In 2005 the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council launched its Strategic Plan 2006-2008 which identified the following seven key priority areas for Indigenous higher education: Achieving ‘Top Down’ ‘Bottom Up’ Engagement and Commitment

Priority 1: Encourage universities to work with schools and TAFE colleges and other registered training
  organisations to build pathways and raise levels of aspiration and confidence of Indigenous
Priority 2: Develop a concerted strategy to improve the level of Indigenous undergraduate enrolment
Priority 3: Improve the level of Indigenous postgraduate enrolment, enhance Indigenous research and
  increase the number of Indigenous researchers
Priority 4: Improve the rates of success, retention and completion for Indigenous students.
Priority 5: Enhance the prominence and status of Indigenous culture, knowledge and studies.
Priority 6: Increase the number of Indigenous people working in Australian universities.
Priority 7: Improve the participation of Indigenous people in university governance and management

(Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council Report to the Minister for Education, Science and Training March 2006, p. 11).

In keeping with these seven key priority areas, the primary focus of the  2005 IHEAC conference: Improving Indigenous Outcomes and Enhancing Indigenous Culture and Knowledge in Australian Higher Education, was the ongoing disparity of Indigenous people employed in higher education, the significantly low rates of success, retention and completion evident for Indigenous students and the need to address the interrelated and ongoing issues of:

  • the uneven quality of Indigenous research programs and the limited number of active Indigenous researchers;
  • the poor recognition given to Indigenous studies and the lack of visibility of Indigenous culture and knowledge on campus;
  • the small number of Indigenous people working in Australian universities, especially in senior roles; and
  • the low levels of participation of Indigenous people in university governance and management.

In their 2006 Report to the Minister for Education, Science and Training which detailed the discussions and outcomes of the 2005 conference and IHEAC’s Strategic Plan 2006-2008, the IHEAC highlighted the need for a whole-of sector commitment and engagement to close the disparity gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. In the Executive Summary to the report (2006) the IHEAC argued that:

[P]olicy for Indigenous higher education should be underpinned by the goal of the social, cultural and economic development of the whole Indigenous community. While there has been progress towards achieving equity in Australian higher education for Indigenous people, there are still significant shortfalls, the rate of progress is inadequate and there is a risk of a decline in the progress made to date. A commitment is now needed to making major advances (p. 2).

The IHEAC considers higher education to be central to the aspiration of Indigenous people for a rightful place in Australian society and believes that Australian universities must play a leadership role in the nation’s recognition of Indigenous people and culture. The vision of the IHEAC is for a higher education system in which Indigenous Australians share equally in the life and career opportunities that a university education can provide. This means creating a higher education system in which:

  • Indigenous people and their culture and knowledge are visible and valued on campus;
  • Indigenous research is of high quality and high status;
  • Indigenous studies are a prominent and vibrant part of the curriculum;
  • Indigenous knowledge and culture are developed and preserved;
  • Indigenous leaders are trained; and
  • Indigenous people are active in university governance, leadership and management (p. 4).


Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures: A Forum for Dialogue

In  November 2007, the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council convened its third annual conference: Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures. The conference focused onbuilding a collaborative and informed partnership with Universities Australia in enabling the holistic whole-of-sector approach needed to address the Key Strategies of the IHEAC Stronger Futures Strategy:  

Council recognises the time has come for a sector wide approach to facilitate foundational change…Our universities are critical to defining knowledge and the Stronger Futures strategy takes the development and enhancement of Indigenous knowledge systems as its central concept. Council is highly cognisant of the fact that a stronger future for Indigenous higher education means moving beyond the equity agenda to a central, valued and ongoing place within the Australian higher education sector. The overarching rationale for the Stronger Futures strategy is to establish the pathway toward that goal. To this end, the core objective of the Stronger Futures strategy is to construct a vigorous, broad-based and linked Indigenous higher education infrastructure. This infrastructure will bring together and streamline existing support structures, resources and expertise as well as cohesively developing other vital elements. The principal purpose is to facilitate, in a structured and cohesive way, the growth, capacity building and presence of Indigenous undergraduate students, post-graduate students, researchers and scholars within, and across, the higher education sector… The strategy’s specific actions…build on a strategic partnership between Australian Indigenous education leaders and Universities Australia to take a planned approach on the ground and across the sector...[and recognises] the critical role Australian university leadership [plays] in achieving Council’s vision [of] the strategic development of institutional capacity and opportunity for Indigenous Australians to participate equitably in all aspects of the higher education sector (IHEAC 2007, pp. 9-10)

