14.1 Bringing community knowledge to campus

The practical engagement of Elders has been significant to universities’ success in creating a learning environment that fosters cross-cultural understanding and respect for both students and staff. It has created partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to address a wide range of issues pertinent to the social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Universities that formally recognise the role of Elders in university business offer a model for other institutions, both in terms of engagement with local communities and embedding in a practical way the principles of national reconciliation.

14.1.1 Critical success factors

Critical success factors include:

  • Elders are engaged in ways that respect their knowledge and the role they play in achieving education and employment outcomes
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are recognised in high-level university documentation
  • community endorsement is sought for both what is done and how it is done
  • the activities of Elders in university business are resourced appropriately.

14.1.2 Key challenges

Key challenges include:

  • limited models for community engagement in university life
  • identifying relevant communities and securing necessary endorsements and permissions.

14.1.3 Examples

University of Western Sydney – Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment and Engagement

In 2007, the University of Western Sydney established the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment and Engagement to improve outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment, engagement and cross-cultural awareness. The office’s impact extends across the university through the development of language, policies, strategies and workplace agreements (including setting employment targets through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment Strategy Consultative Committee).

In its five years of operation, the office has achieved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a broad range of employment and engagement-related programs, including:

  • an increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment from 15 to 50 full-time equivalent employees (representing 2% of the university’s staff)
  • a 95% completion rate by trainees and progression to higher study and employment
  • creation of a cadetship brokerage model (with 100% completion by cadets placed in government, industry and community organisations)
  • establishment of an early career academic and researcher pilot project providing mentoring to take postgraduate candidates through to academic careers
  • establishment of an Elders on Campus program that provides leadership in cultural workplace relations
  • creation of two annual Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.

The Elders on Campus program links the university to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across six campuses in the Greater Western Sydney region. It provides role models and mentors for cadets, trainees and staff and an avenue for community input into university governance. The leadership program includes university training and invites Elders to become role models for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The university’s approach to engagement seeks to address the social, cultural and economic aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education, and to obtain external community validation. The university’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment and Engagement Advisory Board was established to provide strategic advice and input into employment and engagement initiatives. Engagement is identified as a priority in the university’s Our People 2020 strategy.

Griffith University – Council of Elders

Griffith University’s Indigenous Community Engagement, Policy and Partnership arrangement with a range of stakeholders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities addresses the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students. The involvement of Elders at the university over the past 10 years has grown in both responsibilities and strength—from one of student support to guest speaking, research and the development of policies and community engagement. In 2002, the university established the Elders-in-Residence program. The program involves Elders in policy and partnership initiatives, including advancing cross-cultural knowledge and respect across the university in areas such as curriculum development, teaching, research, student support and community-based initiatives. A Council of Elders was launched by the Governor-General in 2011.

The Council of Elders is active at the national and international levels in promoting better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students within higher education. The council developed the model for a Global Indigenous Elders Alliance, which was endorsed by the World Indigenous Network Higher Education Consortium in 2011.

The Council of Elders and the Elders-in-Residence program have raised the profile of Elders in higher education, including in the scholarship of Indigenous knowledge and the role of Elders in research, academic programs and community engagement. They were instrumental in the formation of the Murri Court, in which Elders and respected members of the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander community sit on Magistrates Court proceedings involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants, an initiative that has been adopted at the state level.

The role of Elders includes:

  • development of policies, academic programs and research as it pertains to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student support, participation and employment
  • facilitation of a greater understanding of cultural protocols across the university
  • establishment of partnerships involving Griffith University faculties and centres, local Aboriginal Education Consultative Councils, industry, TAFE institutes and local schools to provide cultural advice and guidance for significant initiatives being developed
  • participation in university committees such as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee and the Inclusive Curriculum Reference Committee
  • provision of cultural support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff and information for non-Indigenous students and staff on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, experiences and issues
  • representation of Griffith University at relevant local, state, national and international forums
  • acting as cultural supervisors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous postgraduate students
  • promoting the university as a destination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • acting as a conduit between the university and the community
  • developing a network of Elders across states and territories to work with national bodies to improve higher education outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The relationship developed with the local community has been important to the success of the program, as has the provision of both financial and in-kind resources to enable the Elders to develop a formal and well-recognised presence across the university.