5.2 Building the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic and research workforce

On this page:

The capability of Australia’s academic and research workforce directly impacts on Australia’s social and economic prosperity. Academics and researchers are vital not only to professions but across the Australian economy to address critical environmental, economic and/or social needs and drive innovation in Australian businesses.

Current situation

The proportion of full-time equivalent academic staff who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has remained largely unchanged between 2004 and 2010, at 0.80% ( DIISRTE 2012a).122

Rigney suggests that a range of strategies are required to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic staff, highlighting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander alumni are extremely underutilised and that despite increased incentives in past decades, still greater effort is needed to build the pool of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lecturers and researchers (Rigney 2011, pp. 20–1).

The Research skills for an innovative future: a research workforce strategy to cover the decade and beyond report, released in 2011 ( DIISR 2011b, p. ix), sets a 10-year strategy to ensure that Australia has a world-class research workforce to meet its strategic research and development needs.

An important element in the strategy to meet Australia’s future research skills needs is increasing participation in the research workforce by underrepresented groups, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In 2010, 61 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander full-time equivalent staff were employed in a research-only function, constituting 0.5% of research-only staff. To reach a representation of 2.2%, an additional 236 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research-only staff would need to have been employed in 2010.

Most of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic staff are female, older and in lower-level positions

In 2010, a greater proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander full-time equivalent ( FTE) academic staff were women, over 40 years old and in lower academic positions compared to non-Indigenous FTE academic staff. In 2010, 63.8% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander FTE academic staff were women, compared to 42.6% of non-Indigenous FTE academic staff. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander FTE academic staff were older in 2010, with 76.0% aged 40 years and over compared to 42.6% of non-Indigenous FTE academic staff. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander FTE staff were most underrepresented at the higher classification levels and most represented in non-academic positions (65.8% Indigenous in non-academic positions as a proportion of all FTE staff, compared to 56.8% for non-Indigenous). While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous representation at lecturer (Level B) are at almost the same proportion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff were proportionally underrepresented at the above senior lecturer level (7.0%, compared to 11.1% for non-Indigenous), senior lecturer (Level C) (6.2%, compared to 10.1% for non-Indigenous), and below lecturer (Level A) (6.7%, compared to 7.7% for non-Indigenous) ( DIISRTE 2012a).123

What is being done to grow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and researchers?

There is evidence of strong commitment and innovative approaches being undertaken in the higher education sector to build the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research workforce. The Review commends universities actively addressing this issue in their core business.

Senior executives of universities need to drive strategic and whole-of-university approaches to lifting the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics (for teaching and research) in universities.

Building on existing efforts

Many universities have already sought to ‘grow their own’ from within the university by targeting additional support and opportunities at final-year students, postgraduate research students and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander alumni. This approach recognises and rewards potential, with identified senior students undertaking activities that enhance their skills and experience and accessing a pathway to postgraduate study or employment at the university. The University of Newcastle, for example, has effectively driven such a strategy which has resulted in 2.4% of all staff being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander in 2011. In 2010, there were 26 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic staff.124

The University of South Australia has implemented innovative staffing policies including a graduate program which recruits four graduates a year and provides a professional development fund for every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic.

A number of universities are using flexible entry pathways and mentoring initiatives to help fast-track promising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research students into early career researcher positions. Strategies such as articulating research graduate certificates into higher degrees, linking research students with senior academics, and using commercial and community partnerships to encourage and support HDR students to take up research careers, appear to be getting good results.

Further information on these policies can be found in the case studies in section 13.4 of Part III.

What needs to change?

A number of submissions pointed to heavy teaching loads, the need to provide support for students, and representation responsibilities on university committees as leaving little time to undertake research.125 Many submissions indicated that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff found it difficult to find the time to complete their PhDs on top of an already high workload and suggested that time release was needed to allow them to do this.126 This was also a key issue raised during consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PhD holders. Survey results have also suggested that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics in Australia had larger issues with workload and more limited time for research than Māori academics in New Zealand (Asmar, Mercier & Page 2009, pp. 154–5).

Submissions and consultations emphasised that capacity building through networking opportunities and support programs were needed to build the skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, for example on research methodologies, ethical practice and intellectual property issues, and grant writing.127 Leadership, formal mentoring programs with senior staff members and other forms of professional development were also considered important.

The Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council and a number of submissions recommended the introduction of a series of master classes to explore leadership and management roles, provide support for professional development, and provide guidance on best practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and epistemology, and to promote general researcher skill development.128

The University of Queensland recommended in its submission that a limited number of esteemed fellowships be offered to distinguished researchers working on projects of importance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research workforce national targets

As discussed previously, negotiating targets with the sector on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics will provide a high-level focus to building the research workforce.

Such targets for increases in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff should explicitly acknowledge strategies to ensure that staff have, or are being supported to, complete their research qualifications.

Recruiting academic staff through ‘growing your own’ and attracting new entrants

The Panel supports the National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy’s emphasis on growing the pool of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are in academic positions. Given the limited pool of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics, and given that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff are in non-academic positions, several universities have favoured a ‘grow your own’ approach to building their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic workforce.

This approach involves universities identifying students and non-academic staff for further study, providing university-based employment for identified students, and developing identified students as academics. Other options that universities could consider as part of growing their own staff would be to offer academic internships, time release and more flexible study leave provisions for their non-academic staff.

To recruit academic staff externally, universities could put more effort into selling the benefits of university life to potential recruits, as identified earlier for non-academic positions. While universities are unable to compete with the public sector, where many potential academic staff are likely to be located, they could promote other benefits. Academic staff may be attracted by the potentially higher level of autonomy provided within universities.

To support universities in building up their academic staff numbers, the Panel suggests that the government consider providing specific support for both ‘growing their own’ and for attracting academics into the higher education sector from other sectors. The first initiative would involve the government providing funding for staff scholarships at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level, beyond those that are already available. Universities could bid for funding for a staff scholarship with a position attached to it and, in return, the university would guarantee to provide a permanent academic position at the completion of the course by the staff member. Not all universities would necessarily seek to take up this offer because they may not be in a position to offer permanent employment.

The second initiative would be targeted at universities recruiting academics from outside the university. The government would make available funding for universities to provide a ‘top-up’ amount of salary when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander academic employee transitions from a better paid job into the university (up to a specified limit). Such top-up funding could be made available for up to three years to help attract academics into universities and, again, could be subject to the offer of a permanent position at the end of that period.

Building on existing efforts

The University of Newcastle’s Indigenous Employment Strategy includes a ‘grow your own’ approach to developing staff that targets final-year Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, postgraduate research students and alumni to provide pathways to postgraduate study or employment at the university.

Implementing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research workforce plan under the Research Workforce Strategy

Implementation of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research workforce plan for higher education was identified at Priority 7.3 in the government’s Research Workforce Strategy ( DIISR 2011b).

A key contribution to this work has already been made by the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council’s National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy. The strategy does not, however, include actions that specifically target the research workforce and further work is needed to address this particular area of the higher education workforce. Links with the broader national research system may be appropriate to note in any future iteration of the strategy.

A national strategic plan is critical to building the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research workforce within the broader push to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff numbers in universities. To this end, the Review suggests that the Australian Government should work with stakeholders, including the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, to implement a plan under the Research Workforce Strategy.

In addition, consideration should be given to fostering interest in university careers among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the workforce. Initiatives that government might consider to boost Indigenous researcher numbers in universities include a targeted campaign and consultation process to promote HDR studies and academic careers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people already in the workforce. This could involve a coordinated strategy across the research sector, including federal, state and local governments, universities and publicly funded research agencies and institutions.

Recommendations

Recommendation 29

That universities develop strategies, informed by the National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy, to recruit, support and retain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff to meet the parity targets set by the Australian Government.

Recommendation 30

That the Australian Government bring forward work to implement an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researcher workforce plan under the national Research Workforce Strategy.

Recommendation 31

That the Australian Government consider developing:

  • a funding program to provide additional scholarships at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level to support universities’ ability to ‘grow their own’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic staff
  • a ‘top-up’ funding program for positions for three years to support universities to attract new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff members to join the higher education sector.

122 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

123 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

124 Data provided by the University of Newcastle.

125 Submissions no. 35, Page & Asmar; no. 45, National Tertiary Education Union; no. 48, Bronwyn Fredericks.

126 Submissions no. 3, O’Donnell; no. 15, Grant; no. 22, Arnold & Peters; no. 26, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium; no. 35, Page & Asmar.

127 Submissions no. 16, Group of Eight; no. 35, Page & Asmar.

128 Submission no. 42, University of Queensland.