Situating Indigenous Knowledges and Governance Within the Academy in Australia

  • Maggie WalterEmail author
  • Wendy Aitken
Living reference work entry


The 2012 Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (the Behrendt Report) set a new direction in Indigenous/academy engagement. In contrast to previous (failed) policies, the report prioritizes fostering Indigenous leadership, embedding Indigenous knowledges within university curricula and ways of doing business, incorporating Indigenous governance across the sector as keys to improving Indigenous outcomes. Mediating a secure, sector-wide, normalized space for Indigenous knowledges, however, brings with it hazards as well as potential returns. Achieving a whole-of-university responsibility requires opening up a recognition of the non-Indigenous culture already deeply embedded in existing governance structures as a pivotal precursor to a normalized empowered Indigenous presence within sector governance systems. Failure to do so risks revitalizing tokenism and/or co-option. Developed from a 2011 submission to the Behrendt Report, updated to reflect changes emanating from that report, this chapter explores the challenges, constraints, and unexpected gains inherent in closing the ontological gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous understanding of Indigenous governance and knowledges within the academy.


Indigenous knowledges Ontological gap Color-blind racism 


The 2012 Review of the Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (hereafter named as the Behrendt Report) set a new framework for how the Australian University sector should engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and knowledges. The report has initiated a raft of changes, big and small, across the sector. However, despite some positive outcomes, the work of shifting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business from the margins of higher education to a normalized space remains a “work in progress.”

Efforts to Indigenize the academy from the inside results in challenges, expected and unexpected. We investigate these here using the concepts of Indigenous governance and knowledges. By Indigenous governance, we refer not merely to university government entities such as Council and Senate, although an Indigenous place within these is a core component. Rather, Indigenous governance is about Indigenous power and Indigenous authority to deploy the rights inherent in self-determination. These are many but within the academy center on the capacity and space for Indigenous genuine decision-making. To determine, on our own terms: what are and what are not the aspirations and needs for Indigenous students, staff, communities, and nations; and what is and what is not in the interests of Indigenous students, staff communities, and nations. This use of Indigenous knowledge is broader. The concept, as used here, encompasses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholarship, pedagogy, the cultural and specific knowledges of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, as well as the shared epistemological tenets that define and delineate Indigenous knowledges from the Western frame that permeates the sector (Walter 2011).

Repositioning of Indigenous knowledges and the peoples of those knowledges cannot occur without active and accepted Indigenous governance systems. Yet, within many higher education settings, an ontological gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous understandings of what Indigenous governance and knowledges are and how they should/could be positioned within the academy remains. A particular tension is in negotiating the line between a whole of university responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement and participation, and maintaining Indigenous ownership and perspectives of Indigenous knowledges. The breadth of the question goes beyond simple prescriptive determinations. Our overarching purpose is to validate and legitimate the place of Indigenous governance mechanisms and processes and Indigenous knowledges within the academy. The chapter draws on literature in the field but takes a pragmatic rather than theoretical approach. This is achieved primarily by adding experiential data contributed through ongoing discussions with Indigenous academics, nationally and internationally. These positionalities are pertinent and add an empirical dimension to the discussion.

The question the chapter addresses is how do Indigenous university staff, academic and administrative, mediate the risks and hazards in the pursuance of a secure, sector-wide, normalized space for Indigenous governance and Indigenous knowledge systems? And how can the University be bought on the journey? The chapter’s discussion is restricted to Australia, but also recognizes that these barriers, challenges, and, indeed, successes are likely to be pertinent to universities of other first world colonized nations, such as Aotearoa, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada.

Negotiating the Indigenous Within a Culture of Individualization

In the cross-cultural university sector context of Indigenous knowledges, there is a tendency to see the “context” as Western and the “culture” as Indigenous. This ontological position leans toward a concentration on Indigenous difference, with little or no consideration of the cultural and social positionality of the Western “context.” A deeply embedded, but largely unrealized positioning, reflected in the ongoing popularity of workshops on Indigenous cultural awareness or Indigenous cultural competence, is that it is Indigenous culture that must become known to the mainstream, normal, non-Indigenous university. Indigenous cultural awareness, it seems will somehow support Indigenous knowledges taking their place within the academy. The fatal flaw in this reasoning is the lack of understanding that we are all, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, “cultural” beings and all institutions, and universities in particular, are strong reflectors and reproducers of the dominant cultural mores and epistemological prioritization in how they go about their everyday business.

