2.1 Provision of support through Indigenous Education Units and the faculties

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All Australian universities have a dedicated Indigenous Education Unit (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011) but their structure, function, status and size vary across the sector (university consultation visits; Brady 2012; Walter 2011; ACER 2012). Often, Indigenous Education Units are ‘situated in a discreet [sic], often purpose built, site within the campus’ (Walter 2011, p. 3). However, not all campuses within the university physically house an Indigenous Education Unit, as may be the case for multi-campus universities. The Panel also notes that with growing numbers of online students, Indigenous Education Units may need to consider alternative ways of providing support to these students.

Indigenous Education Units also vary in whether they are tasked solely with student support or whether they combine teaching and/or research as part of their core activities (university consultation visits; Brady 2012; ACER 2012).

During university visits, the Panel heard from many students regarding the importance of the Indigenous Education Units to their academic success. They saw them as offering a supportive and welcoming place to come to within an often challenging and unfamiliar environment.

The [Indigenous Education Unit] centre here is awesome; without it, I wouldn’t have even gotten into law let alone be still studying it (Dylan Collard, University of Western Australia).

Current situation

Indigenous Education Units provide a number of services to students

Indigenous Education Units generally provide most of the following student support services, with some providing access 24 hours a day through swipe cards:

  • enrolment and access assistance including special entry programs
  • access or referral to student support/pastoral care
  • provision of ITAS-TT tutoring
  • accommodation support/advice (some including emergency accommodation)
  • a culturally safe study and social space for students
  • orientation programs for new students
  • a meal preparation area
  • a computer laboratory with computers, printers and photocopying
  • liaison and activities with high schools to promote higher education
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander events such as NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week, Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week
  • participation in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander games and social events.

(Note that some universities indicated differences in support between undergraduate, postgraduate and HDR students.)

Other services that may be provided include:

  • laptop computer loans and other administrative support such as calculators, fax, audio-visual equipment, laminating, binding and telephones
  • Elders in residence.

Indigenous Education Units are important sources of support

Throughout university visits, the Panel heard many views expressed about the role of Indigenous Education Units and funding provided to support them. From these visits, it became clear there is universal support within universities, and particularly from students, for the important role that Indigenous Education Units play in providing student support, including tutoring support discussed in the next section.

Even Indigenous students who only occasionally use the services provided by a centre report that the very existence of the centre is an indicator that Indigenous education matters at the university and that there is a place for them to go if they need any help (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011, p. 13).

Indigenous Education Units generally become a focus point for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and can be particularly important for students who may not have family or support structures close by. Wollongong University’s ...

Woolyungah Indigenous Centre … is a safe and valued home base for Indigenous students. The Centre, on the main campus, offers 24/7 access to a student computer laboratory, kitchen and lounge … The Audit Panel [appointed by the Australian Universities Quality Agency] notes the positive, family atmosphere at the Centre (AUQA 2011, p. 21).

The National Union of Students refers to the centres as the ‘hub’ of the university for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students (submission no. 31, National Union of Students, p. 13).

The role of the centres in delivering academic programs and undertaking research is more complex. Some centres do this well and can lead across the university. Some struggle to deliver programs and engage in research. Others leave those activities to the faculties and concentrate solely on student support. During visits to universities, it became clear to the Panel that each university needs to determine its own approach to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, drawing on the strengths of both the Indigenous Education Units and the faculties. It is also clear that faculties must accept their responsibilities for the academic success of all students, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Indigenous Education Units (IEUs) provide significant support to Indigenous students and are routinely credited as playing a key role in retention of students … However, teaching and learning staff throughout universities should also invest time in supporting the academic development of students (submission no. 60, University of Sydney Students’ Representative Council, p. 5).

Building on existing efforts

There are examples where strong research and academic programs within Indigenous Education Units have led to change across the universities. For example, at the University of Western Australia, the School of Indigenous Studies is responsible for the support of all Indigenous students and the Centre for Aboriginal Medical and Dental Health provides specialised support to Indigenous students enrolled in medical, dental and health courses. The university’s Aboriginal Pre-Law Program is jointly taught by the School of Indigenous Studies and the Faculty of Law.

What needs to change?

