Cementing Indigenous self-determination in Australian universities

Increased enrolments of Indigenous people and new approaches to self-determination outlined in the Accord are welcome, but the sector has a responsibility to do more.

Alongside the aspiration for greater numbers of Indigenous people to obtain degrees, there are two key ideas for Indigenous Australians in the Australian Universities Accord Final Report.

  1. Indigenous matters should be at the heart of the higher education system.
  2. Indigenous self-determination must be a primary component of the sector going forward.

The Report outlines several key recommendations to see these aspirations realised including a Review of Indigenous Higher Education, an Indigenous Commissioner on the Australian Tertiary Education Commission and the establishment of a First Nations Council to advise the Minister and Commission.

While these recommendations are welcome, there is not just an opportunity, but also, we argue, a responsibility to do more.

 Self-Determination as A Vehicle to Disrupt the Sector

Indigenous Australians have driven considerable change in the Australian Higher Education sector over the last five decades, breathing fresh life into the crevices and silent spaces of disciplines, and transforming the research landscape through Indigenous-led scholarship, whilst raising the ethical and obligatory benchmarks for best practice.

These changes have benefited all in the sector, but this contribution is difficult to sustain without adequate protection and recognition for our people working in the sector and our cultures.

Several United Nations covenants refer to the general rights of peoples for self-determination. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural rights address the principle of freedom to freely pursue economic, social, and cultural development. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms this general right to self-determination whilst also enshrining the right to continuing Indigenous cultural practices. While the UN covenants are directed at governments, and relate to collectives rather than individuals, they are instructive at tertiary education sector and institutional level.

Nationally, whilst not always in agreeance, Indigenous people have advocated collectively in higher education to advance Indigenous success, through advisory groups such as the National Aboriginal Education Committee , Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium and more recently the Universities Australia Deputy/Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Committee. Internationally, Indigenous scholars have also worked to give voice to Indigenous matters, through disciplinary forums such as the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium, by collaborating on research and scholarship, and petitioning for change via the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Self-determination, rather than advocacy, has the potential to reposition Indigenous peoples within institutions, placing Indigenous matters at the heart of the higher education sector and potentially disrupting current practices that can entrench Indigenous disadvantage.

Enacting Self-determination in a University and Higher Education Sector Context

For Indigenous people to truly be at the heart of the Australian higher education system, there will need to be effective mechanisms for Indigenous involvement in university and high-level sector decision-making that extends beyond tokenistic representations to meet broad equity aspirations.

A key element of self-determination is ensuring that Indigenous people can make decisions about our futures. Self-determination and autonomy require that Indigenous people have genuine participation and authority in the tertiary education sector and in institutional decision-making processes. This decision making cannot be limited to decisions about apparently Indigenous matters. Almost all decisions made in universities will in some way effect Indigenous people, whether it be appointment of senior staff or allocation of finances.

Back in 2003, Professor Maryann Bin-Sallik wisely stated “Until we have our own Indigenous Pro-Vice Chancellors to oversee Indigenous issues, universities will continue to make decisions on our behalf and to date these decisions have not all been positive. This is not a new concept.”  Yet, over two decades later, it is difficult to fathom that not all universities have such appointments, and some evidence suggests that university authorities are often inclined to inclusion only where it is not in competition with other institutional strategic outcomes. We are proud to work at an institution that has a Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous positions – one of only three in the nation to have more than one senior Indigenous position at such levels.

Current mechanisms for Indigenous inclusion, such as the appointment of Pro and Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous and the establishment of the Universities Australian Deputy and Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Committee, are positive developments, but we cannot stop there – much more work is ahead of the sector, if it is to be transformative. At Western Sydney University we are excited by the possibilities that the Accord Final Report has expedited.

A model for Self-determination

At Western Sydney University, propelled by Indigenous leadership, we have embarked on the creation of a landmark Indigenous building which, while bold in scale, and yet to be constructed, is also leading us to consider well beyond physical infrastructure. The initial consideration was how we might establish a model of governance for the Indigenous Centre of Excellence that enables Indigenous people to hold authority in decision making and accountability. A vision for Indigenous self-determination and autonomy has led to planning for the development of an iconic space that has the potential to develop into an Indigenous university. We are emboldened by the Accord recommendation that the system of the future will need greater diversification, including specialisation (Recommendation 37, p.257). In the same recommendation the Accord panel foreshadowed the possibility of changes to the Provider Category Standards to enable new university development (p.257).

The Indigenous Centre of Excellence is due for completion in 2026. In the interim we are exploring how Indigenous self-determination might be accomplished within the current university structure. While no final decisions have been made as to how Indigenous self-determination will be operationalised, there are a range of matters worth considering. Self-determination must be about Indigenous people deciding on our own cultural, economic, political and social futures.

Ideally, self-determination would mean less reporting from Indigenous people to non-Indigenous people – for too long the power dynamics have been dominated by non-Indigenous people. As these deliberations about an Indigenous university progress, institutional trust will be imperative, adequate resourcing will be essential and truth-telling will be crucial. We look forward to the exciting journey that will be authored by us in partnership with Indigenous colleagues and communities, to create a more equitable university and higher education sector.

Professor Susan Page is Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Education, and Professor Michelle Trudgett is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership at Western Sydney University.



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