In Australia, as well as other Anglo-colonized nations, dominant cultural mores and epistemological prioritization are Western in origin. Moreover, this normalized culture is in a relationship of power with Indigenous cultural mores and epistemological positioning. In critical theory, in relationships of power asymmetry, it is the dominant society and culture that more merits examination and from which the way things “be” might be more clearly explained (Held 1990; Horkheimer 1996). A central argument of this chapter, therefore, is that Indigenizing the academy requires a critical exploration of how Western understandings permeate the sector, and how these operate to limit and constrain Indigenous knowledges and understandings to a restricted permanent “outsider” space.

As has been argued elsewhere, the first step toward an understanding of the Other is an understanding of the self (Kruske et al. 2006; Walter et al. 2011). Universities, by and large within Western nations, are White, middle-class institutions. How the core social and cultural attributes of class, but especially race, are understood within them are central explanators of the current positioning of Indigenous knowledges within the academy. Because while purely biological understandings of race have long been discredited, as race theorists argue, in the dominant constructs of race, ideas of biological inferiority have merely been replaced by other rationales for non-White inferiority such as cultural or moral deficit (Bobo 1997; Sears and Kinder 1981; Lipsitz 2006; Bonilla Silva 2010; Walter 2014).

Bonilla-Silva (2010) further argues that racialized ways of thinking are not necessarily akin to racism per se, but built into the way the social world is organized. In his materialist interpretation, individual views on race directly correlate with an individual’s systemic raced location. Thus within universities, while significant levels of overt racism are, thankfully, no longer the norm, understanding of race generally and Indigeneity and Indigenous culture more specifically is predominantly understood through the lens of White middle class experience. It is from within these class and racially privileged positions that Indigenous peoples, knowledges, and presence are viewed.

Other sociocultural factors also come into play. The most influential of these has been the rise of neoliberalism as the dominant economic and political discourse of Anglo-Western countries. Neoliberalism is defined by Harvey (2005, pp. 2–3) as the theory and practices that posit that “human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Under this framework, the societal unit is the individual and individuals are seen as individually responsible for their own life project (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002). Within such individualistic thinking, it is hard for non-Indigenous people, whose racially dominant position means they do not have to think about race, or to see themselves as part of a racial group, to understand or fully appreciate the social and cultural effect of racially aligned disadvantage, within and without the university, on Indigenous life chances and educational trajectories (Walter et al. 2012).

Bonilla-Silva (2010) argues forcefully that the social circulation of race as a social, rather than a biological, force is supported by a set of sincere race-related fictions. These are widespread among the dominant racial group, in this case nonIndigenous Australians, especially those from Anglo backgrounds. The first is that if individual social actors do not hold to or practice racism, then they are not involved, personally, in racial inequality. The second is that race no longer matters as all people are equal and should be treated that way by individuals and the social system. It is the combination of these two beliefs that lead to what Bonilla-Silva describes as color-blind racism; being personally nonracist combined with the view that race is no longer important.

Color-Blind Racism and the Academy

Such perspectives, far from supporting equality, lead to very raced consequences. Combined with neoliberal individualism, such thinking brings the process of “Othering” (Hollinsworth 2006) into focus. As Mapstone (1995, p. 79) argues, those from more powerful groups have the power to claim highly valued qualities (such as merit) as related to their own group and to assign to “out-groups” values intricately tied to their lack of equality (such as lack of endeavor). From this value dichotomizing, it follows that if race doesn’t matter anymore and they (the dominant race individual) are nonracist, then the problems of “Other” peoples must be because those people are “different”or “deficit.” If they only behaved more like “normal” people, all would be well. For Indigenous peoples, the ongoing influence of colonization and dispossession adds a further layer of complexity, magnifying this deficit perception (Walter 2014, 2015).

This institutional social and cultural positioning as “Other” is where the primary risk to Indigenous students, staff, and knowledges lie. Racial Othering, and especially in colonized nation states, the Othering of the marginalized and already highly disadvantaged Indigenous population leads to racialized, but common attitudinal frames among dominant race individuals and groups. Because they (individual or institution) see themselves as nonracist, then their attitudes toward the Indigenous Others must reflect objectivity, ensuring sound, disinterested judgment. This discursive mechanism allows the racially dominant group to simultaneously protest that they are nonracist while leaving the underlying system of racial privilege and disprivilege undisturbed. Thus, according to Bonilla-Silva (2010), universities can be places of racism despite a lack of overtly racist attitudes.

This Western culture influence in shaping how the Indigene is understood and helps to bring the “context” of Australian universities – as the site of integration of Indigenous knowledges – into focus. But overarching concepts such as “Western Culture” are not really useful in understanding the subtle and not so subtle factors that position Indigenous people at all levels as the “Other” within University systems. The hard work of imagining and, more importantly, engineering a different way of thinking, interacting, and valuing Indigenous peoples, culture, and knowledges requires more nuanced reveal. In the following sections, Western cultural influence is operationalized into its within-academy forms.