Adopting a whole-of-university approach to integrated support provision by Indigenous Education Units and faculties

The Panel has concluded that Indigenous Education Units continue to play an important role in providing student support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. However, universities need to refocus them to reduce their isolation and marginalisation and to promote them as offering value-added, specialised support over and above what should already be provided through the faculties.

Walter suggests the units should:

remain a fundamental participant in transforming outcomes and are a core resource for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and their institutions.

She proposes:

raising the recognition and valuing of Indigenous knowledges via the infiltration and integration of an Indigenous presence throughout universities and the sector (Walter 2011, p. 6).

Indigenous Education Units could play an important role in providing advice and guidance to mainstream support services to help them improve their ability to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. If the work of the units is valued as essential and as part of a philosophy that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander matters are core university business, then they will be less likely to suffer marginalisation or perceptions of not contributing to broader university business. Faculties and their related support services are well placed to accept responsibility for providing support to all students, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, given their size and access to a broader range of resources.

There is no single best practice model for the units. Support must be tailored to best suit the student profile of the institution and be designed in close collaboration with the faculties.

Building on existing efforts

The University of Southern Queensland’s Centre for Australian Indigenous Knowledge offers integrated, holistic support through its Individual Tailored Student Support Program. Student relationship officers monitor progress and provide assistance to students in a portfolio of faculties, and were supporting approximately 300 students in 2011.

Griffith University’s GUMURRII Student Support Unit is located on each of the five campuses. It promotes its services to prospective students, their families and the broader community. Support provided includes individual tuition, orientation and financial support. Griffith University employs an Indigenous employment project officer to ensure that undergraduate and postgraduate students receive effective mentoring within the academic groups.

Indigenous Education Units providing better support for postgraduate and higher degree by research students

The Panel noted some evidence to suggest that Indigenous Education Units may not be able to address the needs of postgraduate and HDR students. In research undertaken by Trudgett (2009), 55 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate students and HDR students were surveyed on a range of issues relating to postgraduate outcomes and the support provided by universities. Among the conclusions from that survey were:

  • Many support officers in Indigenous Education Units failed to understand the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and HDR students because of the lack of people with research qualifications working in the units.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and HDR students are not provided with collaborative academic peer support through their Indigenous Education Units.
  • Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and HDR students are not familiar with their Indigenous Education Units.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and HDR students experience significant levels of exclusion.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduate and HDR students are not receiving information pertaining to scholarship opportunities.

Not all the student support staff even have degrees, so how can they understand the problems of uni. As for help, they are fine I imagine for undergrads but are useless to me in academic matters. I am lucky in that I have lots of academic friends including Indigenous staff and so have access to people I can talk to. But these are personal friends, not student support (a masters student quoted in Trudgett 2009).

I visited the Aboriginal Education Unit from time to time and when they held events. But I didn’t directly access services related to my PhD.61

Indigenous Education Units providing outreach into schools and other sectors

The Panel received suggestions during consultations regarding the need for Indigenous Education Units to play a greater outreach role into schools and the private and public employment sectors. Some are already doing this; for example, Southern Cross University, through its Indigenous Australian Student Services, conducts promotional visits to Aboriginal communities, high schools, TAFE institutes and the wider community. However, some universities advised the Panel that their Indigenous Education Unit resources were already stretched, particularly where they were multi-campus universities.

Universities sharing best practice

Through their visits to universities and also through submissions received, the Panel gathered many examples of good practice in relation to models of support for Indigenous Education Units within the mainstream support services provided by universities. The case studies included in this report provide some examples of this good practice. The Panel also notes that Universities Australia is establishing a website to allow universities to post their best practices and allow practitioners to share information and ideas, particularly regarding Indigenous cultural competency in universities (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 7).


Recommendation 10

That universities adopt a whole-of-university approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student success so that faculties and mainstream support services have primary responsibility for supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, backed up by Indigenous Education Units.

Recommendation 11

That universities:

  • continue to support Indigenous Education Units to provide a culturally safe environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including postgraduate and higher degree by research students
  • review whether their Indigenous Education Units have appropriate objectives, funding, structures and accountability measures to ensure quality student outcomes with a focus on:
  • outreach work with schools and other sectors
  • improvements in retention and completion rates
  • access to quality tutoring services
  • collaborate with each other and government to build an evidence base and share good practice.

61 Survey information from the IHEAC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic Doctors’ Forum, November 2011.