Peter Underwood Centre celebrates its first PhD graduate

2024 UTAS Graduation ceremony with PhD gradiate Debra Urquhart (left) and her supervisor Kitty te Riele (right) - image by Peter W Allen
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In a milestone moment for the Peter Underwood Centre at the University of Tasmania, Debra Urquhart became the institution’s first PhD graduate on 20 March this year, in a ceremony at MyState Bank Arena in Glenorchy. Her research found that distance education can be a positive learning opportunity for those who leave school without their Year 12 certificate and with literacy gaps.

The graduation ceremony marked the culmination of years of dedicated research about early school-leaver re-engagement through distance education. Ms Urquhart’s study found that, for young people who face various challenges – such as bullying, social isolation or exclusion from formal classroom settings – distance education can serve as a sanctuary, offering personalised support and the ability to pursue learning on their own terms.

“This is significant because early school leaving, unfortunately, continues to occur – more so in regional areas and the youth unemployment rate continues to be high.”

PhD graduate Debra Urquhart

Ms Urquhart’s research highlights the importance of literacy education as a cornerstone of lifelong learning and social inclusion. She chose to undertake her PhD through the Underwood Centre following an in-person meeting with Acting Director Kitty te Riele, who led the Centre’s Review of Literacy Teaching, Training and Practice in Government Schools between 2017-2019.

“It was because of Kitty… she was a really good fit,” Ms Urquhart says.

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“I was attending an ACAL (Australian Council for Adult Literacy) conference in Hobart and because I was referencing her work, I just rang her up and said, would she like to have coffee with me?”

Not only was distance education the focus of Ms Urquhart’s research, but it was also the way in which she undertook her PhD, as she is based on the Central Coast of NSW.

“I found it flexible, and it fits with all your life commitments. I think UTAS is well set up. I felt like, especially at the Underwood Centre, [with] their brown bag lunches, regular Zoom meetings with my supervisors Kitty te Riele and Nicoli Barnes, and regular emails, they really try and make you feel like you belong, and you don’t feel isolated at all,” she says.

Contrary to prevailing perceptions that distance education poses more challenges than opportunities for early school leavers, Ms Urquhart’s research shows that it is not only possible, but that it can be just as beneficial as traditional learning.

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Ceremony united mentor and student

The graduation ceremony was only the second time that Ms te Riele and Ms Urquhart have ever met in person.

“It was just wonderful that she was there. I think that was very special,” Ms Urquhart says.

“It was also quite an unexpected privilege to go on stage. Once you received your award you were invited to sit on stage with the academic staff. I didn’t realise that was going to happen. So that was a nice kind of acknowledgement that we’re now considered academics and we’re part of the university and it gave a sense of belonging.”

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