How Indigenous Knowledges Are Done in the Australian Academy

Australia has 40 universities, nearly all of which are public institutions. The implementation of the Behrendt Report recommendations within Universities, while still very uneven, has resulted in some changes in this terrain, especially a rise in more senior positions. Regardless, the underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within these, as students, staff, and within governance, is a long-standing public issue. In 2013, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students made up just 1.4% of all commencing Australian undergraduate students, a rate about half the proportion of Indigenous people in the population. Underrepresentation rates increase across postgraduate degrees, especially research higher degrees. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics is even lower. In nearly two-thirds of Australian universities, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff representation is below, often well below, 1% of total staff numbers (Moreton-Robinson et al. 2011). Australian universities still need to triple their Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander academic representation to achieve population parity. This continuing, across the board, underrepresentation means the spaces and places where Indigenous knowledges have been able to fit, let alone flourish, within the university sector, have been severely constrained for many years.

The Australian university system also reflects and reinforces its broader sociopolitical context with an increasing trend toward corporatization. This direction has strengthened the influence of neoliberal ideology of efficiency, choice (user pays), and competition between and within institutions with changes underpinned by free-market notions of autonomous individuals maximizing their rational self-interest. Such an approach stands in stark contrast to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, which, despite the diversity of Indigenous cultures nationally and globally, tend to a more “collectivist or allocentric worldview” (Stewart and Allan 2013). From Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and the power that it brings is dispersed, rather than centralized. Within Indigenous ontologies, or way of being, a shared more of relationality, or “relatedness” (see Martin 2008; Wilson 2008) prevails. There is, therefore, a tension between a system which is leaning toward more Indigenous leadership and Indigenous governance while simultaneously moving ever more strongly in a neoliberal direction. This contradiction provides challenges as well as opportunities for how Indigenous knowledges are currently “done” and future directions.

Breaking Indigenous Knowledges from Segregation

Indigenous knowledges are currently marginalized in a myriad of ways, with distinct and tangible barriers to achieving recognition and equal value within higher education remain firmly in place. Understanding the factors that create and maintain these barriers is a vital step in deconstructing them. While cultural “difference” of Indigenous ways of being and understanding the world has been recognized, the requisite shift by the dominant cultural and knowledge systems to provide an appropriate Indigenous space has not been forthcoming. Accommodation has been limited to creating a space to be different. Indigenous knowledges’ placement as “apart’”from mainstream university business normalizes their frequent exclusion from decision-making processes.

Equal recognition of Indigenous knowledges is currently inhibited by the common fault line of separate, isolated, placement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander business within institutions. Since the inception of the National Aboriginal Education Policy (NAEP) (1989), the standard strategy of addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander underrepresentation has been the establishment of support centers within individual universities. Primarily funded by Federal Government monies under programs such as the Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP), Indigenous Centers are usually situated in a discreet, often purpose built, site within the campus. Centers (The term “Center” is used here to refer to the variable discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander units found within the large majority of Australian universities.) vary significantly in size and function but all offer formal support programs such as tutorial assistance and informal services such as pastoral care and the provision of a culturally safe, accessible meeting and study place for students. Most are also the primary place of intersection between the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and the university. A number also offer academic programs, including pretertiary qualifying programs aimed at supporting Aboriginal students into higher education within a culturally safe environment.

The rise of discrete Centers as key Indigenous spaces within Australian universities is compounded by the relative rarity of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander academics within mainstream academic units. Data on the spread of Indigenous academics throughout faculties and schools is unavailable, but observer knowledge suggests that the majority of Indigenous academic staff at Australian universities are either employed in their university’s Indigenous Centre or within another Indigenous framed enclave, such as a health or education unit. Very, very few are employed in mainstream university positions, despite many years of advocacy for change in this area.

Centers are, therefore, the core Indigenous knowledges resource in Australian universities. And we have seen similar centers at universities in Canada and the United States. Their prominence, as Indigenous Centers, however, has a damaging downside. In a significant proportion of universities, such Centers are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategy . Responsible for all things, Indigenous Centers can become overburdened with policy, program, management, and other responsibilities for which they were never designed. Centers’ ability to articulate Indigenous knowledges is further incapacitated by their figurative, if not physical, placement out of sight and mind of the mainstream discussions or debates of university business.

