Insights Blog

International collaborations can change lives

International collaborations can change lives

18 February 2013, by Sharon Kerr

Sharon Kerr is Manager, Macquarie University Accessibility Services. She joined Macquarie University in 2000 as a Lecturer in Education and subsequently progressed to a number of management positions in the area of e-learning. Sharon was responsible for the educational design of the first online degree offered by Macquarie University through Open Universities Australia. Now, in addition to lecturing, she manages the unit Macquarie University Accessibility Services which she initiated in 2004. In January 2013 the book that she co-authored with Dr Stefan Popenici What Undermines Higher Education was published. Follow Sharon on Twitter @EducSkerr.


“Ultimately, academics and especially decision makers in higher education have to seriously ask what story do we tell ourselves. What are our common values? How do we maintain pride and honor for making a substantial contribution to our societies and to the world? What is this institution standing for? Those who can answer to themselves, in complete honesty, that we stand for quality education responsible and significant contribution to the world and to the future of our students have a difficult, but solid road ahead. Nevertheless, only these universities of the 21st century will be part of our common future.” What Undermines Higher Education, Stefan Popenici and Sharon Kerr (2012)

I was approached to write this piece by the LH Martin Institute in response to a group posting of a similar title that I submitted on a LinkedIn group discussion. The group posting told the story of a young 22 year-old woman whom I had met through a project I was working on in Indonesia.

The surface story is of a shy young woman called Johanna, who lost her sight at the age of 18 through glaucoma and was provided with the opportunity to go to university in 2012. Through this opportunity she gained not only access to education but, with encouragement and mentoring from my team, her new teachers and university friends, a newfound confidence, which she displayed recently in her enthralling singing performances on the Indonesian X Factor television show (pictured, left).

The background story, however, is even more remarkable. It tracks back through eight years of collaboration and relationship building between Professor Loekito Sohono (Loekito) from the University of Brawijaya in Malang , Indonesia and myself from Macquarie University Sydney, Australia.

Many of us will remember the horror of the images that we saw of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that washed away the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian people. Few, however, will be aware that this tsunami left many with disabilities and afflictions that would leave them marginalised from main stream life, education and employment.

Early in 2005 with the tragedy of the Tsunami still fresh in the minds of all, Loekito came to visit me in Sydney. Loekito was carrying with him a burden of concern for the young people with disabilities in his country. He explained to me how, in Indonesia, those with a disability are the hidden people. That even those with colour-blindness are denied access to higher education and that the opportunity for employment beyond the life of a beggar is remote. Then came the statistics that struck me like a body-blow. In Indonesia it is estimated that there are 20 million people with disability, 1.8 million of these are children and around 18% acquired their disability through natural disasters such as tsunami and earthquakes.

My unit at the time, the Macquarie University Customised Accessibility Services (M-CAS), was a national service providing support to students with disabilities across Australia. No matter what a student’s disability was we would find solutions using assistive technologies and customised pedagogies to enable the student access to learning. We provided this service on a cost recovery basis to any university, TAFE or college that sought our assistance. Loekito had heard of our service through government officials and sought me out to see if there was some way we could help.

Loekito initially proposed that students with disability be sent to Australia to study.  I was aware that this would be disruptive for the students, having to uproot to study in a foreign land, and the host universities here, needing to find ways to support these students. Subsequently, it  was proposed that a centre similar to M-CAS be set up at the University of Brawijaya, which opened in November 2012 (pictured, right), was viewed by all parties as the more sustainable solution.

However, the establishment of the centre alone would not overcome the very real barriers to entry and participation for students with disabilities to mainstream Indonesian universities. Shifting attitudes towards disability within government and university communities in a country the size of Indonesia presented a much bigger challenge and one that was beyond our control. We understood that our collaboration would require time, patience and us waiting until the involvement and work of concerned citizens and grassroots communities throughout Indonesia provided the opportunity for us to proceed.

This opportunity came in 2012 following Indonesia becoming a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Australian and Indonesian governments provided funds for Loekito and I to present to Rectors (Vice-Chancellors), government officials, community groups, people with disability and their families. I spoke about universal curriculum design, social inclusion of people with disabilities and the impact that access to education and employment could have on the lives of individuals, communities and the broader economy. I related what we had learned at M-CAS (now MQAS), in providing support and services across Australia. I demonstrated the inbuilt accessibility technologies in common mainstream hand held devices . I also explained that if curriculum was developed using universal design principles from the start, expensive support costs would be mitigated and all students could benefit.

The University of Brawijaya, under the visionary leadership of Rector Sugito, modified the built environment of the campus to ensure physical access and provided space and personnel for a disability support unit and undertook to provide full scholarships for 20 students with disability. Johanna was one of these students.

Inspired by the undertaking by the University of Brawijaya , the Indonesian government organised a national meeting of Rectors from universities representing each province in Indonesia in November 2012. Again the opportunity was taken to share and encourage this new way of thinking about disability in the country. At the conclusion of the two-day meeting, a memorandum was signed by all Rectors to open the doors of their universities to students with disabilities.

On the Macquarie University side, we had former Vice-Chancellor Professor Di Yerbury to thank. Professor Yerbury's leadership style was, in my opinion, one of open arms to opportunity, service and community outreach and allowed the initial partnership with University of Brawijaya to flourish. Since then Macquarie University has had two other Vice-Chancellors who have been just as supportive of our international collaborations.

By being determined in maintaining our international relationships we transformed lives and now stand at the gates of opportunity for research and collaboration. Just as in any relationship, international collaborations require authenticity, openness, mutual respect, patience and a mutual desire to work together for a common goal. True and trusting relationships promote golden opportunities that money cannot buy.

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