Penny Jane Burke made UNESCO chair in Equity, Social Justice and Higher Education

Penny Jane Burke made UNESCO chair in Equity, Social Justice and Higher Education

A Newcastle University professor who has dedicated her career to improving access to higher education for marginalized communities has been appointed to a UNESCO Chair.

Key points: University of Newcastle Professor Penny Jane Burke has been appointed as a UNESCO Chair Professor Burke has dedicated her career to improving equality in the higher education sector As Chair, she will examine the impact of gender-based violence on access to and participation in higher education

Penny Jane Burke grew up in California but moved to England with her son as a young adult.

“As a young woman I had no access to higher education and found myself in a very vulnerable situation with my baby son,” she said.

“I am a survivor of domestic violence myself and recently fled a very serious domestic violence situation when I discovered an access to higher education program that changed my life completely.”

Through the program, she met many diverse people who had gained access to higher education against the odds, including many other survivors of domestic violence, which left a lasting impression on her.

“I could see how life-changing higher education can be for people when they have access to it and they can participate in a really active way,” she said.

“So it’s kind of become my life’s work to contribute to this project to build equality and expand participation in higher education.

“We need to make it easier for people, especially from diverse backgrounds and circumstances, to access higher education.”

Work with UNESCO

Professor Burke obtained her PhD at the University of London and went on to publish several books and research articles on access to, and equity within, the higher education sector.

In 2015 she became director of the University of Newcastle’s Center of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education.

Much of her research within the center has looked at which groups of people struggle to access higher education and what support can be put in place.

“From our research, we were able to create many programs … that actually support students from marginalized communities to complete their studies,” she said.

Professor Burke, who is now a UNESCO Chair in Equity, Social Justice and Higher Education, hopes to expand the work she has done at the university to improve the lives of marginalized groups around the world, including victim-survivors of gender-based violence.

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UNESCO Chairs, an agency of the United Nations, specialize in connecting institutions around the world with a common goal of reducing inequality and improving access to education.

“One of the key projects I will focus on will be to generate new knowledge about the impact of gender-based violence on access to and participation in higher education,” she said.

“And with that knowledge, to produce specialized post-crisis strategies, through inter-agency collaboration with a strong focus on supporting victim-survivors and their families.”

Professor Burke hopes to establish a hub linking relevant experts and authorities to combat the access issues many people face when trying to study at tertiary level.

“We will do this in Australia and then also want to apply it in Ghana,” she said.

“Hopefully the work will then also expand to other parts of the world.”

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