5.1 Growing and retaining the general Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university workforce

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Current situation

The proportion of non-academic positions held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is below parity and growing slowly

The report earlier highlighted the very low numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff across the sector, representing 1.0% of all full-time equivalent staff. However, there has been some limited growth in the proportion of non-academic positions held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (from 0.9% of all non-academic positions to 1.2% between 2004 and 2010) ( DIISRTE 2012a).116

Staff face challenges in the workplace

Challenges confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff include the following:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff may ‘by default’ take on responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters outside their job description and duties (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 8).
  • Older women with children and other dependent family members often have insufficient support for these family responsibilities.
  • The Panel received reports that suggested university staff continue to experience racism.117 The IHEAC National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy states that ‘the burden of stress from racism that some Indigenous academics reportedly experience in their teaching roles ... needs to be acknowledged and addressed’ ( IHEAC 2011, p. 9). Students also report ongoing racism, with delegates at the National Union of Students 2008 Indigenous Student Conference saying that ‘racism on campus is a stark reality’ (submission no. 31, National Union of Students, p. 12).

What is being done to increase the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff at universities?

The National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy (NIHEWS) provides universities with a guide to help them develop their own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment strategies and employment targets with a particular emphasis on academic staff. The NIHEWS provides useful guidance for universities on core objectives and related actions to achieve their overall aim ‘to bring the number and dispersion of Indigenous employees within the higher education sector to population parity within 10 years’ ( IHEAC 2011, p. 11). In particular, the Panel supports the emphasis placed on growing the numbers of academic staff and that deans of faculties should be held responsible for achievement of staffing targets within their individual performance plans and/or the university compacts ( IHEAC 2011, p. 15).

Universities Australia reports that many universities have already established their own workforce strategies in alignment with the NIHEWS (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 6). While some submissions suggested that the NIHEWS is too prescriptive and in need of a resourcing plan,118 the Panel notes that it is intended to be a guide only for universities and they should approach it as such.

As noted earlier, under the Indigenous Support Program guidelines, universities are required to have Indigenous employment strategies, although universities’ reporting of them to the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education appears to be weak. Many universities have developed Reconciliation Action Plans that include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment strategies and these must be publicly reported on annually.

The current Indigenous Staff Scholarships program provides scholarships to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff (both academic and general) to take leave from their employment to undertake 12 months’ full-time higher education study in their chosen academic or professional area. Since their inception in 2004, a total of 33 scholarships have been awarded, with a maximum of five scholarships awarded in any one year ( DEEWR 2011k, p. 34).

The Indigenous Staff Scholarships program is a small program and, as such, has limited capacity to make significant inroads into the overall level of participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in postgraduate education. However, the government may wish to address some issues identified within the department’s review of the program regarding the lack of clarity of the program aims and internal inconsistency of the program guidelines.

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has also contributed to capacity building for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander HDR students and early career researchers through its Indigenous Visiting Research Fellowship program (discussed in further detail under The role of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in section 4.3).

What needs to change?

Despite the considerable efforts that universities have already made to boost their numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, more needs to be done to achieve parity targets for general staff across the sector. Building on the National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy and other actions, the Panel has focused its recommendations on specific actions to provide incentives to encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the higher education workforce, to grow and retain the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff across the faculties, and to develop their capacity to take up leadership and professional positions across all areas of university business.

Providing incentives to recruit and retain non-academic staff

To increase the recruitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff into non-academic positions, universities will need to build on good practice and develop creative opportunities to attract Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into universities. Given the relatively low pay provided across the higher education sector, universities may need to offer different kinds of incentives and highlight the positive non-financial rewards of their workplaces to potential recruits.

Intense competition from the Mining industry affects UWA’s (and other WA universities) ability to recruit and retain Indigenous students as well as Indigenous staff as both groups are intensely [targeted] for employment and salaries are high (submission no. 61, University of Western Australia, p. 3).

