Accord opens door to a new era

Taylor Swift’s current tour showcases different work from different portions of her life history, so that we might better understand and appreciate the whole.

This approach is as good as any to understand why it is so important that Australian universities redefine the way they work with Indigenous people to improve impact – and why this litmus test is central to the future of the Australian Universities Accord.

A casual reader of the Accord (though there may not be many) could be forgiven for wondering if it is important to the country change graduate completion rates and staff representation for Indigenous people – or simply a nice thing to do.

The Accord recommends an approach that essentially advocates for a Voice to the Higher Education Sector be established, with improved representation of Indigenous people in decision making and consultation on key issues.

The Accord also recommends new recognition for Indigenous Knowledge and Indigenous leadership in research and improved pathways into education for students.

The Accord says First Nations people and culture should be at the heart of the higher education system, but to elevate this from words to substance will take concerted action. The first step is to explain why. And that’s where Taylor comes in.

The eras of Indigenous involvement in higher education can be summarised in an (admittedly oversimplified) form as progressing from exclusion to begrudging access, to acceptance, to where we are now, where there is an embrace of leadership and voice of Indigenous people, but too often only on Indigenous issues. Indigenous knowledge rarely has a status equivalent to traditional academic disciplines, Indigenous staff are often promoted within Indigenous business units and Indigenous workforce numbers still include a very small number of Indigenous academic staff, or Indigenous in senior professional roles outside of Indigenous teams.

The centrepiece of the Accord is growing the number of Australian graduates of universities TAFEs and other VET institutions to 80% by 2050 and the key to achieving this is increasing not just participation in courses but also completion. The Accord identifies a need to increase participation of Indigenous, rural, low SES and students with a disability.

To turn the Accord outcomes into a new era for Indigenous people in Universities, a range of changes are required.

The number of potential Indigenous students is relatively small compared to other cohorts, according to the report, but success in recruiting, retaining and supporting completion of courses by Indigenous students is arguably the most critical, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the Government is committing to embedding and recognising Indigenous knowledge and culture in the sector. To this end a range of measures are identified specific to Indigenous people, including a review of Indigenous self-determination, increased governance representation and so on.

Secondly, to move beyond the current era where Indigenous people are welcomed but often consumed by working in Indigenous areas, we need to move to a new era, where Indigenous business is everybody’s business. It will need to be led by Indigenous people, but we will not achieve the outcomes required unless action to achieve different and more positive outcomes are shared by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Of course, this should also lead to more Indigenous staff and students, and less of a ghettoising of Indigenous knowledge and culture, so that it is respected and seen to offer value to all, regardless of their origin story.

Thirdly, given the additional work forecast by the Accord, reviewing ways to improve participation and remove barriers to entry and giving licence to self-determination for Indigenous people, there is an extraordinary opportunity for the drivers of success in Indigenous recruitment and support to be shared. Pilot programs to attract Indigenous students can be evaluated and key recipes for attracting and supporting students shared, so that all underrepresented areas can benefit. Genuine equality of access and holistic approaches to support and education can also be placed on the horizon for all students as we are given licence to break new ground through Indigenous leadership.

Indigenous culture is about a collective outcome. This new attitude to upholding and supporting Indigenous leadership must lead to a benefit for all future students.

The Accord offers access to a new era – where we flip from a deficit lens to recognising the strengths and diversity of Indigenous people – which can flow on to recipes to recognise and capitalise on the strengths of regional people, people from low income backgrounds and people with disability.

The O’Kane Accord recommendations provide the opportunity to lever open a portal to an era where strengthening Indigenous outcomes is not just nice, but critical to the future of the sector.

Professor Maree Meredith is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership) at the University of Canberra and Co-Chair of the IRU Indigenous Network.



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