Indigenous governance is not achievable from within such places. Within University hierarchies, Centers and their staff rank lowly. While sometimes included within University committees and working groups, their capacity and power to effect change is highly constrained. And while there is significant goodwill and interest in Indigenous issues among higher level non-Indigenous university management, Center academics mostly do not have the resources or networks to harness that goodwill. Even if they can manage to effect positive change, such change is often one-offs, a great event or high university engagement in a particular program. Indigenous Center staff lack the power and position to embed these changes as “normal” across the University.

Additionally, Centers by virtue of their multiple and specific roles differ dramatically in form and function to mainstream schools, departments and faculties. Their employment structures tend toward a preponderance of administrative rather than academic staff, a structure that reinforces the power imbalance between Centers and other areas of the University, especially faculties and schools. For those with academic ambitions, employment within a Center is frequently a hindrance, not a support. Low numbers of academic staff, mostly at junior academic levels, creates a propensity for Centers to become isolated hinterlands of scholarly inexperience, removed from the formal and informal academic mentoring and career support processes that occur elsewhere within the university. For example, both authors were originally employed within their University’s Indigenous Centre, before they had completed their PhDs. Despite this, both were also charged with building the Centre’s research track record and supporting other staff in this regard. While willing to undertake this task, it was obvious to all, including ourselves, that we were fundamentally ill-equipped – experience and track record wise – for the role.

Strategies which recognize (necessarily) the uniqueness of the Indigenous place within the Australian higher education system have, therefore, also tended to segregation. This allows a failure to flourish (and to address unequal outcomes for Indigenous people) to be attributed to the Center and its employees. More damagingly, Indigenous knowledges that do exist within an institution are confined within an all-encompassing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enclave, with limited and restricted interaction with the wider university system. The ramification of this is a – usually unintended but highly effective – incarceration of Indigenous knowledges.

By inverse logic, a normalcy of Indigenous knowledges as separately quartered terrain translates to the university mainstream neither being expected to understand such knowledges or change to accommodate them. Hovering perhaps within the institutions’ collective subconscious (rather than explicitly stated) Center responsibility , by definition, exempts the wider university, management, faculties, sections, or service areas from effecting any self-initiated engagement with Indigenous knowledges. More insidiously, this permeating practice segregates the Indigenous from the day-to-day and the critical events of university operations. Unless an issue, policy, program, or priority specifically includes the words “Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander” or “Indigenous,” the production, dissemination, or potential contribution of Indigenous knowledges will be absent from consideration in executive planning, discussion, debates, or decisions. University business, at the macro- and microlevel, is normalized as exclusive of Indigenous governance and knowledges.

Closing the Pedagogy and Indigenous Knowledges Gap

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics’ capacity to be independent disseminators of Indigenous knowledges is also compromised by the unequal and unidirectional nature of current knowledge interactions. Aboriginal staff are frequently called upon to: provide cross-cultural (or more latterly, cultural competence) training to staff and/or students; to source community members for Welcome to Country duties; conduct in-teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content; develop university reconciliation or strategic plans; and many other tasks. The dimensions of the knowledge required, and how, when, and to whom it is to be delivered, is usually predetermined. The ability to independently initiate Indigenous knowledge input is severely curtailed or nonexistent. The argument is not that staff should not be engaged in these activities but to highlight the imbalanced nature of the relationship between Aboriginal staff as service providers, and mainstream areas as knowledge service commissioners. A compliant service resource, supplying commodified knowledges on demand, is not compatible with the goal of equal recognition or partnership.

There are also widely known (but usually unstated) pedagogical tendencies within Australian universities dealing with Indigenous knowledges, with responses falling into one of the three categories. The first is to outsource responsibility to Indigenous members of staff (often without regard to their scholarly expertise). The second is to allocate responsibility to a relatively junior non-Indigenous staff member, with little expertise. The third is to not include Indigenous content at all. The reason frequently given by course coordinators for any of these three responses is that they do not have the confidence to engage with Indigenous knowledge content. They are afraid of doing or saying the “wrong” thing and feel this is an area where they cannot have expertise. As argued by Walter and Butler (2013), these Indigenous content behaviors, while frequently dressed up as Indigenous sensitivity, are actually examples of the curricula practice of Whiteness. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, all about race; that of the Indigenous academics and our responsibilities to remove the burden from non-Indigenous academics to engage with race. This racial situating sees many Indigenous scholars being forever constrained within the “Guest Paradigm,” dependent on the continuing “goodwill” of the tertiary sector (Morgan cited in McConville 2002, p. 195). Taking on this role is conceived as an Indigenous obligation. There is often an injured sense of valor when requests are rebuffed (Walter and Butler 2013). No thought seems to be given to the disrespect and disregard of Indigenous staff as scholars that this behavior embodies. Under Butler’s (2006) concept of bifurcation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics are expected to discuss Aboriginal peoples, and more especially, those who live in remote areas, regardless of disciplines or expertise. They are Aboriginal first, before they are seen (if at all) as scholars.

