The Turning Point
By Ellen FanningSeptember 13, 2012
Australia has forever been behind the rest of the world in indigenous tertiary education — among staff and students, you're hard-pressed to find an Aboriginal person on campus. A new report suggests radical ways to fix that, for the benefit of all Australians. It’s time.
As a Year 12 student, Kyle Turner had never heard of university, but after an indigenous graduate spoke at his high school, he thought he'd give it a go. "At first," he says, "I failed everything." It was not because he wasn't smart enough, but because at the age of 19 he had what he calls "a massive identity crisis". As a light-skinned Wiradjuri man with a strong sense of his Aboriginal heritage, he arrived at Queensland University to suddenly feel himself defined by only his Aboriginality. "I'm a son. I'm a boyfriend. I'm a mad Carlton [football club] fan. My Aboriginality is an important part of my makeup but it doesn't define me," says Kyle, now 27. University is often the place young people work out who they are. Kyle had a bigger task: to figure out what it means to him to be a modern indigenous man.
Once he'd figured that out, getting first class honours in his Bachelor of Archaeological Practice and completing a Masters of Applied Epidemiology were a breeze. "I don't want to sound cocky but I really didn't find it that difficult," he says.
Lilly Brown, 26, quips that she became the first person in her family to go to university because she didn't want to be a hairdresser. "I hate standing on my feet all day," she jokes. Later in our conversation, Lilly recalls being an eight- or nine-year-old in Year 3 at a school in Western Australia. It was Pioneer Day: "The kids would get dressed up in their settler clothing and parade around the basketball court," she says. There was no mention of the indigenous population the settlers were displacing and the little Gumbangerrii girl refused to dress up. "Deep down I knew that it wasn't right," she says. "I think those moments are crucibles, times in life that make people who they are."
Inspired, supported and motivated by her teachers, she decided she wanted to go to university, become an educator herself and make a difference in the lives of indigenous students. But there have been moments at Melbourne University which have rivalled the insult of Pioneer Day. Lilly has had to listen to students recycle stereotypes and prejudices as they debate indigenous issues in tutorials. And not long ago, on the university's manicured south lawn, she overheard other students complaining about "a boong on the tram". "I won't lie to you," she says. "It hasn't been easy."
Twenty-five-year-old Krystal Lockwood cannot stop laughing. Growing up as an indigenous kid in the university town of Armidale in New South Wales, this Gumbangerrii and Dhungutti woman didn't ever imagine she belonged at university. And she still seems slightly amused that she not only ended up there, but graduated with first class honours. Her turning point was at a camp for young people, where the focus was on raising the aspirations of indigenous and non-indigenous kids who might never have imagined the opportunities an education can provide. Everyone was assigned a mentor. Krystal got the NSW Magistrate Pat O'Shane, the first indigenous Australian to graduate with a law degree, and ended up imagining herself onto the path that led to a degree in criminology; dreaming up a future in which she'll work on ways to reduce indigenous rates of imprisonment. "For me the hardest part was convincing myself that I could actually achieve it," she laughs. "I've been incredibly lucky to have strong support networks and for some reason, they've believed in me more than I've believed in myself!"
Three brilliant students, all accidental scholars whose journeys demonstrate just what it takes for even the brightest indigenous students to succeed in higher education.
Now the Australian Government is trying to work out what it would take to get thousands more indigenous Australians a tertiary qualification.
There are currently about 10,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders at Australian universities. That's about 1.3 per cent of the domestic student population. There are even fewer indigenous academics and general staff. At an Australian university, a student can complete an entire degree without ever encountering an indigenous lecturer or tutor, let alone an indigenous perspective in their studies.
An ambitious new report recommends a plan to increase domestic indigenous student numbers by 60 per cent, more than double indigenous staff numbers and ensure around 2.2 per cent of their postgraduate research students are indigenous.
The Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island People was chaired by Larissa Behrendt, an indigenous woman, barrister and professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney. To be released tomorrow in Melbourne by the Minister for Tertiary Education Chris Evans, it recommends that Australian universities should aim for "parity". The adult indigenous population is 2.2 per cent, Behrendt's report reasons, so that's the proportion of indigenous students, staff and researchers there should be at universities. (And that target figure should be revised each time new census data is available.)
And it's not a target for five years' time, Behrendt says, but for right now.
"We're setting it as a target for now, and we'd like to see it reached as soon as possible," says Behrendt.
"We think there are good pools of [potential, mature age] students in the workforce and in the community sector that could go a long way to helping universities pick up their student numbers.
Universities will also have to "grow their own", by finding the best and brightest school students from about Year 7, and mentoring, tutoring and inspiring them so that they are ready to take on a tertiary degree.
And in a move designed to get cash-strapped vice-chancellors to sit up and take notice, the review recommends that the targets be tied to university funding.
From next year, each of Australia's 38 publicly funded universities will be required to sit down and start negotiating specific targets for the number of indigenous staff, post-graduate and undergraduate students at their institution, to take effect from 2014.
Such targets will be based on the indigenous population in their catchment. There will be an initial focus on getting more indigenous students into degrees such as medicine, which will help close the gap in life opportunities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Universities will be accountable for those targets. Indigenous graduation rates, for instance, will have to match those of non-indigenous students. Failure will come at a financial cost to the teaching institution.
"If their [staff and student] numbers go down then their funding goes down," says Behrendt. "But I don't think we're setting them up to fail with a figure like 2.2 per cent
"If anything I think we'll get some criticism from people who think 2.2 per cent is too low. But I think what it will require is for the sector to think long term. To take a much broader view about where they get their students from. Not just picking off high school students but going out into the workforce [and recruiting students]," she says.
Behrendt, who visited every Australian public university in the course of the review, is at pains to point out that it's not as if the sector hasn't been trying.
Universities have everything from elders-in-residence programs to schemes that allow senior high school students to study a couple of university subjects before they even enrol at university. (The report even makes mention of a Central Queensland University initiative to enrol indigenous people while they are in jail.)
The centrepiece of their efforts is the indigenous education centres on virtually every campus, which support indigenous staff and students.
Some view such centres as ghettos for Aboriginal students. But that's not what Behrendt heard from students around the country, who valued the support they received there. The problem, she concluded, was that such places cannot be responsible for indigenous policy across the universities.
"I think what we discovered is that it's not enough to let the centres do all the heavy lifting," says Behrendt.
Her report now calls for what she calls a "whole of university" approach to the issue, led from the vice-chancellor's office.
Responding to indigenous people will no longer be optional or a question of goodwill for universities. They are going to have to radically change.
The historic sandstone centres of learning, as well as the more modern campuses in Australian towns and regional areas, will need to undergo their own identity crisis and work out what it means to be truly Australian institutions.
Here's what it will take, according to the report.
Each will need to take action to achieve cultural change, rolling our staff programs to build cultural understanding.
That could well be seen as code for ending racism and discrimination, which is rife in the sector. According to a recent report from the National Tertiary Education Union called "I'm Not a Racist, But …", 71 per cent of the indigenous workforce in Australia report having experienced racial discrimination at work.
Curricula should be rewritten to include indigenous knowledge and perspectives (but only if such content meets "the standards of excellence as applied to other curriculum content"). And employment contracts should be reviewed to ensure that university leaders are held accountable for delivering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and student success.
But it will not be enough for the university admissions staff to be waiting in the quadrangles, ready to issue name badges and student numbers.
Universities are expected to take a lead in mentoring, tutoring and inspiring indigenous students.
They'll also be expected to find ways to increase the number of indigenous people at the highest levels of their institutions, utilising some extra funding proposed in the review to allow universities to compete with other employers for the top indigenous talent.
"We went to many places where they said 'Yeah, we had an indigenous staff member but then the funding ran out,'" recalls Behrendt. "You can't tell me that in a faculty, any faculty in Australia, with natural attrition rates, there isn't room to develop an indigenous staff member. It's not true."
