A rightful path

Educating for change and achievement

IN 1985, I started a bachelor’s degree the month I turned seventeen. Despite a change of degree from social work to arts, I graduated from the University of Queensland with publication and research experience at twenty and became a permanent policy research officer in the Australian Public Service by twenty-one. In four years I had gone from a country Queensland school leaver to a public servant in the head office of Aboriginal Hostels Limited, producing research reports with strategic and operational impact on its accommodation and support services.

I can attribute my commitment to education to my mother, a sole parent who raised four daughters into what became the first generation of her family to enter professions. Despite high levels of family motivation, becoming the first siblings in an extended family to finish Year 12 and go to university required more than straightforward personal ambition. Until the 1950s, Indigenous students had been excluded from universities, and by 1980 no Indigenous student had successfully completed a PhD. In my case, and for many of the subsequent generations of Indigenous university graduates, what used to be called ‘special entry conditions’ paved the path to university entry.

The year I started university, a review funded by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in collaboration with the National Aboriginal Education Committee reported a 500 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at university since 1973. This huge increase, from a very low base, was attributed to those ‘special entry conditions’ that meant Indigenous students could be assessed for university entry on evidence of capacity to succeed at university beyond the sole indicator of what, in Queensland, was then called the tertiary entrance score. The minimum score for entry to the social work degree I wanted to study was 880, but my score was 840.

In 1984, towards the end of Year 12, I travelled the nearly four hundred kilometres south from Gayndah with a white school friend and her father to visit UQ. As a result of contacts made during that visit I was told about the process for alternative entry consideration. Little did I know then that I was becoming a beneficiary of, and contributor to, a major federal policy agenda.

It is said that the 1985 report on Indigenous tertiary education, Support Systems for Aboriginal Students in Higher Education Institutions by Deirdre F Jordan and Susan M Howard, went on to further influence government policy with a subsequent increase in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support units in universities to fifty-eight in 1989 from nineteen in 1984. In the period between 1995 and 2002, forty-two PhDs and thirty-four master’s degrees were completed. Since then, the number of PhD completions by Indigenous students has continued to rise from eight in 2001 to forty-eight in 2016; master’s by research increased marginally from twelve to fourteen in the same period, yet master’s by coursework completions went from eighty-four to two hundred and fifty-two. The potential ‘pipeline’ from undergraduate degrees almost tripled over the fifteen years from five hundred and forty-four to 1,337.

‘Special entry’ is now more often called alternative entry or direct entry and many, but not all, of the publically funded universities have procedures to help facilitate Indigenous student participation in Australian higher education. In the contemporary era, where university degrees are increasingly the baseline educational qualification, there are now a wide range of entry pathways for non-Indigenous students as well. For example, this is the web promotion for direct Indigenous entry at the University of Technology Sydney:

Direct Entry Program: At Jumbunna, the ATAR is not the primary measure of success. Prospective students to our Pathways Program is inclusive of recent-school leavers (with or without an ATAR); non-school leavers; people with TAFE, College or previous University qualifications.
The Jumbunna Pathways Program offers prospective undergraduate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students an opportunity to illustrate their capability for higher education via a testing, assessment and interview process. Selection is also based on factors including previous life, education and work experience.


IN 1985, AS a teenager from Gayndah, a Queensland country district of less than two thousand people based on my ancestral land of the Wakka Wakka, west of Maryborough and Bundaberg, entering the UQ campus with its student population of about twenty thousand was exciting and formidable. But it was something I seemed to take in my stride.

UQ was among the first Australian universities to establish a support unit for Indigenous students, and inaugural co-ordinator Jeanie Bell often recalls me as someone who seemed ready for anything. Not long after first meeting we found we had a biological Batjala family connection through my father and her mother, and Jeanie and I have remained very close ever since.

Nonetheless, moving to the city and becoming a student presented lots of challenging new experiences. Things like catching my first bus to university – I needed an aunt to accompany me – and taking a little while to correctly interpret the building sign that read ‘Do not take lift in case of fire’, revealed my country naivety. But the other thing that may have kept me more generally emboldened was the fact I found my second family when I started university. The Indigenous cohort of about thirty students, largely in first year and across the disciplines of social work, education, arts, medicine, other health, and law, became my second family. As one of only two school leavers in that group, I enjoyed the status of youngest – anyone who knows Aboriginal families knows the youngest always enjoys great fondness from other family members. The many lifelong friendships formed during my undergraduate years continue to shape my connectedness to mob, and subsequently my place and impact in the world.

