6.2 University governance

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A whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success in higher education will require not just cultural change but also change to the governance structures and processes within universities.

The Panel considers that a whole-of-university approach requires:

  • everyone, not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff or Indigenous Education Units, to be responsible for ‘Indigenous business’
  • staff at the highest levels within the university to be accountable for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives
  • increased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation and influence at all levels within the university
  • non-Indigenous members of the university to effectively and appropriately advocate on behalf of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait counterparts
  • everyone within the institution acting in a manner that creates a safe and respectful environment, with instances where this does not occur being appropriately managed.

These requirements are supported by the research and submissions received by the Panel.

To develop Indigenous business as core university business, governance must be inclusive of and influenced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, policies, objectives and targets (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, p. 33).

Our [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s] participation in educational decision making needs to be broadened and deepened. This is particularly important as we seek a greater level of participation in the governance of our institutions (submission no. 26, NATSIHEC, p. 2).

Current situation

During consultations, the Panel learned about a range of initiatives that universities have in place to shift their governance structures and processes towards a whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success in higher education. However, commissioned research indicated that more needs to be done to develop a comprehensive whole-of-university approach with all the elements outlined above.

Currently, in most cases, responsibility and accountability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student outcomes are left to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, Indigenous Education Units (Universities Australia 2011, p. 110; Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011) and lower-level staff without the influence or resources to drive a whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success in higher education.

Most universities have sought Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation within their governance framework; however, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement is typically found in low-level/low-influence committees and Indigenous-specific committees with limited capacity. At higher levels, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement is rare and/or limited (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, pp. 14, 33).

According to the Universities Australia submission, there is data that suggests a movement toward greater Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation at higher levels, although current evidence suggests that these appointments tend to be made by ‘convention and good will rather than being systemic, policy or process driven’ (Universities Australia 2011, p. 110). In addition, the majority of institutions lack ‘effective strategies for increasing participation of [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] people in their institutional decision-making processes’ (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, p. 33).

Where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander statements and policies do exist they are often:

[p]redictably ... yoked to equity and diversity plans. Indigenous Australians are corralled with other low SES groups without regard to First Peoples status as defined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recognised in most universities’ Reconciliation Statements (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, p. 8).

This lack of formality reduces the accountability, continuity and sustainability of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation and influence (Universities Australia 2011, p. 110).

What is currently being done to improve governance in universities?

Indigenous education strategies

A number of universities currently have Indigenous education strategies that aim to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student recruitment, retention and outcomes.134 Indigenous education strategies generally cover a commitment to reconciliation, cultural competency, embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and perspectives in university curriculum, objectives to improve the institution’s recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, Indigenous research objectives and key performance indicators to monitor the implementation of the strategy.

Some strategies (for example, Charles Sturt University) seek to align the institution’s Indigenous education policies and activities with national Indigenous education policies, including the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy, as well as the institution’s strategic plan and other key policy documents.

Other institutions that do not have a published Indigenous education strategy may articulate these goals as part of other university policies or strategic documents. For example, the Australian Catholic University’s Indigenous Thematic Plan is a detailed document that articulates the institution’s goals and targets in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students. Additionally, Charles Darwin University has incorporated Indigenous education objectives into the institution’s strategic plan, in line with a whole-of-university approach.

In the National best practice framework for Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities, Universities Australia and the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council recommend that Indigenous education strategies should reflect and embed the framework’s guiding principles, be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, and reflect a commitment to meaningful engagement with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and organisations (submission no. 59, Universities Australia).

Reconciliation Action Plans

A number of universities have developed Reconciliation Action Plans. A Reconciliation Action Plan is:

a business plan that uses an holistic approach to create meaningful relationships and sustainable opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians ... RAPs are also about embedding cultural change within a whole organisation through building good relationships, respecting the special contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and creating opportunities (Reconciliation Australia 2010).

Moreton-Robinson et al. note that Reconciliation Action Plans ‘are often required to shoulder institutional objectives in ways that other corporate planning documents do not’ (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, p. 32). It also appears that they are primarily the responsibility of the Indigenous Education Units rather than the truly strategic whole-of-university documents they are intended to be. That said, where Reconciliation Action Plans (or their equivalent) have been included in the standard annual plans and the planning cycle, their value within and influence on the whole of the university is higher (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011, p. 2; Pechenkina & Anderson 2011).

Based on feedback during consultations and the commissioned research to the Review, the Panel suggests that if universities have, or intend to implement, a Reconciliation Action Plan (or equivalent strategic document), then they should detail:

  • how the desired outcomes will be met
  • who is responsible and accountable for meeting those outcomes (ideally staff at the highest levels of the university)
  • key performance indicators against outcomes (ideally for staff at the highest levels of the university)
  • measurable targets against outcomes (ideally independently verifiable).