Unlike other such reports, this one won't be filed away in a ministerial office. All stakeholders — from the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Chris Evans, to the peak body for universities, to federal bureaucracy — are on board with the changes.
"This will be the new era of the way these things are done," says Behrendt. "And I think it sends a really positive message that people are willing to think about doing things in a much more accountable and effective way."
What's perplexing is why such efforts haven't had more success in the past.
Twenty years ago, Australia was one of the first countries to transform its universities from elite systems to systems geared to the masses. But by 2009, Australia had been overtaken on the OECD scale — which measures the number of people with a tertiary education — by such nations as South Korea. So recruiting more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds became a national priority.
Once they actually get to university, such students generally perform nearly as well as students from other socio-economic groups — except if they're both indigenous and disadvantaged on the socio-economic scale.
Not only are indigenous students half as likely as non-indigenous students to complete high school, but if they get to university they are much more likely to drop out.
It's the old sandstone universities that have the best indigenous graduation rates, but they take the smallest numbers of students. Perversely, it's the institutions that take the most indigenous students that have the highest drop-out rates.
Behrendt says this can be calamitous for these students' communities.
"The impact of someone dropping out on their family, the message it sends, their low self-esteem, it's really exponential," says Behrendt. "We really want to limit failure."
Part of the problem is that universities are seen by many in the indigenous community as "unsafe" cultural environments, where students and staff confront racism and ignorance. Some indigenous students will also struggle academically. Financial pressures are a big problem, as most Aboriginal students come from outer metropolitan and regional centres to attend university and many are mature-aged people who also have families to support. (Little wonder then that there has been dismay at the push by the Queensland Liberal National Party to abolish Abstudy payments for indigenous university and TAFE students, apprentices and trainees.)
But according to Jillian Miller, who runs the indigenous student support service at the University of South Australia, "one of the main reasons [indigenous students drop out] is what's happening in their family."
"You need to look at history [and ask] what has caused poverty? What has caused people to be unemployed? Then you have an understanding that, yes, it's great to be able to combat these things through education. But for some families that [poverty] causes a lot of stress and sickness which shows up in early deaths in Aboriginal families. And coping with death, poverty and wider family issues is one of the [main] reasons for lack of retention of Aborigines in universities."
Another significant aspect of the problem has been low expectations.
Aboriginal high school students often thought they were "too dumb to attend university", according to a Queensland survey quoted in the review.
The review found some indigenous parents discourage their children from going to university.
And too often teachers don't expect indigenous kids to succeed.
One medical student from Western Australia, Declan Scott, told the review panel, "I got told by most of my teachers, 'Look, you're not going to be up to doing tertiary education, so probably best to leave now.'" Another medical student, Cameron Howard, reported, "One of my teachers said to me, 'I'm not putting you into chemistry, physics or any of those because I can't see you passing this year. I reckon you're going to drop out anyway.'"
Twenty-two-year-old Frank Gafa, an indigenous man, studying arts and law at the Australian National University, had a similar experience at his Wollongong high school. "I had a careers advisor who would continually try to make me take labouring jobs," says Gafa. "There was this stereotype that blackfellas are only good for hard labour or low-skilled jobs and are not really suited to university."
Gafa, who last year served as the national indigenous officer at the Australian Union of Students, has also found time to act as a key advisor to the review panel, while juggling his studies and full time work.
He says that when indigenous students make it to university, they often experience another form of discrimination.
"It's this question of, 'How black are you?', to put it bluntly," says Gafa.
"There are a lot of instances of students who are light-skinned going to tutorials and having indigenous content talked about in a culturally insensitive way. And when they [say] they are indigenous, people [comment], 'You don't look like an indigenous person. You don't act like an indigenous person.' And that happens a lot and not only in tutorials but [generally]."
So, at high school, students can be considered too indigenous to aspire to higher education, but once at university they are suddenly not indigenous enough?