The Key Strategies of the Stronger Futures Strategy align with the IHEAC’s seven priority areas and vision for Indigenous higher education and are underpinned by six ‘core elements’:

Element 1: Indigenous Knowledge
Element 2: Curriculum, Teaching & Learning areas
Element 3: Indigenous Employment (Academics and Administration)
Element 4: Governance
Element 5: Indigenous Research/ers
Element 6: Resourcing (IHEAC 2007, p. 4).

The six Key Strategies of the Stronger Futures Strategy and their core underlying elements provide a strategic framework and sound rationale to guide the sector in the development and implementation of sectoral and institutional level responses to the Stronger Futures Strategy and Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Closing the Gap agenda. The six Key Strategies are:

Key Strategy 1: A National Indigenous University Workforce Strategy

Increasing the level of Indigenous staff in universities and raising the number of staff in leadership roles are essential steps in improving Indigenous student access and success. A viable networked Indigenous higher education workforce can provide the leadership, knowledge, skills and experience needed to maintain current programs and address unmet needs into the future. This workforce can also develop the Indigenous knowledge systems, teaching and research needed to provide the culturally secure framework and culturally enriched spaces within which success can be achieved across all areas and sustained over the long term.

Universities also graduate the professional workforce for health, education, business and industry. If we are to close the gaps for Indigenous peoples in these areas, a trained professional Indigenous workforce including doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, commerce graduates and engineers, is critical.

The beginning point to achieve this outcome is to develop a National Indigenous University Workforce Strategy.

Key Strategy 2: Establishing an Indigenous Learned Academy

An Indigenous Learned Academy will: affirm and sustain Indigenous knowledge and philosophy within Australia; enable Indigenous researchers and scholars to collaboratively develop a national vision and context; and advance Indigenous knowledge and philosophy, an area of rapid development internationally. The Academy would put Australia at the forefront of these developments and facilitate international collaborations and scholarship. The major role of a Learned Academy would be complementary to the four learned academies already in existence, to increase knowledge, recognise excellence and be an intellectual resource to the nation.

Key Strategy 3: Establishing an Indigenous Centre of Research Excellence

An Indigenous Centre of Research Excellence (ICRE) is a key measure for increasing Indigenous research capacity. Developing a critical mass of Australian Indigenous researchers requires a substantial body of individual Indigenous scholars with higher level research skills and qualifications and an established, dedicated infrastructure to provide leadership and support for Indigenous research development and activity. The ICRE would be a virtual and dispersed collaborative project of Indigenous researchers and their respective universities across the Australian higher education sector.

Key Strategy 4: Indigenous Cultural Competence as a Graduate Attribute

Cultural competence is the awareness, knowledge, understanding and sensitivity to other cultures combined with a proficiency to interact appropriately with people from those cultures. Council considers being culturally competent in relation to Indigenous Australian peoples should be a core attribute of students graduating from Australian universities, for university academic and administrative staff and for the institutions themselves. IHEAC supports the adding of cultural competence as a core generic graduate attribute assessable in annual graduate attribute ratings.

Key Strategy 5: Indigenous Higher Education Resourcing

Reducing the highly disparate rates of Indigenous participation and success in the higher education sector will require a long term plan supported by appropriate levels of funding. Along with overall funding increases IHEAC considers it is essential to simplify the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR, formerly DEST) Indigenous related funding sources, including changes to Block Grants, increased ISP funding, single reporting, accountability and long term resourcing arrangements.

Key Strategy 6: Indigenous Participation in Sector Governance

IHEAC consider that higher level and broader Indigenous participation in the governance structures and practices of the Australian higher education sector is a central element of the Stronger Futures strategy overall, and in each of the other strategic actions. Indigenous students, staff, academics and community elders and leaders have a significant contribution to make in the area of governance as well as ensuring that Indigenous participation and success at all levels of the higher education sector remains a fundamental sector priority (IHEAC 2007, pp. 4-5).