The Panel also suggests that Reconciliation Action Plans should be incorporated into annual business planning cycle outcomes.

What needs to change?

Shifting responsibility and accountability for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes to senior university leadership

The Panel believes that a whole-of-university approach to the success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff requires responsibility to rest at the highest levels, with appropriate accountability mechanisms for these senior positions across all areas of business. To be effective, accountability for success must rest at the highest levels within the university, including the vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellors, pro-vice-chancellors and deans.

To shift accountabilities, universities will need to:

  • clearly articulate that responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, students and researchers rests at the most senior levels across faculties
  • ensure that the key performance indicators of the most senior positions include measures and targets that reflect these responsibilities.

The Panel also notes that, once accountabilities are set at the highest levels, they naturally flow through to lower levels and should spread across faculties.135 Other factors that have supported success are the formation of strong links with the community and adequately resourcing senior staff that share responsibilities.

As part of this shift in accountabilities, the Panel expects that universities would increasingly include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priorities and activities within their core policy and planning documents including their strategic plans, business plans and organisational policy documents. Targets and performance measures would similarly be included in these documents, where appropriate, and in other documents already referred to such as Reconciliation Action Plans. While some universities already have Indigenous-specific policies and strategies in place, the Panel would encourage universities to consider how to incorporate such strategies into their core planning and business cycle processes as some universities, such as Charles Darwin University, have done.

Building on existing efforts

Universities Australia’s guiding principles for the development of Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities point to the University of Newcastle, Charles Sturt University, the University of Melbourne, Queensland University of Technology and the University of Western Australia as best practice examples of universities that link key performance indicators with senior management performance.

The University of Newcastle, for example, links the following key performance indicators with the performance of its senior management:

  • an environment free from racism
  • improved access to higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • improved educational outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • attraction and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff
  • linking of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues to teaching curriculums.

Greater representation and influence by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the highest levels

The Panel recognises that increasing representation and appointing more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to senior positions of influence and decision-making bodies such as governing boards, councils and committees—that is, universities ‘growing their own’ internal cohorts—will take time.

Recognition of the work performed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as valuable and contributing to the broader strategic aims of an institution is perhaps the most vital contributor to positive whole-of-university culture. For this to happen effectively their efforts need to be recognized within existing institutional mechanisms as well as within their local communities (submission no. 20, La Trobe University, p. 4).

During this growth phase universities could consider creative approaches such as the appointment of external Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals to positions within universities such as adjunct professor roles, visiting fellows and other consultative or representational positions. Universities could also adopt deliberate strategies to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are involved in appointment processes for these higher-level positions.

Strong representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at all levels of decision making should be accompanied by effective representation and advocacy by non-Indigenous people. For the university to be reflective of the ‘Indigenous business is everybody’s business’ concept, its non-Indigenous members need to be able to engage and advocate appropriately (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011, p. 19).

For non-Indigenous decision-makers to effectively and appropriately advocate on behalf of their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander counterparts, they need to be (more) familiar with ‘contemporary issues in Indigenous higher education and the policies and programs that are needed to address disadvantage’ (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011, p. 19) as well as have a high level of cultural competence (Universities Australia 2011).

Building on existing efforts

Steps have been taken within a number of universities to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in university governance.

Indigenous education and employment strategies at the University of Technology, Sydney are overseen by the Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Strategies Committee, which is chaired by the Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and comprises deputy vice-chancellors, directors of relevant units and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in key positions. Implementation of the strategies is operationalised across the university by four subcommittees, each of which reports twice yearly on outcomes. This approach aims to engage as many senior staff as possible in the progression of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education and employment.

A small number of universities have shown strong commitment to improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance by appointing senior Indigenous positions within the university executive. Charles Darwin University led the way with the appointment of a Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership). Others now include a Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Education) at the University of Queensland, a Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equity and Indigenous) at Edith Cowan University, and a Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at the University of Sydney. Such positions help to leverage influence within the university hierarchy and to effect change across the core activities of the institution.

Recommendation

Recommendation 32

That universities continue to develop and implement a range of strategies to:

  • improve the cultural understanding and awareness of staff, students and researchers within their institution, including the provision of cultural competency training
  • increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in senior management positions
  • increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represented in the highest-level governance structures
  • increase accountability of faculty leaders and senior management for achieving parity targets and improved outcomes.

134 For example, CQUniversity, Charles Sturt University, Flinders University, Queensland University of Technology, University of Adelaide, University of Queensland, University of Technology, Sydney, University of Western Australia and University of Western Sydney.

135 For example, the Australian National University Indigenous Education Statement refers to targets being set at the faculty level.