In recent weeks, conversations about higher education have focused primarily on rising tuition fees. Although the decision to pursue higher education is clearly affected by the cost of tuition, factors such as cultural support and respect for identity can be even stronger determinants of both access and success. In Canada, such factors are especially key in attracting and retaining indigenous students and academics.
Canada's indigenous population is growing at a rate three times the national average, yet according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, "the attainment level for Aboriginal students at university is just one-third that of their non-Aboriginal peers". Paradoxically, even the language of the AUCC's expression of support highlights the difficulties in discussing this issue: although the Constitution Act of Canada uses the term "Aboriginal" and many indigenous groups prefer it to "Indian" or "native", members of the Anishinabek Nation have challenged its use as an unacceptable homogenising of the unique identities of Metis, Inuit and First Nations peoples.
The enduring presence of colonial language signals a broader historical inheritance. Despite a stated commitment to change, the federal government retains its archaic "Indian Act" established more than a century ago, and it was only in November 2010 that Canada ratified the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, leaving the US as the lone holdout. The politics of higher education are inextricably intertwined with broader issues of land claims, sovereignty and self-determination.
So why do so few indigenous young people progress to university, and why do many of those who do experience difficulties? First Nations leaders have pointed to the entrenched structures of the academy as significant barriers to inclusiveness. Universities are famously resistant to forms of knowledge that fall outside the empirical inquiry models that have been in place since the Enlightenment, and studies in indigenous cultures too frequently retain an air of anthropology rather than engaging seriously with indigenous knowledge systems.
The professionalisation of the academy also plays a role, as both scholars and administrators seek to "protect" faculty privileges by insisting on conventional criteria for appointment. A recent report by my university's Aboriginal Council recommended the appointment of indigenous elders to faculty positions and a refocusing of tenure requirements to value community engagement as an alternative to research publication. However, even institutions such as Trent University, with a long history of indigenous studies, are locked in debate over "tenure for elders".
The phrase most often used to describe the necessary change is "indigenizing the academy", defined by University of Victoria academic Gerald Taiaiake Alfred in his essay "Warrior scholarship" as "working to change universities so that they become places where the values, principles, and modes of organization and behaviour of our people are respected in, and hopefully integrated into, the larger system of structures and processes that make up the university itself".
Change never comes easily to the academy, but until institutions find better ways to acknowledge, respect and indeed integrate their knowledge systems, higher education will remain a vision rather than a reality for many indigenous students.