6.1 University culture

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The culture of a university is generally developed through an institution’s leadership, values, governance structures and approach to its core business of teaching, learning and research. Part of its organisational culture will reflect the perceptions and understandings of those within it about the inherent value of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, staff and researchers succeeding and actively contributing to the university at all levels. This culture, in turn, influences the attractiveness of the university to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff and how successful it is in supporting them.

Current situation

Universities can be culturally isolating

As outlined earlier in the report, university can be seen as a foreign place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, particularly those who are the first in their family to go on to higher education.

A similar issue may arise for staff, particularly in situations where they may be the only Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander staff member within a team.

Despite some universities taking action against racism, it continues to be an issue for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff

The report has outlined a range of factors that can act as barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students accessing and succeeding at university. Racism continues to be identified as one of those barriers, referred to in a number of submissions and research (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011, p. 4).

The report earlier referred to National Union of Students members’ experience of racism that was voiced at the union’s 2008 Indigenous Student Conference. Again, at the 2011 conference, participants said that:

little has changed. Indigenous students reported examples of (often unintentional) racist or culturally inappropriate behaviour from across the university: academic, administration staff, library staff, security staff and tutors (submission no. 31, National Union of Students, p. 12).

I had a difficult time dealing with the prejudice when I first started here in 2005. Admittedly it’s just individuals within the system, most of whom sit at higher management within the system. I tend to use humour to get around prejudice (Jamilla Sekiou, Bachelor of Laws and Legal Practice, Flinders University).

Research conducted on the university experience of law students supports the views of the National Union of Students, arguing ‘cultural disrespect, lateral violence and/or racial discrimination’ are ‘[p]robably the biggest contributor to the high levels of attrition of [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] law students within a university environment’ (Rodgers-Falk 2011, p. 2).

The Panel notes the link between low participation and aspiration by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in higher education and ‘fears of cultural isolation and experiences of racism on campus’ (James et al. 2008, p. 52).

The ever present spectre of racism in Australian society marginalizes our people in their pursuit of educational success (submission no. 26, NATSIHEC, p. 2).

While noting the strength of views expressed in some submissions, the Panel acknowledges that the incidence of racism and prejudice and its management within university cultures will vary greatly and is far from a universal problem. In fact, the goodwill and engagement across the sector was more apparent to the Panel.

What needs to change?

Universities need to build their cultural understanding and have strategies to reduce racism

Notwithstanding the Panel’s acknowledgment of the sector’s general goodwill, universities need to be aware of how their culture impacts on the learning of students and the careers of staff and researchers. University culture needs to change to counter prejudice where it occurs and bridge the disconnection between cultures for a more inclusive environment (James et al. 2008, p. 53).

If Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel they belong and are in a culturally safe environment, they are more likely to not only enrol but to stay at university and achieve better outcomes. As outlined earlier in the report, Indigenous Education Units are often seen as providing a culturally safe place for students; however, the entire system needs to be seen as culturally safe, including for staff.

Some submissions made the case for cultural programs and/or cultural competency training for university staff as the best way to encourage cultural awareness across universities.131 Delivering cultural awareness education through the curriculum was also supported.132

Cultural Competency training is vital to ensuring effective participation in enhancing the outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and knowledges in all aspects of university business (submission no. 28, University of Newcastle, p. 8).

The Universities Australia – IHEAC National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities is a useful guide for universities, as referred to earlier in the report.

The framework is designed to provide universities with the tools required to create culturally supportive environments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff, while ensuring that non-Indigenous students graduate with the knowledge they need to provide ‘genuinely competent services’ to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 6).

The Framework is based upon the premise that the higher education sector will only find long-term success in increasing Indigenous participation and improved outcomes if it engages in substantial cultural change (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 6).

The framework is underpinned by five guiding principles ‘which have been identified as key to the development of successful cultural competency policies and operations’:

  • Governance and Management: Indigenous people should be actively involved in university governance and management
  • Teaching and Learning: All graduates of Australian universities should be culturally competent
  • Research: University research should be conducted in a culturally competent way that empowers Indigenous participants and encourages collaboration with Indigenous communities
  • Human Resources: Indigenous staffing should be increased at all appointment levels and, for academic staff, should cover a wider variety of academic fields
  • Community Engagement: Universities should operate in partnership with local Indigenous communities and should help disseminate culturally competent practices to the wider community (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 7).

In its submission, the National Union of Students recommended that cultural awareness training be provided for staff at universities and that universities recognise national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural events. This would help build understanding and reduce racist behaviour, which the union noted may be unintentional but is still offensive (submission no. 31, p. 12).

Building on existing efforts

The National best practice framework contains a number of examples of best practice in cultural competency from universities around Australia. For example, Charles Sturt University, Griffith University and the Ngarara Willim Centre at RMIT University all contribute to the professional development of university staff in areas such as the effective teaching of and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, embedding Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum, understanding and respecting Indigenous knowledge, values and perspectives, and supporting student transitions. Charles Sturt University requires all staff to undertake formal and assessable Indigenous cultural competency training and is working toward ensuring that ‘Indigenous curricula is designed and taught by Indigenous or culturally trained staff’ (Universities Australia 2011, p. 117). The University of Newcastle has developed cultural competency workshops and has a commitment to achieving 75% staff attendance at cultural competency forums by 2015.133 The University of Sydney celebrated NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week in 2011 and has a program of events for Reconciliation Week.

131 For example, submissions by the University of Newcastle (no. 28); University of Western Sydney (no. 62); Universities Australia (no. 59).

132 For example, submission no. 37, Australian Catholic University.

133 Information from the University of Newcastle’s Indigenous Education Statement.