"Yep. Exactly right," says Gafa.
Queensland academic Dr Chris Sarra urged the review to recommend ways to end such systemic discrimination.
As a school principal in a former Aboriginal settlement of Cherbourg, 250 kilometres north west of Brisbane, Sarra developed what he calls a "high expectation relationship" with indigenous students, parents and the community, rather that just accepting failure as normal. He lost half the teaching staff along the way, but gained impressive results in school attendance and overall student grades.
Explaining his approach on ABC TV in 2004 he said he promised the kids iceblocks if they came to school. "Some people say that bribing children doesn't work. Well, I'm here to tell you that it does work. The number of unexplained absences in Term 3 of 2000 was 1,185. In Term 4, 2001, the number of unexplained absences was 68.5."
"It meant I had to ride kids pretty hard, and make them get to class. If they played up in class and stopped other children from learning, I growled them, you know, or I would go and see their parents and say, 'Look, your kid's playing up. We're trying to change where we're going with the school, we need your help.'"
His Stronger Smarter Institute, run through the Queensland University of Technology, helps spread and support the development of this high-expectations relationship in Queensland schools.
And the report recommends that all teachers and career advisors have access to such professional development.
At the same time, the report endorses what it calls a "higher-achievers approach", giving the example of the Aspiration Initiative, which brings together groups of bright indigenous 13-year-olds, giving them intensive academic tuition in the school holidays and throughout the school term from the middle of Year 8 through to the completion of their first post-school year.
This is quite a departure from the traditional approach to indigenous policy, which has been to focus on lifting literacy and numeracy standards across the board. In education circles, it will be considered quite a radical change.
"The Australian Government has tended to focus on raising the educational outcomes of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students," the review notes. "This [new] approach has the potential to create a much larger pool of university-ready Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It also requires significantly more resources and is less likely to achieve individual success at the same rate as the higher-achievers approach.
" … Both approaches — supporting talented students to achieve their potential and raising the academic standards of all students — are essential to improving access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Universities should support both approaches where possible."
Nevertheless, both approaches will take years to boost tertiary student numbers and Professor Behrendt says universities need to be looking elsewhere for potential recruits.
"You have very talented people — often with only TAFE qualifications — running community medical organisations or community legal organisations," says Behrendt. "They are doing budgets. They are lobbying. They are managing a board. They can read and write fairly well," she adds with the slightest trace of exasperation.
"You know people sign up to do a medical-assistant [course] or something, get some training in that sort of area through TAFE, whereas in fact you could put them into nursing," says Behrendt. "So there's an aspiration issue. There's also a stepping stone issue."
"We understand there's a problem with the pipeline," says Behrendt, "but we have said very strongly [to universities] there are other pathways that you are not utilising and other pools of students that you're not making the most of either."
Behrendt says employers also have a role to play.
"I get sick and tired of hearing, 'We'd employ somebody but there's nobody there,'" she says. "Everyone puts their hand up and says, 'If you've got an Aboriginal graduate I'll take them.' But not as many people will say, 'Look, if you've got a really great student I'll give them a scholarship and some summer work and I'll build them into a really great position in my company, I'll give them a great mentor.'"
Like any good review, it turns its focus on the state of the government's funding programs, insisting that more can be done with available funds.
It turns out some of the money universities receive to boost participation in higher education has ended up in their generic marketing budget, and the report urges the government to put a stop to this. While they were at it, the report's authors unscrambled some of the bureaucratic spaghetti that has made it so onerous for students to take up the indigenous scholarships on offer — distressingly many of these scholarships go begging. It also makes it easier for them to sign on for subsidised assistance once they're at university. (Believe it or not, students have had to sign up for a tutor at the beginning of the semester, before they know they'll need help!)
Indigenous students Kyle Turner, Lilly Brown and Krystal Lockwood all made it through university because of successful indigenous programs such as those listed in the report.
Now all three have won admission to the world's most prestigious universities.