This reliance on the “one-stop shop” for Indigenous knowledge services is problematic pedagogically. With some occupations now mandating Indigenous coursework content as a prerequisite for registration, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic staff are increasingly called upon to teach-in the requisite “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander bit.” Yet, such teaching requires specialist professional knowledge – be it social work, nursing, medicine, or education – and sufficient seniority and expertise to successfully manage the interface between the profession and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia. Assuming that Indigenous staff members have the expertise for these tasks, seemingly by virtue of Indigeneity, indicates naivety and a failure in the duty of care. The bigger question here is not who should be doing such teaching, but why outsourcing this particular topic, and not others, is deemed appropriate pedagogic practice? Separating responsibility for Aboriginal content can reduce the value of that content, in the perception of the course’s students. The result is that Indigenous content in curriculum is either omitted or treated as different from the scholarly standards of other curriculum content.

An obvious prerequisite for a quality pedagogy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges, within academic teaching, is the employment of appropriately qualified Indigenous staff. However, achievement of this goal is not something that can be remedied in the very short term (see next sections). Other strategies need to be deployed in the interim. The first is focusing institutions’ attention on the importance of quality Indigenous scholarly content. Reducing avoidance behaviors on the part of course coordinators requires a recognition that developing Indigenous content can be challenging for non-Indigenous staff. Rejecting the reluctance to engage with Indigenous scholarship is a legitimate position, but generosity is also required to bring academics, faculties, and courses to a resetting of how it is that the University does Indigenous content, teaching, and pedagogy. Being available to course/unit coordinators, providing open and encouraging service mainstream curriculum support in areas such as: cultural appropriateness; appropriate scholarly materials; and course quality and comprehensiveness can help non-Indigenous academics make the transition into more confident Indigenous scholarship and knowledges competence. Such services, however, need to be recognized, formalized, and placed within task frameworks. Without formal acknowledgement, such roles risk becoming just another Indigenous labor expectation.

Integrating a Dynamic and Initiating Indigenous Knowledges Presence

Strengthening the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges within higher education is not a straightforward process; there are intrinsic risks in whatever strategies are devised. Marking-up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander recognition as a priority area within the sector is crucial to remediation. Yet the very act of singling out can lead to a remarginalization by describing these spaces and interactions as “special.” Within this scenario, Indigenous knowledges are restricted to spaces outside mainstream operations. There is a little difference between being patronized as “important but over there” and being ignored. Alternatively, integrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dimensions into the mainstream business of the university risks a remarginalization on the basis of minority status. Regardless of good intentions, Indigenous knowledges can easily become continually, if not permanently, subsumed under the weight of the always competing dominant knowledge matters. And the very operation of dominant (and dominating) hierarchical structures will automatically take precedence. Choosing between the competing hazards of marking out discrete Indigenous space or an integrated model is, however, framed by the foundational fact that equal recognition is unachievable while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remain so heavily underrepresented across all levels of the sector. A “Whole of University approach” (Behrendt Report 2012) cannot be achieved until there is an understanding within the sector of the values of Indigenous knowledges and an open examination and acceptance of the limitations in Universities’ traditional approach to encompass Indigenous governance.

Moving from Goodwill to Rightful Place: Activating Indigenous Governance

If the ultimate goal is to bring Indigenous engagement and knowledges to the center of the higher education system – the same place that Western knowledges and settler population engagement currently resides – how do we go about it? How can the nurturing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and an explicit recognition of their equal value and validity become standard higher education operating procedure? Obviously, part of the answer is to broaden the Indigenous space and place within Universities. This shift is not possible for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – staff, students, and/or community – to achieve alone. Neither can we rely on non-Indigenous goodwill. Reliance on goodwill, especially individually located goodwill, is a perilous position. Gains can be swept away in an instant with a change of personnel or structure. The disheartening return to Indigenous knowledges 101, after we have felt that real progress had been achieved, is familiar to nearly all in the sector.

It is a central contention, therefore, that there cannot and will not be real change in the sector without Indigenous governance. This requires as a first step the embedded presence of Indigenous academic leadership that is fully recognized and incorporated into university leadership and governing bodies. In Australia, the Behrendt Report has created a climate in which Indigenous academic leadership is possible. Recommendation 32, which advocates for the creation of Indigenous senior management positions, has provided space for an Indigenous voice in places that have previously been closed. At the time of writing, around a quarter of Australian universities had have adopted at least part of recommendation 32 and now have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics holding positions at the Pro Vice-Chancellor or equivalent level. These positions combine senior management and senior academic credentials (i.e., a professorship). More critically, this trend looks to be broadening across the sector. These senior positions create opportunities to address the divergent demands of Indigenous and Western governance. But without wider university Indigenous governance, they do little to flatten the hierarchy that makes universities uncomfortable places for those traditionally delegated to the bottom position.

