Embedding of Indigenous Content
Over the past week, there was a fair bit of news coverage and response with regards to the embedding of Indigenous content within all university curricula as recommended by the Bradley Review in 2008. Issues raised in the print media have revolved around maintaining integrity of existing programmes, insertion of material that could be politically potent, issues of “political correctness” and “social engineering” that are assumed will have negligible positive outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike, and the relativity of “cultural competency”. Due to this coverage, and the ongoing debate appearing in media sources at this point in time, the NTEU wishes to reinforce its complete support for the embedding of Indigenous knowledges in all university curricula and address some of the resistance to this well-overdue change in the Higher Education sector.
The NTEU has long supported the advancement of Indigenous staff and students within the higher education system. The NTEU believes that Indigenous business is core Union business and reflects this idea in both its staffing and representative structure, and by having mandatory settlement points for Indigenous employment during each bargaining round. Within the Higher Education Sector, Indigenous staff account for only 0.9% of the staffing compliment, and Indigenous students currently make up 1.1% of the total student body. These low numbers of Indigenous engagement within the sector are of deep concern, and despite there being alternate entry and identified positions available for a number of years, it indicates that the environment of most universities is one that is not completely inclusive at this point in time. This deficit of Indigenous staff and students requires a multifaceted approach to fully address the issues. Making universities a place where the knowledges that Indigenous people bring to the table are more valued, where students are more included, and where others have the benefit of furthering their knowledge pools by engaging with a variety of knowledge bases including Indigenous Australian may go some of the way to addressing these inequities.
Likewise, it is problematic to assume that Indigenous knowledge inclusion will have political consequences whilst knowledges currently offered by the sector are politically neutral and open to criticism. This, of course, is not the case. Indeed, many Indigenous academics, in our recent report “I’m not a racist, but...” outlined issues of their knowledge and perspectives not being seen as being as valid, and highlighted very isolating experiences for educators within the academy who come from different cultural backgrounds. Australian universities were set up in the tradition of European universities, and carry with them a knowledge basis that reflects the current dominant culture within this country. Whilst Dr. Bradley outlines that from her perspective, the embedding of Indigenous curricula is most certainly is political move, it must be highlighted that any political consequences of embedding Indigenous curriculum will only be noticed because of the alternate view they may offer to the dominant ideologies. Indeed, if there wasn’t some sort of inherent political bias within our institutions already, then Indigenous inclusion would not be political; Indigenous knowledges would simply be absorbed into the curricula as part of the broader knowledge base. The other political issue potentially raised is the imperative for current academics to consider their knowledge from a different perspective and incorporate this into their teachings for students to consider. Whilst some have expressed opinions about this being mere “political correctness”, the NTEU states that within the context of Australia, it is highly appropriate, and desirable, that educators and students are exposed to uniquely Australian viewpoints and can engage with these.
Issues around “cultural competency” with regards to Indigenous knowledges and Indigenous peoples are an ongoing concern and one the NTEU considers extremely important. At National Council last year, a motion was passed with regards to implementing Indigenous cultural competency training in all branches and divisions (including National Office) for all staff and elected officials. Part of this training will involve engaging with communities local to the areas in which the branch or division is situated to ensure that staff and officers have knowledge that will serve them on both a national and a local basis. This active engagement with local communities, and raising esteem between Indigenous communities and the union movement, is seen as a cornerstone of this training. Not only will this foster ongoing relationships that can be mutually-beneficial, but it is acknowledged that the best way to become “culturally-competent” is to actively engage with communities on an ongoing basis. The same can, of course, be said for the entire Higher Education sector. Universities have a responsibility to ensure that they are culturally-competent and are able to engage with the communities they service.
It is telling that only one University in Australia, at this point in time, has Indigenous curricula across all of its programmes, with a second due to have a fully-embedded curricula in a couple of years. The first University opened its doors in Australia in 1851, and the first Aboriginal student to graduate with a degree from an Australian University occurred in 1965. Some universities have already embraced the unique perspectives that Indigenous Australians bring to the academy by appointing PVCs and DVCs Indigenous, and most universities have an Indigenous Employment strategy in place and are working on, or have completed, a Reconciliation Action Plan. The Indigenous Graduate Attribute will give every student a contemporary Aboriginal perspective in their discipline and enable them to more ably Close the Gap with confidence. The embedding of Indigenous curriculum in Australian Universities is a natural part of the progression to provide more inclusive environments and embrace unique Australian knowledges, and the NTEU welcomes this long-overdue direction within the sector.