Approximately eighteen months ago I became QUT’s first Pro Vice-Chancellor with the responsibility for Indigenous Australian Strategy within the university. After starting, I met with a prominent peak Indigenous Australian organisation in Brisbane to talk about what research QUT could do to support their aims.

Their response was that a university had never asked them that question.

This led me to think about the role of universities in the lives of Indigenous Australians.  In the era of reconciliation plans, key performance indicators and employment strategies, how and why, are we still excluded?  Why are we not part of the university knowledge knowers but objects to be known?

It cannot be because Indigenous academics or community have not asked for it to be different.  A cursory reading of the 2012 Behrendt report on HE access and outcomes, papers from the National Indigenous Higher Education Committee, and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander National Education Committee all outline recommendations from Indigenous Australian academics requesting a different way of operating and systemic change.

Why has the sector failed to move past the era of “practical reconciliation”, neutral policy making and being consciously incompetent to understand “locked in inequality” and notions of Indigenous sovereignty?

These are fundamental, yet seemingly difficult notions, for universities.  Theoretically, systemic advantage/disadvantage in the system can be engaged with. However, having an understanding that practical reconciliation actions are not enough to intervene and eradicate discrimination is not.

Perhaps more difficult is the understanding that Indigenous Australians are sovereign people. Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson has stated, “denial of Indigenous sovereignty has allowed (Australia) to be perceived as a white possession.”

With this belief firmly in place Indigenous Australians are required to “request” our rightful place, wait for acts of benevolence, or accept equity group status to gain access to all universities have to offer.

If universities truly want to make a difference, they need to significantly change their mind-sets and increase efforts to engage meaningfully and strategically with Indigenous Australian communities on a sovereign level.  And they must undertake substantive policy and system effort, focusing on changing the differential outcomes of their policies as a step to influencing structural reform in Australia.

As thought leaders and influencers in the wider Australian community with the ability to impact societal change though the tens of thousands of graduates every year, it is time for universities to lead by example, make systemic changes, and have relationships with Indigenous Australians based on truth, sovereignty and equitable and honest partnerships.

Angela Barney-Leitch

PVC (Indigenous Strategy) QUT


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