Research vital in closing the gap beyond city limits

There is a lot riding on Minister Clare’s Universities Accord.  Hailed as the biggest reforms to Australia’s education system in a generation, success hinges on the Government’s ability to drive lasting and transformative changes that reduce long-term disadvantage and burgeoning inequality. Addressing the higher education needs of regional and remote Australia, and in particular Indigenous communities, is perhaps the Accord’s biggest challenge. One area often overlooked, is the importance of research in generating a range of health, economic and cultural benefits in regional and remote Australia.

For Indigenous communities, research is critical to addressing the myriad of issues contributing to poorer outcomes across a range of indicators. Indigenous research undertaken by, and in collaboration with, Indigenous academics and communities is key to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous-led, collaborative research supports Indigenous self-determination by improving data related to Indigenous people while protecting Indigenous data sovereignty. In regional and remote Indigenous communities there is huge potential for research to inform policy and practice leading to better life outcomes.

However, our current system does not value, incentivise or adequately support Indigenous-focussed research, particularly in remote areas where some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged populations live. The Australian Universities Accord, as well as the current review of the National Competitive Grants Program and the Parliamentary Inquiry into Economic Self-Determination and Opportunities for First Nations Australians, are opportunities to make changes that deliver lasting impacts in regional and remote communities.

My own research, which for many years has focussed on remote Indigenous communities in the western desert of central Australia, illustrates many of the challenges. When I first commenced field work with Luritja and Warlpiri people at Papunya in 2015, I remember setting up camp with a colleague and waiting three full days before our primary Luritja collaborator engaged with us. We had travelled to Papunya from Victoria by four-wheel drive with camper trailer in tow and had just a week to make a start on our planned research. The timeframes of our own university and the Australian Research Council (ARC) were completely out of sync with those of the remote Indigenous people we were seeking to work with. It was a lesson in the importance of trust and prioritising the time necessary to develop the confidence of the community. Given the long history of exploitation and unethical research practices with Indigenous communities, collaborative research partnerships must be grounded in high trust relationships which requires prioritising time, effort and flexibility.  

Alongside time, cost is major barrier to research in remote Indigenous communities. Research budgets rarely stretch to cover the actual costs of doing research in remote parts of Australia. Inevitably, researchers dip into personal funds to sustain their work with remote Aboriginal communities. Research locations like Papunya lack the basic infrastructure to support visitors. Accommodation is limited if it exists at all. Field based research typically requires bringing your own accommodation, in the form of swags, tents or camper trailers. Similarly, there are no restaurants in remote communities. Local stores are expensive with limited supply meaning that researchers often bring their own food and water as well as cooking equipment. Finally, most remote Indigenous communities are accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicle via some of the world’s most unforgiving roads. Having access to the right kind of vehicle is essential to successful field work.

These barriers mean that it is far easier to undertake scholarly engagements with Indigenous Australia in the form of literature surveys, data analysis and archival records research, far from communities and in the comfort and safety of a capital city.  It is also simpler for researchers working in the fields of Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous Studies to travel overseas to engage with Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada or Norway than to engage with remote communities within Australia.

As a result, remote communities are missing out on the benefits of contextualised, community-led research that addresses complex and urgent issues, such as health, education and housing. As a nation, we cannot rely on personal commitment and self-financing to drive research that gives voice to these communities. There is an urgent need to introduce changes that incentivise regional and remote research and contribute to building the next generation of Indigenous researchers.

Calibrating funding cycles for grants with the time it takes to build relationships and engage in co-production is key to strengthening Indigenous research. Current ARC grants timeframes are not aligned with the time it takes to develop relationships, engage in co-production and deliver meaningful outcomes to communities. The current 3-5 year timeframes imply this is sufficient time for university-based researchers to build strong research relationships with external partners. Grants structured around a 7-10 year timeframe are more appropriate for Indigenous research. This change would recognise the critical work required to build genuine, long-term relationships of trust with Indigenous communities.

Funding agencies must also recognise the true cost of research in remote geographic locations (where visitor infrastructure is non-existent) and work with the Australian Taxation Office to make it possible for researchers who partially self-fund remote area field work to make valid claims.

We need to communicate and demystify the broad benefits of Indigenous research in regional and remote communities. ‘Impact’ has become a buzz word in universities, but the broad benefits of university research are not well understood beyond the cities. Promoting opportunities for Indigenous-led research to address community issues would encourage greater buy-in from community and raise awareness of the value of higher education. Indigenous kids in remote communities are well acquainted with the career trajectories presented by the world of Australian Football but very few have knowledge of pathways to higher education. In line with the Universities Accord commitment to foster aspiration, igniting an interest in higher education is critical to both meeting ambitious participation targets and building the Indigenous researcher pipeline.

Finally, the Government needs to incentivise greater collaboration between Go8 universities and regional universities. Given the enormity of challenges facing regional and remote Australia, we need cross‐border, multi‐university, place‐based partnerships.

To deliver on its commitment to self-determination for First Nations people, the Government must prioritise research in regional and remote communities and invest in the next generation of researchers to work alongside communities. Recognising and rewarding long-term engagement and commitment to research partnerships based on shared decision-making and ownership will lead to lifechanging outcomes in regional and remote Australia.

Professor Barry Judd is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of Melbourne



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