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PROFESSOR Penny Jane Burke had only recently left the women’s refuge where she had lived with her infant son for a year healing from abuse when one conversation changed her life.
While attending a children’s playgroup in the small English town, another woman asked if she had heard of the Access to Higher Education diploma, a one-year program that prepared students for university study.
“Higher education was life saving for me – it allowed me to rebuild my future and life,” Professor Burke said.
“It enabled me to have hope for the future, to walk forward, to provide stability.”
Fast forward 26 years and Professor Burke has completed her undergraduate and master’s degrees and a PhD. She was this year appointed the director of University of Newcastle’s Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE).
She said her life was one example of how education and tertiary institutions could play a “transformative role” in the lives of survivors.
“Through my course I was able to begin to articulate my experience, not just as something personal but tied into broader social relationships and dynamics that makes it quite an important social issue,” she said. “It allowed me to make sense of my experience and move beyond it.” Professor Burke has called for universities to devote resources to researching how to incorporate discussions about gender equity and domestic violence across the curriculums of all degrees.
“Students often have certain assumptions when they start a degree related to problematic sexist concepts in the world, which are not necessarily challenged in the three or four years they are at university,” she said. “We need to create spaces where we can have deeper discussions about equity… so they don’t leave with the same assumptions they start with.”
She said universities also had a “responsibility” to research the causes of domestic violence.
CEEHE will screen an award-winning film by Professor Burke’s son, Timur Bernard, at The Lock Up at 4.30pm on Friday. Still Waters was born from him speaking at age 13 to his mother about her story. Professor Burke said she was “very proud and incredibly honoured” to have contributed to the film, which is a fictionalised psychological drama about an oppressive relationship.
“He’s been able to capture the story in a way that does not oversimplify the multiple complex factors that feed into that experience and make it very hard to comprehend,” she said.
“I always wanted my children to understand I overcame difficulties because I had support and resources – but it’s not the same for everyone.”
For help: 1800RESPECT, Lifeline on 13 11 14.