Outside forces can also contribute to an Indigenizing of the academy. For example, in Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union, the labor union for higher education staff, has influenced the landscape. In the previous round of workplace agreements, the union bargained on the Indigenous employment clause first (rather than the usual last place). This has resulted in a greater proportion of University’s Enterprise Agreements stipulating numerical targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment within the sector. These agreements are legally binding, providing leverage for action rather than what has been up till now a commitment-only space. Commitment is not a currency. Frequently, it does not equate to actual expenditure of resources or energy, but operates as a change-blocking mechanism, functioning to forestall, not facilitate change. This shift from stating intentions to quantifying measurable targets is a positive one. It is also a step that needs to be emulated across the space to engender genuine change. The focus has to be on what we are doing, rather than what should happen, or what we would like to happen. But new positive practices need not only to be introduced, they need to also dislodge the plethora of old barrier-building ones.

Engaging Community As Partners: Top and Bottom

A key plank of Indigenization is the integration of the Indigenous throughout universities. A prime strategy for achieving such integration is an inversion of the standard University/Indigenous community engagement practices. Traditionally, community engagement has been at the bottom end of engagement. Community members are invited to events, primarily in the Indigenous Centre. Our institution (along with many others around the nation) employs Elders to culturally support students, again, usually within Centers, and to perform Welcome to Country obligations. These are important aspects of doing University/Community engagement. But on their own, they are insufficient: they do not disrupt, but rather frequently entrench, the understanding of the Indigenous as the different “Other.” What is required is the opening of a cohesive, all areas, Indigenous presence to support knowledge pathways for students and staff across institutions. This requires reenvisioning and then reengineering how Aboriginal communities engage with the individual university and with the sector overall. Moreover, strategies to increase Indigenous community engagement need to operate in both directions: to embrace Indigenous community within the university and to include the university in community relations.

Community engagement at the management end of the university is still a rare occurrence, but it is a prerequisite for creating and normalizing Indigenous knowledges. And if you can’t bring community to University management, then bring University management, which is those who make the decisions and decide the pathway and culture of the university, to community. For example, the University of Tasmania has established a University Aboriginal Policy Working Group. This Working Group is made up of senior members of university staff, including Deans of Faculties and Heads of Divisions such as Human Resources, representatives of university Aboriginal staff, and a group of external senior Aboriginal community members. In doing so, there is no claim made to the originality of this strategy. Other institutions, nationally and internationally, have long had committees that are inclusive of Indigenous community members. What is noteworthy in this example is how the introduction of this particular version of community voice has changed the dynamics of community engagement at the university. The Working Group, now a formal University committee, represents the first time many University management staff had had direct higher education focused interaction with Aboriginal people. The equal numbers and capacity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous members ensure the Indigenous perspective is both heard and understood.

While the existence of Indigenous led working or other groups/committees/entities can and do initiate solid strategies, for real impact they must be integrated into University management structures. Their presence has to be embedded into how the University (and more widely the sector) does business. The work of such University committees also needs to be formally embedded into the University’s policy structure: not as something outside or on the margins but a prominent policy setting to which other University policies must include and align. Enabling such integration and embedding requires Indigenous leadership in positions of genuine influence. It is from this central policy structure that other strategies and actions flow.

Investing in Indigenous Knowledges

Equal recognition of Indigenous knowledges is unachievable without a critical mass of qualified, skilled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander scholars engaged in its study, origination, and promulgation. As outlined, the low number of Aboriginal scholars as well as their relative junior status and lack of role model and mentoring opportunities means the Australian higher education sector, is as yet, a long way from this prerequisite. The heavy weighting of success in winning research grants on academic’s track record, combined with funding entities’ lack of understanding of Indigenous research methodologies, exacerbate the problem. This arises from the lacuna of non-Indigenous supervisors and research offices to recognize a place for, and understanding of, Indigenous research at the university level. The point is that Indigenous knowledges cannot achieve its potential or its place within the higher education sector without change within the organization and significant and targeted investment in its scholars.