Lilly will become the first indigenous Australian to study at Cambridge University, where she'll complete a master's degree in politics, development and democratic education at Trinity College.
Krystal and Kyle are off to Oxford where Krystal will complete a masters in evidence-based social intervention, while Kyle aims to emerge as Dr Turner, with the equivalent of a PhD in public health.
The cost of their studies will be funded by a special scholarship, named for the late Dr Charles Perkins, the first indigenous Australian university graduate, who was awarded a Bachelor of Arts from Sydney University in 1966.
His alma mater, founded in 1850, still clings to the motto, Sidere mens eadem mutato. Roughly translated it means, 'The same minds under different stars'. The implication, according to the Dictionary of Sydney, is that "the only differences between the new colonial society and that of Britain were geographic, and not cultural. The architecture … reflects this notion of entire transplantation."
Not surprising, then, that those walls stood as a barrier to indigenous Australians for so long.
But much greater, enlightened moves are afoot here, which began independently of Behrendt's review recommendations, but which — because they run parallel to its thinking — bode well for its success.
After nearly 160 years of history, last year an indigenous person was recruited for Sydney University's most senior leadership group. Professor Shane Houston was appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Indigenous Strategy and Services.
After more than 12 months of consultation, the former senior health bureaucrat has recently unveiled a major strategy for indigenous education which will ensure that by 2015 there are twice as many indigenous people studying at the university, there will be five times as many indigenous academic staff as there are now, the university will see a 40 per cent increase in research in indigenous issues, and all new and existing staff will have undergone cross-cultural training.
Professor Houston doesn't imagine he can change Sydney University on his own. "We're not going to stick to the narrow 'Aboriginal unit running everything' stuff," he says. "This is going to be a whole-of-university initiative. It's organic. It's not a question of my office having five staff, as I have at the moment. We have 10,000 staff. It's growing out of their interest and good will. And it seems to me if we can do that, we don't need an Aboriginal bureaucracy to run it."
His approach to transforming the university, which he says the senior academics "really grabbed hold of" is to argue that by exposing all students at the university to indigenous perspectives and ways of thinking, they will graduate with the ability to work competently in organisations — and indeed foreign countries — where there is more than one culture at play.
Here is what Professor Houston says of his ingenious approach, one that may finally transform the nation's oldest university into a truly Australian institution:
"There is a thing called collective memory. Aboriginal people's attitude to institutions — all institutions, not just universities — is not just influenced by their own personal experience but it's influenced by the experiences of their parents, of their grandparents, of their great grandparents, of their sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles. People take on board that collective experience and that's what helps form their view of institutions. If institutions do nothing more than wait they will do nothing to change that image. Institutions — if they're serious about this — have to get out and proactively work to make themselves an attainable goal. [They have] to change, to distinguish themselves from the past. And to show people that it is a different set of circumstances, [that] it will be a different experience — and actually deliver it."
"I hope for this sort of conversation…'You know I'm studying education at Sydney [University] and we've got this incredible part of our course where we get to understand the importance of cultural competence. And do you know I've just accepted a job in Singapore because I can [now] actually work in a different country?' Or 'I've accepted a job in the Pacific, or in China, because I am confident about being able to work in a country where there is another dominant culture?'
"I mean how powerful would that be as a narrative?"
"And then they would say, 'And it actually started with learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They were the ones that introduced this work.' How would that change Australia's narrative about its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? We are no longer the beneficiaries of special programs that get us in to a university. We are actually introducing an idea, leading its implementation and then extending it to the broader Australian community. Not the other way around. It's not other people bringing the benefits of health, housing and education to us. It's about us bringing an idea which is important to us and planting that seed in the hearts and minds of students and staff at the university and watching it grow until it eventually embraces the whole community not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
"What we're trying to do is to say 'Australia's higher education sector wasn't an empty land before Europeans came here. There was a rich tradition of education.
"If we can do that, we might be able to take those narratives to the soul of the Australian identity. How much richer would the Australian identity be if we embraced all of the people in this country not just some of them?"