By MAREE MEREDITH
We must step out across a new tightrope, identifying ways to include and hear the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff
As the nation prepares to vote on whether it will accept an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to Parliament, it’s time to ask whether the Australian higher education sector is ready to support a sustainable and effective Indigenous voice in higher education.
If we are to accelerate the impact of university research and education on an issue that many regard as the nation’s most pernicious problems we must step out across a new tightrope, identifying ways to include and hear the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, while also fostering organisational cultures that frame how all staff can be involved in delivering solutions.
That’s why we are holding a conference which looks at the future of Indigenous leadership in Australian Higher Education, from 10-11 November, called Are you ready, Australia?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health solutions are inextricably linked with the ability of universities to embrace more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders across all disciplines and at all levels.
This will only work if First Nations candidates are appointed on merit and supported to be role models, mentors and a voice within our institutions, so that holistic solutions to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health can be identified and achieved, through Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff working together, sharing ideas and resources with community and organisational partners.
The Are you ready, Australia? conference will be dominated by early and mid-career researchers, but will also seek to engage non-Indigenous speakers and audiences in key topics – seeking to identify and discuss sustainable new pathways forward for emerging Indigenous leaders.
Universities around Australia spend millions of dollars each year competing to recruit the best and brightest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander undergraduates, and have also had a flurry of activity over the past five years at the other end of the spectrum recruiting PVC Is, but in the meantime, what is going on in the middle?
Who is developing the plan for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to move into early career and management roles? Who is ensuring the long-term sustainability of the substantial steps forward taken by the sector in recent years to start to address the under-representation of Australia’s First Peoples in higher education.
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff still hover around the 1 per cent mark in Australian faculties, individual institutions are pursuing wildly different agendas and policies to build and support the academic workforce, at the same time as the small scale of the talent pool is finally being recognised in the fiery dawn of new rhetoric of promise and reassurance.
There is no singular queue of talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff on a pathway from student to leader and few universities have assembled sufficient talent pools to be able to work on succession planning for leaders.
The health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has long been a national priority, and also a national mystery. As our universities have tried to contribute to solving problems for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, they have had so few First Nations representatives on staff, particularly at senior levels, that it has been hard for any institution to deliver solutions that consistently work in communities.
For too long, this has been regarded as an ‘Aboriginal problem’ – providing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to lead the development of solutions, only for them to look behind and seeing nobody else following. Sure, we need to take insights from communities and staff to provide effective solutions – but we also need to make this an opportunity for all Australians; not a problem that only Aboriginal people can talk about or take responsibility for.
I hope you can join us and lend your voice to the conference and to the many conversations beyond.
Dr Maree Meredith is Director of Poche SA+NT and has established this conference, Are you ready Australia, in partnership with Twig Marketing and Campus Morning Mail. The conference will be held online from 10-11 November. Tickets are available at http://indigenoushe.com.au/