Harnessing the power of diverse Indigenous knowledges and a consequent Indigenizing of the academy requires a network of dispersed but linked Indigenous scholars. Broad and unrestricted Indigenous participation in management, curricula, research, research higher degrees is not largesse but an obligation. Yet, a frequent response is that while universities are committed to increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff numbers, they are hamstrung because there are not enough qualified Indigenous academics and professional staff available to fill the gaps. Such reasoning is blame shifting. Advertising for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander staff when the university itself has little history in supporting, targeting, nurturing, or direct capacity building of Indigenous staff is both naive and presumptuous. If the sector wants to increase the proportion of qualified and skilled Indigenous people in their workforce, the time to start building that workforce was 10 years ago. If the sector wants to have a qualified, skilled Indigenous workforce in 10 years, the time to start is now. Choosing not to do so is a choice that guarantees failure.

Additionally, there is more than one way to raise the level and number of Indigenous academic and professional staff beyond waiting for some hoped for future pipeline effect. For example, a system of supported academic apprenticeships within departments and faculties would create the space for the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with good undergraduate results and an interest in academia to be placed within departments. There, staff can be supported in their development as academics through a combination of hands-on academic experience and research scholarships. Additionally, establishing an internal scholarship system to support Center (and other) staff to complete their postgraduate studies would add a level of seniority for existing staff within just a few years. Ensuring Indigenous knowledges and methodologies are included in the university’s institutional research strategy framework is also a necessary. Finally, including responsibility for increasing staff proportions as a key performance indicator (KPI) of Faculty and Division Heads, shares the load and concentrates the management mind on how such increases might be achieved beyond having good will and commitment.

Support systems for Indigenous research students also need to be developed, strengthened, and formalized within the mainstream university postgraduate, not outsourced to the Indigenous center. At the postgraduate level, despite the current massive underrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, very, very few postgraduate programs provide specific recruitment activity or program support for this cohort (Walter and Robertson 2009). The result is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander postgraduates are frequently on their own in navigating the fraught path of postgraduate study, supervision, and examination, a path that is epistemologically and axiologically out of sync with Indigenous knowledges.

Completions suffer as a result. This assertion is confirmed by experience of working with Aboriginal postgraduate students at a national level. These students (who were also often simultaneously Centre staff) continually expressed frustration that the use and development of Indigenous knowledges within their scholarship was not understood by their faculty or supervisors. They felt continually pressured to conform to mainstream epistemological norms, where, for example, collecting qualitative data using in-depth interviews was acceptable, but using yarning, a traditional Aboriginal form of relation building communication, was not. This is not an argument for a lowering of scholarly rigor. Rather, it reflects a dearth of understanding or recognition of Indigenous knowledges within the formal structures of scholarship undermining any real possibility of equal recognition of Indigenous knowledges within the research higher degree space (Walter et al. 2008). Again this is a long-standing sector obligation that has remained low key and low priority.

Conclusion and Future Directions

The changes already implemented from the Behrendt Report and the flow on effect of those will substantively change the place of Indigenous knowledges within the Australian academy. How quickly that becomes a reality depends on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sector leadership and the overall sector and individual university leadership’s capacity to work in genuine partnership. Yet, there is reason to hope that Indigenous governance and Indigenous knowledges can become a normalized presence within Australian universities, neither the “Other” or even cause for celebration.

There is a danger, however, that – having met many of these challenges – the responsibility for integrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges throughout universities will, over time, revert back to the resulting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce. But the integration of Indigenous governance and knowledges is very much a two-way process. It requires a willingness to share power and knowledge and an openness to difference and alternative perspectives. Its success relies on the dual acceptance of very different ontologies and their accompanying knowledge systems. This will require self-knowledge, especially from those from the dominant racial groups. Having recognized and formally acknowledged Indigenous knowledges systems, at an institutional level, it should be difficult for a full reversion to old norms.

Indigenizing the academy requires proportionality, integration, and acceptance. It also requires a transformation of university governance and internal structures. As with all of such changes, the beneficiaries are not just Indigenous peoples but the whole university and sector: we value add. It is also important to recognize that within our, and other universities, there are many, many non-Indigenous people eager to support our efforts to Indigenize the academy. It is the job of Indigenous staff and community to help the sector support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and presence, empowering all to work in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, students, peoples, organizations, and communities. Indigenizing the academy starts and ends with Indigenous and non-Indigenous generosity and willingness to keep on engaging in ways that are a permanent, not fleeting or fluctuating way that Australian universities do business.

Future directions in efforts to Indigenize the academy within the academy in Australia, and likely in other First Nation states, will require a constant vigilance. It is hard, given the many years that Indigenous academics and others have been trying to facilitate and engender a safe, respectful place of Indigenous peoples at all levels with the academy not to feel/become somewhat disillusioned with the very slow pace of progress. It is also not hard to feel that despite all our efforts that there remains a very central lack of understanding within the academy of what we mean by Indigenous knowledges, and why it is so vital that these have a central place within our academies knowledge systems. The risk of reversion, even when considerable progress has been made, also remains.

