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A University shift towards Aboriginal cultural inclusion


Dennis, SL, A University shift towards Aboriginal cultural inclusion, Conference proceedings, 1 August 2012, Mount Isa, pp. 1. (2012) [Plenary Presentation]

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A University cultural shift toward Aboriginal inclusion Introduction The University of Tasmania (UTAS) has four campuses, one in Sydney and three in Tasmania. The University promotes courses that have Aboriginal content. It also employs Aboriginal staff to deliver Aboriginal University preparation programs and to support undergrad students. But does the Aboriginal community consider this Aboriginal inclusion? This paper relates to my personal experience as an Aboriginal UTAS staff member and as an Aboriginal community member. In the paper I’ll draw attention to the differences between the understanding and practice of Aboriginal inclusion. To identify that the University has had a cultural shift toward Aboriginal inclusion warrants an investigation to as to why it was absent in the first instance and an exploration of the transitional stages the University has undergone for any Aboriginal inclusion to be considered. Before developing a program for the University the questions I needed to answer were: "Why is Aboriginal inclusion important to me? and "What does Aboriginal inclusion in the University look like?" Reflecting on these questions and with the help of another Aboriginal colleague I then asked, "What can I do to show the University what I would consider Aboriginal Inclusion to be?" "How can I influence a cultural shift in the University to facilitate UTAS instigating a positive example and model of Aboriginal inclusion that can actually work?" Tasmania Population and Place Tasmania, the most southern state of Australia, is an Island with a population of approximately 500,000 people. The average age of the population is retirement age and younger adults have the highset transition of exiting the state. Older adults generally remain in or near to where they were born. Living in Tasmania you can start up a conversation with a new person and still find a common link to a person or family you both know. Although Tasmanian’s are often teased by other states for this level of knowing, to me it symbolises a sense of place, identity and belonging. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the Aboriginal population in Tasmania is approximately 19,100. However, I am aware as an Aboriginal person the figure provided by the ABS is problematic. Aboriginal people know their own families, and the majority of other Aboriginal families in the state and the number of Aboriginal people are significantly less than that nominated by the ABS. The ABS which collects and reports official population statistics identify people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent asks; 'Is the person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Origin?' With further explanation stating; This question measures the descent concept although some respondents will interpret the question to mean both descent and identification. It does not take account of the third part of the definition, community acceptance." The ABS also explains the case where Aboriginal identification has been recognised meeting three criteria which the ABS does not incorporate in the question asked for identification; "… an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives" (Commonwealth v Tasmania (1983) 46 ALR 625).[23.07.2012] There are twenty registered Aboriginal Corporations in Tasmania and one Aboriginal Centre, the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC). Some corporations have 5 members in total and the largest has 254. The TAC membership is not disclosed but past Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health reports indicate the membership to be over 7,000. The Tasmanian year 12 completion rates of school leavers are low compared to other states (Abbott-Chapman, Kilpatrick, 2001). The Aboriginal population in Tasmania less than 24 years old makes up approximately 50% of the total Tasmanian Aboriginal population. Of all the Aboriginal population only 18% have completed year 12 and 36% have been awarded for finishing courses outside high school. The statistics for finishing a course include Vocational Educational Training (VET), Skills Institute, training certificates and University. Nearly two thirds (64%) of the Aboriginal population in Tasmania are unemployed. Reflecting the significance of unemployment in Tasmania’s Aboriginal community, a lot of government funded agencies employ Aboriginal people to address this issue (ABS, 2008). Aboriginal Education The Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) has the Tasmanian Aboriginal Education Unit located in Hobart and also the Tasmanian Aboriginal Educational Association to act as an Advisory as well to the Minister for Education. Each area also has an Aboriginal Education Officer that covers clusters of Schools. The four state VET sectors have an Aboriginal VET Officer onsite. The University of Tasmania has Aboriginal staff at the three campuses in Tasmania. They fulfil a variety of roles including lecturing and include supportive and administrative staff. The target of Aboriginal staff employed is twenty. Most Aboriginal people in the education sectors and all other key stakeholders know each other and remain associated with their positions even long after their employment ceases. Programs In Tasmania, specific Aboriginal programs have only evolved over the last forty years. The infancy of programs is because of the long-term denial and recognition of Aboriginal Tasmanians. Few of the programs that are available interlink and are based with one organisation. Aboriginal