The unit under Jeanie’s leadership also ensured access to study-skills training provided by the mainstream services. Tutors would come to our common room and the contact time was a mix of group and individual tuition pursued in formal ways in the Indigenous and social setting provided by our large common room and surrounding offices. My subsequent experience teaching in higher education, largely in mainstream faculty, has confirmed the most crucial task in assessment is to understand the question being posed and the structure and conventions expected in completion. I recall the study-skills tutors helping me with those tasks. These are cultural, as well as academic, skills. Having an Indigenous space in which to gain this new knowledge was almost as valuable as the skills themselves. In that dedicated space I learnt many things, not least that the reason for professionalising and upskilling was to make a difference to Indigenous life and society.

I had a reputation at high school for being ‘good at English’, and indeed my Year 3 teacher had told my mother that whatever I went on to do it ‘should involve words’. The favoured childhood insult from my sisters was something about me having ‘swallowed a dictionary’. We were all a bit precocious, and that was never discouraged. Our nana was a big reader, so was our mother.

During a Stella Prize event at the Sydney Writers Festival in 2017, when I was asked to recall some childhood reading, my first recollection was of the antonym and synonym boxed set our mother had bought from a travelling salesman. Mum was always encouraging us to improve our writing, in part because she knew it would help us write our way into new opportunities, beyond domestic or seasonal labour, and in part because she was always self-conscious about her own writing. Despite the earlier restrictions on her formal schooling, Mum went on to complete her own bachelor’s degree, graduating not long after me at what is now Central Queensland University.

So for me, going from Gayndah to Brisbane to Canberra and writing research reports was great, but as a young woman I knew I needed something more. That was available to me in Sydney, where I also ended up doing work that led me to what became a longstanding career in Australian publishing. Throughout my life I have gravitated to leadership roles that saw me writing and producing publications, from the high-school magazine committee to the inaugural, then annual, UQ Indigenous student handbook, to being a book editor with Magabala Books and University of Queensland Press, and later becoming publications manager of Aboriginal Studies Press and the acting director of publishing for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Much later it was again enrolment in university, this time as a doctoral student then graduate, which led to my third career change into full-time academia, where I work today.

These parts of my story are unique, but my story of university participation is not. As previously mentioned, between 1973 and 1985 there was a 500 per cent increase in Indigenous student enrolment, and this upward trend has continued. Universities Australia, the peak body of Australian universities, reported in 2017 that there were ‘70 per cent more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students than in 2008’.

Despite these decades of increase, 2016 federal data records that only 11,488 of the 1,457,209 students enrolled in Australian universities are Indigenous, a proportion of only 1.7 per cent compared to one view that we are 3.3 per cent of the population. The 2012 Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, chaired by Professor Larissa Behrendt, made a strong case for population-parity targets for Indigenous undergraduate students, higher degree research enrolments and Indigenous staffing. It was recommended that the population-parity targets be revised each time new census data became available. The current Indigenous student participation, while increasing, is still half the level it should be.


IN 2018, AFTER graduating from Creative Industries at QUT, Bianca Hunt became Co-CEO of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience. AIME’s ambition – ‘mentors for a fairer world’ – is local and global, pragmatic and ambitious. Started in 2005 by young Indigenous man Jack Manning Bancroft, AIME intends to ‘build strong bridges between universities and schools’, which it does through recruiting, developing, supporting and engaging university students as mentors for Indigenous school students. The bridge it builds helps Indigenous students move between the two systems in a strengths-based model designed to deepen cultural identities, support aspirations and high expectations, while having fun with family and in community. In her new role Bianca will be part of a social venture that, according to an independent evaluation in 2012 by KPMG, contributes $7 for every $1 spent on it. Bianca’s QUT degree paved her path into this executive leadership role. While the decades of change in higher education policy and program activity between 1985, when I first entered UQ, and her twenty-first-century experience have normalised Indigenous university study, it is still the case that home and parenting influences play a large role in university achievement.

Bianca’s father and mother were both first in their respective Aboriginal families to graduate with university degrees, and both achieved degrees without a high school education. Her father graduated with a Master of Philosophy – the first Indigenous man to do so. Bianca attributes to her parents the act of ‘embedding the culture of education into her family’, and continually encouraging her and her siblings to ‘dream big’. In 2010, Bianca’s elder sister became the first of the children to go to university, and that year her sister and their mother became mentors in the AIME program, and Bianca a mentee. In the video introduction to her new role, Bianca says, ‘If I didn’t walk into those AIME doors seven years ago I wouldn’t be sitting here as 2018 Co-CEO.’

AIME, the Aurora Project and the Charlie Perkins Scholarship Trust all feature in the 2012 Behrendt review as programs that impact successfully on critical success factors around aspiration. These ensure that:

intervention occurs early enough to influence subject choice and is maintained throughout school years;
professional pathways are promoted collaboratively by education, community and professional organisations;
positive images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are presented to students, their teachers and the wider community;
families and key community members are involved in building aspiration;
curriculum and pedagogy are innovative and engage a young audience by connecting with their lived experiences;
peer support networks are built and maintained over time.