The Key Strategies and underlying elements of the Stronger Futures Strategy reflect the Terms of Reference of the third Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council. In particular, the IHEAC is required to provide policy to the Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research on a broad range of issues identified withing the Stronger Futures Strategy, including strategies to:

  • Facilite closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in participation and outcomes in all areas of the higher education sector.
  • Promote social inclusion through Indigenous involvement in higher education by building relationships within the higher education sector, with relevant organisations and communities.
  • Broaden and strengthen Indigenous traditional knowledge and practices including cultural competency in higher education.
  • Strengthen institutional responsibility for improving Indigenous student and staff outcomes and the role of Indigenous education units, including promoting best practice.
  • Encourage Indigenous content in courses to ensure that Indigenous students are supported and all graduates are culturally competent.
  • Promote an Indigenous research culture for Indigenous academic staff and postgraduates.
  • Increase employment opportunities and career paths for Indigenous higher education staff (The Third IHEAC Terms of Reference).


Achieving ‘Top Down’ ‘Bottom Up’ Engagement and Commitment

The 2007 IHEAC conference Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures was well attended by Indigenous higher education leaders, representatives of Universities Australia, the Department of Education, Science and Training (now DEEWR), Australian Research Council, Australian Indigenous Doctors Association, the Australian Learning and Teaching Council (then the Carrick Institute), Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors, Pro Vice Chancellors and senior non-Indigenous higher education leaders from across the sector.

As stated in the Executive Summary and Conference Outcomes Strategies of the IHEAC Conference Report (2007), [a]fter four decades, the right people were in the room at the right time’ (p. 3).

The conference presentations, post-presentation discussions, facilitated group workshops and post-workshop feedback sessions of the 2007 Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures centred on four key themes or priority areas which enable the principles of Indigenous cultural competence:

  • Indigenous Staff and Governance
  • Teaching and Learning
  • Research
  • Resourcing Indigenous Higher Education.

The conference provided a forum for delegates to engage in considered dialogue and collaborative exploration of strategies to effectively and appropriately address the issues and needs of Indigenous higher education raised under each of the themes. Members of the Vice Chancellors Workshop acknowledged that ‘Universities are littered with commitments [to Indigenous higher education] yet to be filled’ (cited in IHEAC 2007, p. 22), however, the time had come to work in partnership to achieve positive, sustainable and accountable change  within the higher education sector. Among the outcomes of the Vice Chancellors Workshop (IHEAC 2007, p. 22)  was a series of recommendations and expressed commitment to:

  • Establishing a Working Group to work with Universities Australia and DEEWR to identify the rationale, functions, feasibility and funding sources for the establishment of an Indigenous Learned Academy.
  • Supporting the creation of a Centre for Indigenous Research Excellence such a Centre which was ‘ virtual and disbursed…to ensure there was no negative impact on Indigenous communities in any one university’ (p. 22).
  • Advocating for the inclusion of a Division for Indigenous Knowledge in the RFCD Codes.
  • The Vice Chancellors recognised the importance of increasing the number of Indigenous staff in higher education, including at higher leadership levels and committed to advocating for the development of a National Workforce Strategy to assist with Indigenous staffing through Universities Australia.
  • Recommendation that ‘each university…consider including Key Performance Indicators for Indigenous higher education within their portfolios for university executive members’.
  • Supporting the simplification of DEEWR funding structures and a significant increase in funding for Indigenous higher education based on a long-term plan.
  • Recommendation that ‘each university…investigate opportunities to give local Elders and representatives from the Indigenous community a wider role and appropriate recognition within universities…the sharing of best practice models’ (p. 22).


Partnerships for Action

The Vice Chancellors Workshop viewed Indigenous cultural competency as a foundational element in redressing the under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within the higher education sector and pivotal in the development of more culturally competent graduates who are better equipped to effectively engage with, and provide services to, Indigenous Australian peoples and communities. In recognition of the centrality of individual and institutional Indigenous cultural competence to achieving change, participants of the Vice Chancellors’ Workshop argued that it was ‘highly important that all Vice-Chancellors are familiar with this concept and its implications’ for the higher education sector. Accordingly, members agreed that a session would be devoted to Indigenous cultural competency at the next annual workshop of Universities Australia, facilitated by representatives of the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC 2007, p. 22).

The primary outcome of the Universities Australia session on Indigenous cultural competency was the establishment of a joint Working Party on Indigenous Cultural Competency in partnership with the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council to investigate strategies for building the cultural competence of the higher education sector.