organisations also have programs but these programs are often delivered from the same site. Most University programs are aimed at year twelve leavers and the mature age group. There are Aboriginal University preparation programs and in the past the UTAS practice has been for these to be delivered by Aboriginal staff. Currently these preparatory programs are delivered by staff that have the qualifications as opposed to Aboriginal specific staff. This shift away from Aboriginal preparatory programs being Aboriginally-led has caused all staff concerned and external people from UTAS to have a debate that continues today. Community Relationships There has been and continue to be good working relationships with Aboriginal people and the University. Some Aboriginal organisations have had periodically relationships with UTAS but there has been inconsistency with the programs delivered and the funding available. There are other Aboriginal organisations that have a fractured or even non existing relationship. The tension between the University and the Aboriginal communities can cause UTAS Aboriginal staff associated with the Aboriginal community to be placed in conflict between the both. It can also cause conflict between UTAS staff members with an Aboriginal staff member asking for Aboriginal inclusion, meaning the involvement of the Aboriginal Community, and another staff member denying it is a requirement. The Aboriginal community ask the Aboriginal staff why are Aboriginal community not able to comment or contribute to the University. There are also questions of why an Aboriginal person would work at the University knowing the exclusions and absence of the Aboriginal community voice. The evidence of this effecting Aboriginal staff is difficult to collect or express but it may relate to the high turnover of Aboriginal staff at the University. Equally the effect on non-Aboriginal staff being in conflict with Aboriginal staff and more so with the Aboriginal community is difficult to access also because the absence of information relating to this potential issue not collected and is absent in reporting. The issue of this affecting all staff that has Aboriginal engagement is also information not collected or reported on. UTAS Cultural Competencies To develop the cultural competency of staff UTAS delivers an Aboriginal cultural awareness program and encourages staff and students to participate. However, participation is not compulsory. Currently two Aboriginal staff deliver this program which is an upgraded version of an Aboriginal cultural program that was developed for high schools. This program has not had any further development or funding to support new programs to follow and remains an awareness program only. To encourage participation in the program and extend cultural awareness, UTAS have an information site for resources and for all student enquiries. A recent release of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities indicated that UTAS compared with other states is not able to answer a larger amount of the questions (National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities, 2011). UTAS Cultural Aboriginal Transitions The history of the Aboriginal Tasmanians has impacted on the transitions of UTAS toward Aboriginal inclusion. How the University have promoted and reacted to the Tasmanian Aboriginal history and identity has also had an impact on how the Aboriginal community view the University. In my view there have been three major cultural transitions of UTAS that have contributed to a cultural shift of the University towards Aboriginal inclusion. 1. Detachment and Denial. The University has a history of concentrating and promoting the focus of Aboriginal Tasmanians from a historical and anthropological view. There was no focus on the delivery being by the existing Aboriginal population or inclusion of the population into University studies and lecturers. There is an absence of documentation and inclusion of Aboriginal people. This is not only with the University but it was also with the Tasmanian Government and all educational sectors. The existing Aboriginal population were categorised into an Aboriginal blood percentage. The correction or challenge of this craterisation is absent from many texts referring to the Aboriginal Tasmanians. 2. Awareness. The awareness of UTAS of the Aboriginal Tasmanian people would have been heightened by the well-publicised Aboriginal campaign for recognition in the 1970’s. The most publicised event was in 1986 when an Aboriginal group went to Libya. Michael Mansell among the group presented his Aboriginal passport to Gadhafi. Mansell’s passport was received and he was acknowledged to be of Aboriginal nation status. The visit to Libya received a lot of government attention because it highlighted that the government’s language when referring to Aborigines as "Australian Aborigines" implied that Aborigines were not Australian citizens. The Government changed all documentation to "Aboriginal Australians’’. For the first time, academics were recognising Aboriginal Tasmanians and began writing about our history and the contemporary issues (Everett, 2006). 