Indigenous Cultural Competency in University Governance: Guiding Principles

Governance structures in universities that have meaningful involvement of Indigenous staff in decision-making in at least their vertical structure have a much better chance of succeeding in all areas of Indigenous operations, including student outcomes.

On this basis, the Guiding Principle for University Governance is:

Indigenous people should be actively involved in university governance and management

The following recommendations and examples can assist Australian universities in implementing this Guiding Principle.

Recommendation 1: Embed the Guiding Principles of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities.

Recommendation 2: Make Indigenous appointments at Senior Executive, Director and Managerial levels to lead Indigenous education.

Recommendation 3: Provide for Indigenous representation on university governing bodies, including Council, Academic Senate, Faculty Board(s) and Committees.

Recommendation 4: Establish protocols and procedures for seeking Indigenous representation on university governing bodies, Boards and Committees.

Recommendation 5: Create a framework for regular and robust reporting of Indigenous staff and student outcomes.

Recommendation 6: Include Indigenous student and staff outcomes in the Key Performance Indicators of University organisational units and senior staff.

Recommendation 7: Create Strategies and Plans to address and enable the university's Indigenous Education Strategy, and Mission Statements and Corporate documents which are inclusive of Indigenous Australian peoples and cultures.


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. Delgates of the conference includedIndigenous 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.

The conference provided a forum for delegates to engage in meaningful and considered dialogue and collaborative exploration of strategies to effectively and appropriately address the issues and needs of Indigenous higher education, including that of Indigenous Staff and Governance. 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.

The Guiding Principles for Best Practice in Indigenous Cultural Competency in University Governance are born of the findings of the literature review and influenced by current national and international exemplars of practice. The following determinations, recommendations and statements of commitment emerging from the discussions and Vice Chancellors workshop at the Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures Conference (2007) provide sound rationale for the seven Guiding Principles for Best Practice in Indigenous Cultural Competency in University Governance whilst highlighting challenges which need to be addressed.

‘Indigenous people remain on the fringe of university governance. With national policies resulting in an increase in Indigenous participation and graduation rates, the current challenge for universities is to include Indigenous staff in non-traditional roles, such as research and governance. Genuine representation and involvement of Indigenous people in the governance, management and leadership of universities is an essential step towards full engagement of Indigenous people in Australian higher education’ (Anderson, Roberston and Rose, 2007 cited in IHEAC 2007:14).

‘The current question of equitable and inclusive practices in higher education, is full of challenges etched in the principles of cultural accreditation and articulation and the true principles of partnership and sustainability. It is about the development of pedagogies and epistemologies that reflect a respect for the specific learning needs of Aboriginal people and other students of difference. It is also about the provision of an educational culture that embraces the inclusion of Aboriginal people in decision making processes in a practical way as opposed to gestures that are merely symbolic. The development of a best practice, strategic, mutually beneficial partnership between Aboriginal people and educational administrators and a process that guarantees quality assurance in the development of policies, programs and curricula for and about Indigenous Australians [is required]…if the equitable access and participation of Aboriginal people in education…is to be accomplished’ (IHEAC 2007 p. 31).

 ‘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’ (Key Strategy 6: Stronger Futures Strategy, IHEAC, 2007 p. 5).

‘It was agreed [by delegates] that:

  1. there should be increased Indigenous involvement in university governance and management. A greater number of Indigenous people on university governing bodies and in management roles would lead to both increased visibility and increased influence within individual universities and across the sector. There are challenges in achieving this given the small number of Indigenous staff at present and the usually significant, multiple responsibilities and workloads of these staff.
  2. There is a need to work internally and externally to determine appropriate values in relation to governance. One suggested value was the ability to recognise that a set of issues affecting one Indigenous group may well impact in different ways on other groups.
  3. It was recommended that universities’ Indigenous Plans be incorporated into the central Strategic Plan and not seen as an ‘add-on’, or ‘optional extra’. The inclusion of Indigenous matters in universities’ mission statements and graduate attributes would also increase the profile and perceived importance of these issues. Through integrating the Indigenous strategy, Indigenous education matters become the responsibility of many across the university and are therefore more likely to be addressed and sustained.
  4. Heightened Indigenous community involvement in university governance was proposed. This is likely to be helpful in reducing the workload on the small number of Indigenous staff and also in providing appropriate advice to universities on Indigenous education matters.
  5. As well as inviting Indigenous elders, community members and staff onto university governance bodies, universities also need to train and pay these people for their involvement. Development opportunities for both external contributors and for university staff must be offered. External stakeholders invited to contribute to university governance must know the sorts of contributions universities are seeking from them.
  6. Additional support structures were necessary to enable senior Indigenous staff to effectively undertake the governance responsibilities expected of them’.

(Professor Helen Garnett, Vice-Chancellor, Charles Darwin University and Associate Professor Tracey Bunda, IHEAC, Flinders University, Governance Discussion and Plenary Feedback cited in IHEAC 2007 pp. 14-15).

Indigenous leadership in universities exists when Indigenous people remain connected to their communities, and communities are connected to universities. Most universities have some engagement of Indigenous people in advisory boards or committees, but while this is important it is only one part of Indigenous governance and leadership in universities. It has been argued, that Indigenous leadership and governance requires the appointment of an Indigenous person as Pro-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous. An Indigenous PVC enables Indigenous input at the highest levels of university decision making and would be consistent with university practice in appointing a PVC to oversee critical areas. One of the key arguments for PVC level position is that many existing Directors/Heads/Deans of Indigenous centres in universities already act in the capacity of PVC in a de facto sense. As an extension of this, in large Faculties such as Medicine and Health Science where Indigenous graduates are desperately needed, the appointment of Indigenous people to Faculty wide ‘leadership’ roles e.g. Associate Dean should also be considered. Governance structures in universities that have meaningful involvement of Indigenous staff in decision-making in at least their vertical structure have a much better chance of succeeding in all areas of Indigenous operations, including student outcomes. Leadership and governance places additional demands on Indigenous staff and centres that need to be reflected in total staff resourcing and classification levels and hence considered in funding allocations’ (IHEAC 2007 p. 52).

Back to Guiding Principles