Launching the Innovative Research Universities Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Statement of Intent

Release Date: 
24 February 2014

Thank you Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar for your warm welcome.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we are meeting today, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people.

I want to acknowledge Professor Dewar’s colleagues, Vice-Chancellors of the IRU universities.

I also acknowledge Professor Larkin and Leanne Holt as the co-chairs of the Innovative Research Universities Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Network, and the other members here today:

  • Professor Adrian Miller
  • Professor Mark Rose
  • Professor Boni Robertson
  • Professor Daryle Rigney
  • Mr Steven Dhu
  • Professor Yvonne Cadet-James

I come from a non-Indigenous background with English and Scottish heritage.

I can identify with the personal journey Prime Minister Abbott described in his Closing the Gap statement.

He described how he gradually had learned more about Indigenous Australians and had realised that he had a personal responsibility for changing things that are just not right.

I have been working on Indigenous issues in some capacity for more than a decade since I was the first Jawun secondee back in 2001.

But every day I learn things I couldn’t imagine.

A few days ago I was talking to people from the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia.

I learned that quite recently there wasn’t a single Indigenous Chartered Accountant.

In fact I was told that there were no Indigenous people in accounting or similar positions in the finance area of businesses, at least there weren’t any in South Australia.

We know that Indigenous Australians are under represented in many areas, but it seemed improbable that Indigenous Australians would have been totally unrepresented in an entire area of professional work.

I raise this anecdote, because in so many areas we are still having “firsts” for Indigenous people:

  • We gather in this great Parliament House, where for the first time there is female Indigenous Senator.
  • I entered Parliament at the same time as the first Indigenous member of the house of representatives – my friend Ken Wyatt.
  • I recently attended an event where we were acknowledging the first Indigenous Cambridge graduate, and the first Indigenous Oxford graduate.
  • And recently we had the first Indigenous Rhodes scholar.
  • We have the first Chief Minister, who identifies as Indigenous.
  • We have the first Indigenous Vice-Chancellor.
  • And it was not until the 90s that we had the first major Indigenous entrepreneur in the mining sector.

All of these accomplishments are worthy of great celebration for the extraordinary individuals who achieved them and for our nation as a whole.

But I long for the day when we are no longer celebrating “firsts” in this place (although of course it will be great to celebrate the first Indigenous Prime Minister, hopefully in my lifetime).

I long for the day when there are no more Indigenous firsts because Indigenous people’s integration at all levels and in all areas is normalised.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia which I mentioned before are now involved in the hard job of increasing the number of Indigenous graduates in accounting and finance.

The first half dozen is an important mile stone, and the first dozen will be the next.

And in some respects this Statement of Intent which we are launching today, is about moving beyond the “firsts” and onto something deeper.

When I read the Statement of Intent my immediate thought was: Where are the targets for increased number of Indigenous students commencing undergraduate degrees?

Surely that must be the foundational target?

But then I learnt you have already closed the gap in this area – 2.7% of your beginning students from your seven universities are Indigenous, which is close to the Indigenous proportion of the total population.

It is a tremendous achievement.

Your work to attract students to your universities will never stop, but I see in your statement that your focus is now at the second and third stages of closing the gap in higher education.

And hence, you commit to greater retention success, to more Indigenous post-graduates, to more Indigenous staff and you outline measures that will do this.

All too often we have assumed that some so-called Indigenous gap has been overcome when we have managed to get a number of Indigenous people in through the gate.

But it’s not sustainable in the long run to have Indigenous people only in entry level positions only or as beginners and starters.

We need to get up completion rates and Indigenous career advancement.

And, perhaps equally importantly, you commit in this statement to greater engagement in multiple different areas – in the community, in research, in your practices.

Further, it is engagement both ways.

And this is so critically important, because engagement is the essence of reconciliation.

We must walk with others that we do not know so well in order to understand and appreciate their outlook.

We must get to know someone, and their children and home to realise that their basic aspirations – for love and care for their children and community – is the same for everyone.

A challenge for many Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians is that we often live in different locations and so the ability to engage is weakened.

In my electorate of 130,000 people, there are only 504 Indigenous people according to the census.

Many non-Indigenous people would say that they have never met an Aboriginal person.

But this is where our institutions, including our universities are so important.

And this is why your measures in this document of creating supportive places, of encouraging participation in co-curricular activities and other engagement mechanisms are critical.

I congratulate the IRU universities for what you have done to close the gap and to facilitate reconciliation. You have enrolled 25% of all Indigenous students, despite your enrolments being only 16 per cent of total enrolments.

So I am very pleased to be here today to launch the Statement of Intent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education.

I would also like to acknowledge the authors of The Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, chaired by Larissa Behrendt.

I understand the review has been one of the inspirations for the Statement.

I congratulate our Indigenous scholars and the Innovative Research Universities on your achievements and your Statement of Intent.

I look forward to these fine intents becoming reality.

Thank you.