Indigenous Cultural Competency in Human Resource Management:  Guiding Principles

Indigenous people are greatly under-represented as employees of Australian universities at all levels. Staff numbers in ‗teaching', ‗research and teaching' and other general positions need to increase by a factor of between two to three to reach population parity, while staff numbers in ‗research only' roles need to increase by a factor of over six.

This under-representation sends a negative message to students and employees, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, about the place of Indigenous people within higher education, undermines other strategies aimed at improving Indigenous student participation and completion rates and robs the higher education sector of a valuable educational resource.

On this basis, the Guiding Principle for Human Resources is:

Indigenous staffing should be increased at all appointment levels and, for academic staff, should cover a wider variety of academic fields

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

Recommendation 1: Develop an Indigenous Employment Strategy which contains Key Performance Indicators and strategies to recruit and appoint Indigenous staff across all academic faculties and general divisions of the university to achieve population parity, both in number and level of classification.

Recommendation 2: Appoint an Indigenous Employment Coordinator to lead and coordinate Indigenous employment.

Recommendation 3: Identify programs that target recruitment of Indigenous staff across all levels and classifications.

Recommendation 4: Establish programs for the career development of Indigenous staff.

Recommendation 5: Develop processes to encourage promising Indigenous students and staff into research training.

Recommendation 6: Develop induction processes which include Indigenous cultural competency training for all new staff.

Recommendation 7: Provide professional development opportunities for university staff in advanced Indigenous cultural competency.

Recommendation 8: Train senior management to support and work effectively with Indigenous staff and trainees.

Recommendation 9: Create Indigenous staff awards which celebrate and reward the achievements


The recommendations for Best Practice in Indigenous Cultural Competency in Human Resource Management are born of the findings of the literature review and influenced by the recommendations of the Pilot Projects and current national and international exemplars of practice.

It is clear that there is a dire need for universities to implement measures to address Indigneous staff disparities in the higher education sector, including in academic, senior executive and management positions. There is also demonstrated need for universities to ensure the cultural competency training of non-Indigenous staff so that they are better equipped to develop and deliver high quality culturally inclusive professional education, undertake Indigenous research, and engage effectively with Indigenous communities, staff and students.

The following recommendations and statements emerging from the the discussions and Vice Chancellors workshop at the Ngapartji Ngapatji ~ Yerra: Stronger Futures Conference (2007) and South African Eduaction White Paper 3 (1997) provide sound rationale for the Guiding Principles for Best Practice in Indigenous Cultural Competency in Human Resource Management whilst highlighting the varied role and contribution of Indigenous staff.

‘The overall employment outcomes [of Indigenous staff] have fallen short of reasonable expectation. The number of opportunities for Indigenous people in senior management and academic positions across the tertiary sector continues to be extremely low, with most appointments located in administrative services and in short term, casual appointments. This in turn has continued to restrict Indigenous influence on University governance and decision making processes. Any debate about due governance must be inclusive of these issues if the participatory deficit of Indigenous Australians within universities is to be adequately addressed in future initiatives’(Anderson, Robertson and Rose cited in IHEAC 2007 p. 30).

‘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’ (Key Strategy 1: Stronger Futures Strategy cited in IHEAC 2007 p. 15).

‘[There is a need to provide] professional development programs for university academic staff to improve awareness and cultural competence…using compliance measures (for example key performance indicators built into performance expectations), at least initially, to begin the shifts needed in hearts and minds, to ensure improved Indigenous governance outcomes (IHEAC 2007 p. 15).

‘Institutions [in South Africia are] required to submit human resource development plans, including equity goals, as part of their three-year rolling plans. Human Resource Development plans need to include:

  • Indigenous staff recruitment strategies and promotion policies and practices;
  • Indigenous staff development strategies , including academic development, that is improved qualifications, professional development and career pathing, instructional (teaching) development, management skills, technological reskilling, and appropriate organisational environment and support;
  • remuneration and conditions of service for Indigenous staff;
  • reward systems for Indigenous staff, including sabbaticals, conference attendance, academic contact visits;
  • strategies for the transformation of institutional cultures to support diversity (South African Education White Paper 3 1997 p. 29).

‘In the context of Australian higher education, Indigenous peoples want to be able to participate fully in universities’ western knowledge systems as well as to maintain, practice, and grow Indigenous knowledge systems within universities, and in communities. In a general sense we might call this ‘both ways’ education, because it’s about participating in dual knowledge systems and the relationships and spaces between them. For Indigenous academic and professional staff working in higher education, the requirement to be proficient in ‘both ways’, to have two sets of knowledge or two sets of ‘qualifications’ (to at least some degree), is part of the essential selection criteria for the position. Once employed Indigenous academic and professional staff have to maintain and develop their skills, knowledge, practice and expertise in two, often competing knowledge systems through further study, staff development and training, relevant professional networks and some of this must also be done in Indigenous communities. For Indigenous staff such as Directors, Student Support staff, ITAS coordinators the staff training and development offered by the university does not actually deal with the ‘Indigenous’ side of the equation – how to manage an Indigenous program inside a university, Indigenous funding, budgets and reporting, governance, leadership and protocols, supervising Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff. Within a single institution there may not be anyone else doing the same roles, and a major gap in Indigenous professional/staff development is state and national programs for Indigenous Directors and senior managers. The maintenance of Indigenous cultural knowledge requires strong community connections greater community engagement and imposes obligations for which Indigenous staff and often also their families are accountable. Indigenous academics are often expected to ‘perform’ highly in both systems but performance is judged primarily against mainstream university criteria (e.g. publications, grants). The reason the person was selected in the first place, i.e. cultural knowledge and protocols, community profile and networks, ability to respond to the needs of Indigenous students, is often forgotten or not fully valued in the same way as for example, postgraduate qualifications. To maintain dual qualifications, practice and perform in dual systems in the context of higher education requires additional time, infrastructure support and funding’ (Milroy cited in IHEAC 2007 p. 54).

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