Guiding Principles


Guiding Principles for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities

Indigenous Australian cultural competence in relation to the higher education sector may be defined as:

Student and staff knowledge and understanding of Indigenous Australian cultures, histories and contemporary realities and awareness of Indigenous protocols, combined with the proficiency to engage and work effectively in Indigenous contexts congruent to the expectations of Indigenous Australian peoples. Cultural competence includes the ability to critically reflect on one’s own culture and professional paradigms in order to understand its cultural limitations and effect positive change.  Indigenous cultural competence requires an organisational culture which is committed to social justice, human rights and the process of reconciliation through valuing and supporting Indigenous cultures, knowledges and peoples as integral to the core business of the institution. It requires effective and inclusive policies and procedures, monitoring mechanisms and allocation of sufficient resources to foster culturally competent behaviour and practice at all levels of the institution. Embedding Indigenous cultural competence requires commitment to a whole of institution approach, including increasing the University’s engagement with Indigenous communities, Indigenisation of the curriculum, pro-active provision of services and support to Indigenous students, capacity building of Indigenous staff, professional development of non-Indigenous staff and the inclusion of Indigenous cultures and knowledges as a visual and valued aspect of University life, governance and decision-making.

National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities

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. [The IHEAC] 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 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…Sector wide commitment and Indigenous community engagement are essential. (IHEAC 2007 p 3)

The National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities is founded upon the premise that a fundamental pre-condition for the development of Indigenous cultural competence and long-term sustainable change is commitment to a whole of sector and institution approach, including but not limited to, the review and implementation of appropriate accountability and reporting structures, policies and procedures, cultural competency training of university staff, increasing institutional engagement with Indigenous communities and organisations, Indigenisation of the curriculum within sound pedagogical frameworks, pro-active provision of support and services to Indigenous students and staff, and the widening of Indigenous involvement in the life and governance of the University through the inclusion of Indigenous cultures and knowledge as a visual and valued part of University life and decision-making. Indeed,

An integrated policy approach is needed to advance Indigenous higher education, for the issues are systematic…Equal attention must be given to, among other things, the recruitment and support of Indigenous students, the recruitment, support and promotion of Indigenous staff, and the building and strengthening of Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Research. Urgent action is needed in all these areas if a positive cycle of participation in higher education, which breeds further participation in higher education, is to be established’ (Improving Indigenous Outcomes and Enhancing Indigenous Culture and Knowledge in Australian Higher Education, Report of the Inaugural Indigenous Higher Education Conference, 2005).


The vision and mission of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities is to provide the higher education sector with a set of guiding principles to embed Indigenous cultural competencies within and across the institution in sustainable ways which engender reconciliation and social justice by enabling the factors that contribute to social, economic and political change.

This vision and mission is reflected in the following statement from the recent Review of Australian Higher Education Final Report (2008). Highlighting the role of Universities as primary enablers of change, Bradley et al state:

Education is at the core of any national agenda for social and economic change. Higher education with its twin functions of teaching and research will make a critical contribution to the nation’s capacity to adapt and to shape the nature of social and economic change.

Higher education is the site for the production and transmission of new knowledge and for new applications of knowledge. It is here that the most highly skilled members of the workforce are educated and here too that the intellectual base for new knowledge-intensive industries is formed. But higher education in a modern democracy does more than this. By deepening understanding of health and social issues, and by providing access to higher levels of learning to people from all backgrounds, it can enhance social inclusion and reduce social and economic disadvantage…By helping sustain and renew other institutions through its capacity to develop knowledge and skills, higher education acts as a cornerstone of the institutional framework of society (p. 5).

Through the exercise of these functions and related activities, the higher education system in modern Australia…makes essential contributions to developing and maintaining a just, civil and sustainable society by playing a key role in the development and maintenance of the nation’s legal, economic, cultural and social institutions…by helping develop and maintain regions and communities and building the national economy (p. 6).

A goal of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities is to contribute to the achievement of the the Review of Australian Higher Education’s (2008) Vision for 2020  whereby universities of the Australian higher education sector:

  • produces graduates with the knowledge, skills and understandings for full participation in society as it anticipates and meets the needs of the Australian and international labour markets;
  • provides opportunities for all capable people to participate to their full potential and supports them to do so;
  • provides students with a stimulating and rewarding higher education experience;
  • plays a pivotal role in the national research and innovation system through generation and dissemination of new knowledge and through the education, training and development of world-class researchers across a wide range of intellectual disciplines;
  • engages in the global community through student and staff mobility and the exchange of knowledge and ideas;
  • contributes to the understanding and development of Australia’s social and cultural structures and its national and regional economies;
  • engages effectively with other education and training sectors to provide a continuum of high-quality learning opportunities throughout an individual’s life; and
  • is in the top group of OECD countries in terms of participation and performance (p. 6)

The Review of Australian University Higher Education Vision for 2020 aligns with the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council’s (2007) Vision for an Australian higher education sector ‘in which Indigenous Australians share equally in the life and career opportunities that a university education can provide’ (p. 9). The IHEAC Vision is for a higher education system in which:

  • Indigenous people, 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. 9).

The Review of Australian University Higher Education Vision for 2020 and the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council’s Vision (2007) are in keeping with the goals of the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC). The nine primary goals of the WINHEC (2007) are:

  1. Accelerating the articulation of Indigenous epistemologies (ways of knowing, education, philosophy, and research);
  2. Protecting and enhancing Indigenous spiritual beliefs, culture and languages through higher education;
  3. Advancing the social, economical and political status of Indigenous Peoples that contribute to the well-being of Indigenous communities through higher education;
  4. Creating an accreditation body for Indigenous education initiatives and systems that identify common criteria, practices and principles by which Indigenous Peoples live;
  5. Recognizing the significance of Indigenous education;
  6. Creating a global network for sharing knowledge through exchange forums and state of the art technology;
  7. Recognizing the educational rights of Indigenous Peoples;
  8. Protecting, preserving and advocating Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights; and
  9. Promoting the maintenance, retention and advancement of traditional Indigenous bodies of knowledge (p. 5).

