ceremonies, he added.

An online outline of its programme on the Children’s University webpage says the junior university “leverages” local educational and learning activity providers, including sports clubs, museums, galleries and school clubs.

“There is a strong emphasis on experience as a significant learning tool, acknowledging the value of the range of different learning experiences and environments in which children engage,” the document states.

Linked to university courses

“All learning activities must have a link in some way to a university course so that being a member of a football club could involve sports engineering, physiotherapy, management, teaching, sciences and so on.”

Each student is issued with a ‘Passport to Learning’ in which the hours of each ‘validated activity’ are recorded.

Children attending the Ludmilla and Manunda Terrace primary schools in the Northern Territory enjoyed an “upfront close and personal” experience with native Australian animals. The youngsters were able to touch and learn about a variety of native animals, including baby sugar gliders, magpie geese, snakes, lizards and a Tawny Frogmouth.

The project was part of their membership with Children’s University Charles Darwin, part of the Charles Darwin University in the territory’s capital, Darwin.

As well as being able to hold the animals, the pupils learnt about their threatened habitats and what they could do to help conserve the environment.

Their involvement at the event was later entered in each student’s ‘passport’ and contributes to the number of learning hours necessary for the young pupils to ‘graduate’ from the inaugural Children’s University of Charles Darwin University at a graduation ceremony in September.

Graduation certificates

Across Australia, youngsters who complete the necessary hours are awarded certificates at graduation ceremonies held in ‘high profile locations’ to attract media attention.

“Children’s University is child-led, meaning that children choose what activities they would like to participate in, and participation occurs on a voluntary basis,” Scarce said.

“Every child in Australia, no matter what their background, should have the same opportunity to prosper.

“Education is the key to prosperity, offering young people, irrespective of their circumstances, a pathway to happier, healthier, more productive lives, and giving them the chance to realise their full potential.”

Scarce said the aim was to promote “a love of lifelong learning through community engagement”, with a particular focus on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Disadvantaged backgrounds

These included children from rural and remote locations, Indigenous communities, and from lower socio-economic backgrounds in metropolitan areas.

Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury have partnered to bring the Children’s University to New Zealand.

When the partnership was announced, James McWha, then vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, who is a patron of the Children’s University Australia and New Zealand, said: “I think we can produce meaningful learning experiences for South Island schoolchildren, ones that will hopefully lead to them to taking up tertiary study in the future.”

University of Canterbury Vice-Chancellor Dr Rod Carr said working alongside Lincoln University to establish the Children’s University in New Zealand, and particularly in Canterbury, aligns with his university’s goals, in particular engaging with the community, a pillar of the University of Canterbury’s graduate profile.

“The aim of the Children’s University is to bring high quality educational experiences to children in partnership with their schools, communities and universities. All activities are experiential, and purposely outside of school time so that it is ‘other than school’.”

Kiri Hagenus, managing director of Children’s University Australasia, said there was “great excitement” every year among their families as students took part in the Children’s University.

“It is about creating equity of opportunity and supporting the learning journey of our participants,” she said.

“Children can only aspire to what they know exists and it is our role to create opportunities for all children to understand where the future can take them.”

Hagenus said the interactive educational programme available at the Children’s University also put young people in direct contact with higher education institutions and helped create “aspirations of lifelong learning”.

Commenting on the AU$5 million grant from Labor, Hagenus said everyone involved was “incredibly proud” of what the Children’s University programme had achieved over the past six years.

“We welcome this new funding commitment, which provides hope of a bright future for many young people right across the nation,” she said.