How to move forward with optimism? Acceptance that the process of Indigenizing the academy and the place of our knowledges is an on-going and likely long-term project is one key strategy. Continuing to build the published scholarship in the area of Indigenous knowledges, across First Nations peoples and across nation states, also will help maintain momentum and ensure that the lessons learned and strategies enacted in one institution or geographic location can be accessed by those outside of those places, now, and into the future. Finally, we need to recognize that our efforts, while frequently feeling undervalued and/or misunderstood, are worthwhile and will benefit not only the current generation of students and scholars, but those in generations to come.


  1. Beck U, Beck-Gernsheim E (2002) Individualization. Sage, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Behrendt Report (2012) Review of higher education access & outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Behrendt Review). Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  3. Bobo L (1997) Race, public opinion, and the social sphere. Public Opin Q 61(1 special issue on Race (spring)):1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bonilla-Silva E (2010) Racism without racists: colour-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States, 3rd edn. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, MarylandGoogle Scholar
  5. Butler K (2006) (Re)presenting Indigeneity: the possibilities of Australian sociology. J Sociol 42:369–381CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Department of Education and Training (1989) National Aboriginal Education Policy. Accessed 27 September 2017
  7. Harvey D (2005) A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  8. Held D (1990) Introduction to critical theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Polity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  9. Hollinsworth D (2006) Race and racism in Australia. Thomson, South MelbourneGoogle Scholar
  10. Horkheimer M (1996) Critique of instrumental reason: lectures and essays since the end of World War II. Continuum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Kinder DR, Sears DO (1981) Prejudice and politics: symbolic racism versus racial threats to the good life. J Pers Soc Psychol 40(3):414–431CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kruske S, Kildea S, Barclay L (2006) Cultural safety and maternity care for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Women and Birth 19(3):73–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lipsitz G (2006) The possessive investment in whiteness: how white people profit from identity politics. Temple University Press, PhiladelphiaGoogle Scholar
  14. Mapstone E (1995) Rational men and conciliatory women: graduate psychologists construct accounts of argument. Feminism and Psychology 5(1):61–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Martin K (2008) Please knock before you enter: Aboriginal regulation of outsiders and the implications for researchers. Post Press, Teneriffe, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  16. McConville G (2002) Regional agreements, higher education and representations of Indigenous Australian reality (Why wasn’t I taught that in school?), Australian Universities’ Review, 45(1):15–24Google Scholar
  17. Moreton-Robinson A, Walter M, Singh D, Kimber M (2011) On stony ground: governance and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in Australian universities. In: Report to the review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Commissioned for the Behrendt Review by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  18. Stewart J, Allan J (2013) Building relationships with Aboriginal people: a cultural mapping toolbox. Aust Soc Work 66(1):118–129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Walter M (2011) Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander presence: opening knowledge pathways. In: Commissioned for the Behrendt review of Indigenous higher education by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, Canberra. May 2011Google Scholar
  20. Walter M (2014) Indigeneity and citizenship in Australia. In: Isin EF, Nyers P (eds) Routledge handbook of global citizenship studies. Routledge, London, pp 557–567Google Scholar
  21. Walter M (2015) The race bind: how the denial of Australian Aboriginal Rights continues. In: Green J (ed) Indigenous human rights. Fernwood Press, Novia ScotiaGoogle Scholar
  22. Walter M, Butler K (2013) Teaching race to teach indigeneity. J Sociol 49(4):397–410CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Walter M, Robertson B (2009) Scoping an Indigenous centre of researcher development, Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  24. Walter M, Habibis D, Taylor S (2011) How White is Australian social work? Aust Soc Work 64(1):6–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Walter M, Maynard J, Nakata M, Milroy J (2008) Strengthening Indigenous research. In: Njapartji, Njapartji-Yerra: stronger futures, Report of the 2007. Indigenous Higher Education Council Conference. Adelaide. Commonwealth of Australia, CanberraGoogle Scholar
  26. Walter M, Taylor S, Habibis D (2012) Australian Social Work is White. In: Bennett B, Green S, Gilbert S, Bessarab D (eds) Our Voices: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Work. Palgrave Press, SydneyGoogle Scholar
  27. Wilson S (2008) Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Fernwood Press, HalifaxGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social SciencesUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • George Sefa Dei
    • 1
  • Jean-Paul Restoule
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.OISE, University of TorontoTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult EducationOntario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Dept. of Indigenous EducationUniversity of VictoriaVictoriaCanada

Personalised recommendations