3. Development. UTAS began funding the construction of buildings to provide the Aboriginal population a place to be welcomed and to provide support with their University studies. Aboriginal staff were employed as contacts and support for the students as well. An Aboriginal Employment Strategy was developed and UTAS developed a group called the Aboriginal Advisory Board. Aboriginal strategies were in place to meet reporting requirements and to have a future direction of objectives(University of Tasmanian Aboriginal Employment Strategy, 2008). Inclusion As a UTAS Aboriginal staff member there are some circumstances where you are caught up in the turmoil caused by the University and the Aboriginal Community having polar views. The University’s decisions are guided by key performance indicators (KPI), meeting objectives and accessing the funding associated with grants and published research. Meeting these requirements can be achieved without having to consult with the Aboriginal community about whether something is correct or appropriate. These activities have always been an external delivery without community input. There are few circumstances where the Aboriginal community are involved in an internal delivery. For example, I can deliver a program and I do not have to consult with an Aboriginal community member or organisation about whether it is an appropriate program. I can consult with advisors within the University, but not in the Aboriginal community. If a program I have developed is questioned or challenged then I may have a tainted reputation with either UTAS or the Aboriginal community - or maybe both. There is a need that has been absent whereby UTAS programs can be critiqued and advised by the Aboriginal community as appropriate and inclusive. The need for an Aboriginal advisory committee or board is critical to ensuring UTAS programs and operations represent inclusion and effectively reach their target audiences. Aboriginal Inclusion The objective became to create a pilot program that myself and my colleague would be comfortable and proud to deliver; that would meet what we had been asking for, the inclusion of the Aboriginal voice. We wanted to be able to stand by what we advocate for in the University, what is suggested to do in the Aboriginal cultural program that we deliver and to actually act on what it was we were trying to explain. Our intention was to introduce Aboriginal people from local organisations to speak with students. Year 9 and 10 students were chosen because we identified that the statistics already catered for the mature age and year 12 students. There was also something missing of why the students were not completing year 11 and 12 so we wanted to start with an earlier age group to encourage students to consider pathways as well as a continued education. The program objectives were to; • Reach Aboriginal students who may not have high grades or otherwise be included in University introductions • Promote University as a pathway and not a necessarily as a direct entry after year 12 • Link students to a network of Aboriginal people and agencies for them to associate with no matter what choice they decided in their journey • Demonstrate a genuine interest in the students and their aspirations • Promote the opportunity for students to see that they can be the leaders in their educational choices and aspirations • Encourage students to stay in school • Offer students informed choices about all aspects of education and employment The Aboriginal inclusion involved Aboriginal youth workers from Aboriginal organisations, Aboriginal Centre link Advisor, Aboriginal VET Officer, Aboriginal Education Officer, School Pathway Officers and Manager, School Teachers and Principals, UTAS Aboriginal students and UTAS staff. The Aboriginal inclusion also consisted of: • Aboriginal (Tasmanian specific) history • Contemporary Aboriginal Tasmania • Aboriginal identity and families • Myths relating to Aboriginal people • Social attitudes • Media attitudes and reporting • Racism • Institutional conflicts • Aboriginal celebrations • Aboriginal places and names • Aboriginal leaders in Tasmania • Aboriginal research and ethics • A student Aboriginal research project Traditional materials were also provided with abalone shells, bull kelp, shells, plants and ochre. Other content was also included about pathways from other Aboriginal speakers. University content included scholarships, finance, terminology and navigating the University web. The program was given an Aboriginal name, Bunguna Pathways, and was delivered to a group of Aboriginal students from four local schools. Bunguna Pathways consisted of four half days with a two week spacing between the days to minimise any time lost from other school studies. The program remains in the infant stages but it has delivered on the objective of having an Aboriginal voice included as well as meeting the University KPI reporting requirements. It is only a small program but it demonstrates having Aboriginal inclusion can work. The support of two UTAS Directors to deliver and fund the program has enabled the University to make a cultural shift towards Aboriginal inclusion and hopefully, may build other opportunities to expand inclusion to other programs and eventually courses. The inclusion of the Aboriginal voice does not only have to be promoted by Aboriginal people but could also be from all of the people who have Aboriginal content in their units and programs. This could mean contacting Aboriginal organisations to involve and comment on content. There will be opposing views but to have the opposing views presented to students enables the student to have inclusive information internal and external to the University.

Item Details

Item Type:Plenary Presentation
Keywords:aboriginal inclusion, university, cultural inclusion
Research Division:Indigenous Studies
Research Group:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing
Research Field:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public health and wellbeing
Objective Division:Indigenous
Objective Group:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health
Objective Field:Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health status and outcomes
UTAS Author:Dennis, SL (Ms Sharon Dennis)
ID Code:80945
Year Published:2012
Deposited By:UTAS Centre for Rural Health
Deposited On:2012-11-19
Last Modified:2013-01-16
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