The Aurora Education Foundation, which supports Indigenous students at all stages of the education system, reports that it reaches thirteen thousand students each year, with 70 per cent of its aspiration program students completing Year 12, and half of those transitioning directly to university. The Charlie Perkins Scholarship has supported nineteen students on twenty-two scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge; before 2010, no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander student had studied full-time at either of these universities. The scholarships were set up to honour Charles Perkins, the lifelong leader and activist and the first Aboriginal man to graduate from an Australian university in 1966. With these scholarships, Indigenous scholars are being equipped to not simply be leaders in their own academic fields but also in their own and other communities. Aurora reports that in 2016–2017, 2.8 per cent of Australian master’s and doctoral students at Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford are Indigenous – this compares with 1 per cent of postgraduates at Australian universities in 2015. This is a remarkable international success story.


WHILE NOT THE only way into university, Year 12 attainment is rising as the dominant path. And as such it is worth noting that retention of Indigenous students in the schooling system has risen from 47.2 per cent in 2008 to 62.4 per cent in 2017; this compares with 86 per cent of non-Indigenous students completing twelve years of schooling. In 2016, 93.7 per cent of Indigenous students in AIME programs completed Year 12, as compared with 58.5 per cent for non-AIME Indigenous students. In 2014, one Year 10 AIME mentee commented, ‘AIME taught us that we can do anything.’

The significance of all of this is brought into sharper relief when the disproportionately young character of our national Indigenous population is considered: 27 per cent of us go to school, that is 215,453 of our national population of 786,689. School and university participation underpins life opportunities that will go on to sustain careers, families and communities.

We don’t hear enough of this. Indigenous families know well that education is one key to success. Sometimes, perhaps for the sake of capturing public imagination, university participation rates are compared with incarceration rates in an attempt to create a new narrative of Indigenous success. I find such dichotomies unhelpful. We must hold many things in mind at the same time as we keep generating knowledge about our cultures and ourselves in order to shape the future.

For example, at the same time as discussing university participation, it is important to remember that we are a numerical minority of the Australian population. As Victoria Grieves notes in her essay in this edition, ‘We are a minority population within a settler-colonial regime.’ We continue to participate in mainstream education as descendants of the world’s oldest living culture while carving out success on mainstream terms sometimes complementary with, and sometimes antithetical to, our cultural inheritance and our future interests. Getting that balancing act right takes all our guile. The Uluru Statement from the Heart recognises this and exhorts: ‘When we have power over our destiny, our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.’

We are not alone in this task.

Ten years after establishment, and ninety-seven years after the establishment of its predecessor organisation the Australian Vice-Chancellors Council, Universities Australia launched its first Indigenous Strategy 2017–2020. This contains a number of initiatives that seek to:

increase the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participating in higher education as students, as graduates, and as academic and research staff;
increase the engagement of non-Indigenous people with Indigenous knowledge, culture and educational approaches; and
improve the university environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

These initiatives were designed in collaboration with Indigenous higher education leadership primarily through the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, and follow decades of Indigenous policy advocacy, research reports and Indigenous higher education achievement.

The strategy is seen by leading Indigenous academics and higher education senior managers as being central to driving whole-of-university change that will see significant Indigenous impact in and beyond universities over the next two decades. While all matters of immediate and far-reaching concern in the sector are influenced by Indigenous participation, the particular session at the 2018 Universities Australia annual conference concerned with Indigenous futures posed the question: ‘What does Indigenous higher education look like in 2025?’

UA partnership with leading sector agencies and its commissioning and distribution of submissions, reports and studies encompass a wide range of issues, including: student experience and students as partners; gender equity and women in leadership; professional accreditation and the future of work; regional, domestic and international issues; relationships between the vocational and higher education sectors; research funding and philanthropy; and urgent issues of commercialisation and ‘clever collaboration’ with professions, business, community and industry. All of these domains of interest are relevant to Indigenous participation in higher education.

After almost five years on the full-time mainstream faculty frontline at QUT following the 2012 conferral of my own PhD at the same university, I am particularly excited to now be in a leadership role at UTS working with accomplished Indigenous senior managers and a growing Indigenous professoriate. I once again find myself at home in a university, always finding new family among our mob, and increasingly building more effective and strategic relationships with those whose work can align with Indigenous ambition.

It is a time of change for most domains of human endeavour accelerated by digital disruption as a constant feature of our everyday lives, pressing global ecological concerns, and political systems that are coming under enormous pressure, not least from the growing strength of citizen advocacy. Indigenous expertise as nurtured by our own families and communities, augmented by our participation in higher education and subsequently in government, community and industry needs to be part of us finding next best paths for a cohesive and fulfilling society that leaves fewer people behind and that finds a way back to living more sustainably.

6 March 2018

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