The goals of the WINHEC, in turn, reflect the five main Objectives of the Second Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples:

  1. Promoting non-discrimination and inclusion of indigenous peoples in the design, implementation and evaluation of international, regional and national processes regarding laws, policies, resources, programmes and projects.
  2. Promoting full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in decisions which directly or indirectly affect their lifestyles, traditional lands and territories, their cultural integrity as indigenous peoples with collective rights or any other aspect of their lives, considering the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
  3. Redefining development policies that depart from a vision of equity and that are culturally appropriate, including respect for the cultural and linguistic diversity of indigenous peoples.
  4. Adopting targeted policies, programmes, projects and budgets for the development of indigenous peoples, including concrete benchmarks, and particular emphasis on indigenous women, children and youth.
  5. Developing strong monitoring mechanisms and enhancing accountability at the international, regional and particularly the national level, regarding the implementation of legal, policy and operational frameworks for the protection of indigenous peoples and the improvement of their lives (National Indigenous Higher Education Network 2009 p. 2).


National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities:
Guiding Principles


The Guiding Principles of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities are presented under the five themes of:

  1. University Governance
  2. Teaching and Learning
  3. Indigenous Research
  4. External Engagement
  5. Human Resources

The Guiding Principles are informed by the literature review and web search, the findings of the Stocktake of Cultural Competency in Australian Universities, the information and examples which emerged from the four Indigenous Cultural Competency Pilot Project activities, and current Australian and international exemplars of practice in Indigenous cultural competency. They align with and enable the vision and goals for Indigenous higher education of the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (2007), the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (2007, the Vision for 2020 of the Review of Australian Higher Education (2008) and the Bradley Review of Australian Higher Education (2008).

The Guiding Principles reflect the Terms of Reference of the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council and broadly address the IHEAC’s seven Key Priority areas for Indigenous higher education and the six Key Strategies of the Stronger Futures strategy by providing guidelines and 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).

The achievement of these aims is reliant upon a University’s commitment to:

  • Ensuring all students are culturally competent.
  • Training and development of university academic and professional staff in Indigenous cultural competency, including appropriate pedagogy for teaching Indigenous Studies and Indigenous students.
  • Meaningful engagement with local Indigenous communities and organisations to give these communities and peoples a visible place in campus life and a effective voice in university affairs.
  • Deepening connections between university Indigenous Centres and other organisational units of the University, including Faculties, Research Centres, graduate schools, student services and Chancelleries.
  • Developing ethical models for Indigenous research, including mechanisms for ensuring that research on Indigenous subjects and issues is culturally safe and appropriate.
  • Developing and implementing programs targeted at the recruitment and movement of Indigenous staff towards population parity across all levels and areas of university employment, including senior executive and management positions.

Accordingly, the Guiding Principles of the National Best Practice Framework for Indigenous Cultural Competency in Australian Universities are based upon the premise that a fundamental pre-condition for the development of cultural competence and long-term sustainable change is commitment to a whole of sector and institution approach. They provide a comprehensive framework to enable Indigenous cultural competency to be embedded systematically and systemically within and across Australian universities, based upon the principles of sustainability, accountability and national and international examples of best practice, whilst being non-prescriptive in nature to allow for localised institutional approaches.

This is in keeping with the definition of institutional cultural competence provided by Cross, Bazron, Dennis, and Isaacs (1989). Cross et al (1989) define institutional cultural competence as:

a set of congruent behaviours, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professionals to work effectively in cross-cultural situations (Cross et al., 1989, cited in American Association of Medical Colleges, 2005, p. 1).

The Centre for Culture, Ethnicity and Health (2010) assert that ‘cultural competence requires an organisation-wide approach to planning, implementing and evaluating services…Meaningful consultation and participation strategies need to be embedded in the core business of the organisation. Policies and systems need to guide the actions of the board, management, staff and students, in order to ensure a consistent and responsive approach’ (p. 1).

Eisenbruch (2004) and Miralles and Migliorino (2005) argue that embedding cultural competence at the institutional level is reliant upon the enabling of the four key inter-related dimensions of cultural competence:

  1. Systemic cultural competence — requires effective policies and procedures, monitoring mechanisms and sufficient resources to foster culturally competent behaviour and practice at all levels.
  2. Organisational cultural competence  — requires skills and resources to meet client diversity, an organisational culture which values, supports and evaluates cultural competency as integral to core business.
  3. Professional cultural competence — depends on education and professional development and requires cultural competence standards to guide the working lives of individuals.
  4. Individual cultural competence — requires the maximization of knowledge, attitudes and behaviours within an organization that supports individuals to work with diverse colleagues and customers (cited in Bean, R 2007 p. 3).

It is clear that Indigenous cultural competency at the institutional level encompasses all aspects of a university’s organisational life and cannot be separated from these. It relates to, and should be considered an integral aspect or dimension of the core business of:

  • University Governance and Boards
  • Senior Executive Performance Management
  • Financial Resource Management
  • Program and Curricula Development
  • Research
  • Human Resources
  • Student Services
  • Information Technology
  • Facilities
  • External Engagement

  Indigenous Cultural Competency in University Governance: Guiding Principles

  Indigenous Cultural Competency in Teaching and Learning: Guiding Principles

  Indigenous Cultural Competency in Indigenous Research Capacity: Guiding Principles

  Indigenous Cultural Competency in Human Resource Management: Guiding Principles

  Indigenous Cultural Competency in External Engagement: Guiding Principles