Through submissions and consultations, the Panel has learned of existing strategies that include offering cadetships, traineeships and targeted outreach programs. Once employed, further efforts will be required to retain staff and to help them progress into academic positions through initiatives such as providing professional development and flexible working hours for employees. The Group of Eight recognises that its member universities have a leading role to play in the formation of future academics and has highlighted that:

[u]niversities need to offer Indigenous general staff clear career pathways in the interests of retention and motivation (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 7).

Building on existing efforts

Charles Sturt University has recruited 26 Indigenous trainees to general staff positions from local Indigenous communities. The trainees complete qualifications at Certificate III or IV level as part of a three- to four-year traineeship. The scheme has a 75% success rate.119 The University of South Australia provides professional development to its new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and has an Indigenous employment strategy with a target of 2% of the university workforce being from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background.120

Creating opportunities through the Indigenous Employment Program and sector-based networks

There may be options for universities and the Australian Government to build on successful programs through the Australian Government’s Indigenous Employment Program. Some universities have successfully used Indigenous Employment Program funding to grow their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff numbers. At the same time, government could share success stories from the Indigenous Employment Program across the university sector.

Supported by the Indigenous Employment Program, other industry sectors have established their own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment support networks. For example, the Business Council of Australia has an Indigenous network among its members for sharing ideas on what works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment. A similar network exists within the communications and media industry, and the banking industry has made some efforts to provide industry-based training for new recruits across the major banks. While recognising that universities are competing to attract staff from the same potential pool of recruits, they may wish to consider establishing their own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment network to support success and share lessons learned.

A number of universities have accessed support through the Indigenous Employment Program to build their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce and create cadetship opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. For example, the University of Western Sydney has already recruited 14 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander trainees and cadets in a range of positions from business administration through to human resource officers through the Indigenous Employment Program. A further 10 cadetships, six traineeships and five jobs were announced in March 2011. The university has increased its overall Indigenous employment levels from 15 staff in 2007 to 40 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in 2011, and has set a target of 2.5% of employees being from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

Supporting all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in professional roles

It is important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff are given every opportunity to build their careers as academics and professionals if they are to move into leadership positions and contribute fully in their chosen academic or professional fields. Rigney (2011, p. 11) and others121 have highlighted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics often have to juggle their careers with additional representative and advocacy roles within universities. They may be asked to take on unpaid responsibilities and roles including:

  • responsibility and/or consultation regarding the content and appropriateness of key institutional policies, procedures and programs and teaching, learning and research practices from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective
  • providing advice to non-Indigenous staff to improve their cultural competency
  • supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (and other staff) through their university experience.

Universities could reduce this burden through a range of strategies including growing the pool of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff.

Precisely because there are so few Indigenous academics, they can be overloaded for a wide range of Indigenous matters which are not really part of their job (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 21).

The Panel considers that universities should also build their own cultural understanding and knowledge among all their staff rather than relying solely on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in a ‘division of labour rarely expected of other academics’ (Rigney 2011, p. 11).

At the same time, the Group of Eight argues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics could be further supported through mentoring opportunities for early and mid-career academics and that once again this should not be the sole responsibility of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics:

Mentoring early and mid career Indigenous academics has to become everyone’s business, that is, university business … Emeritus faculty are still a largely untapped resource in this area. Universities should examine opportunities to involve emeritus faculty—including leaders in their fields—in mentoring Indigenous academics (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 21).

The Panel supports this suggestion, noting that it is consistent with a whole-of-university approach and would, as suggested by the Group of Eight, sit alongside the ‘especially valuable’ mentoring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics already provide to those less advanced in their careers.

116 Based on Table A providers and domestic students only.

117 According to a National Tertiary Education Union member survey, 71.5% of survey respondents had experienced direct racial discrimination and racist attitudes in the workplace and just over half (55.3%) had experienced racial discrimination and racist attitudes at the hands of their colleagues in the workplace (NTEU 2011, p. 4).

118 For example, submission no. 16, Group of Eight; and submission no. 61, University of Western Australia.

119 Statistics provided by Charles Sturt University.

120 Information provided by University of South Australia.

121 Submissions no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 23; no. 22, Arnold & Peters, p. 1; no. 35, Page & Asmar, p. 2; no. 45, National Tertiary Education Union, p. 7.