An Aboriginal inspiration

June 28, 1996

Colin Bourke describes the campaign for an indigenous university. Indigenous Australians have made a significant impact on higher education over the past few decades. In 1974, only 55 Aboriginal people were at university. By 1995, there were 5,600 enrolments in post-secondary education.

All universities now have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, most in mainstream courses. But drop-out rates are high despite academic support programmes. One problem is the Anglo-Saxon cultural content of both courses and the system itself. That is why indigenous staff have formed the Australian Indigenous Higher Education Association to promote and advance indigenous education. Now they are calling for the establishment of an indigenous university.

In many parts of the world indigenous or fourth-world people have endeavoured to escape the yoke of colonial status. They have sought to found their own institutions offering post-schooling education. Some have been independent institutions, others have been affiliates and others integrated into established institutions.

All fourth-world peoples face threats to the survival of their cultures. But despite past negative experiences, most see education as a means to ensure its perpetuation. When the British colonised Australia, Aboriginal Australians lost their geographic isolation, sovereignty and control of their education. To retain those aspects of our culture important to us we must gain control of our own education.

An indigenous university would be a first step in establishing an indigenous intellectual life and producing professionals, including academics qualified to teach indigenous curricula in schools and beyond.

Universities are said to have three main roles: to be custodians of human knowledge through libraries and scholars; to create new knowledge through scholarship and research; and to pass that knowledge and the methods by which it has been obtained and created, on to others.

There is debate about what would be the best model for an indigenous university in Australia. An amalgamation of the 37 existing Aboriginal higher education programmes, which receive support funding, has been suggested as a possibility.

This would centralise government funding but ignores the fact that most Aboriginal programmes are at present involved with student support and not teaching.

Another proposed model would aim to be "the keeping place or the custodial body which holds and protects all the knowledge that has been gathered and is known about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people". It would also promote scholarship and research that extended this knowledge.

One simple way to achieve this would be to turn the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies into a university. The institute is located in Canberra with some 50 staff and the largest collection in the world of reference material (print, audio and visual) on indigenous Australians. The institute would give the new university an enormous start in terms of both substance and knowledge.

Some mainstream universities, such as the Australian National University, have shown that universities do not have to start by offering undergraduate programmes before proceeding to postgraduate and higher degree courses. The ANU is a different model of university organisation. As a research-oriented university it provides graduate training to scholars of exceptional ability and distinction.

The proponents of an indigenous university might well adapt this model to a contemporary setting. The indigenous university could start with research and postgraduate studies using communication technologies available today - post-audio and video-broadcasting or taping, telephone and facsimile, and computer communications to deliver courses and provide the interactivity of educational practices and communication. It could offer flexible approaches to teaching and learning, supervision and collaboration.

Based on the ANU experience, an indigenous university could begin by offering postgraduate research degrees. The incorporation of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies into the university would give it established research activity. Postgraduate scholars would provide an indigenous resource base to offer undergraduate studies later. By then, indigenous Australians would then be able to receive an indigenous university education and cultural survival would be a reality.

Colin J. Bourke is dean of the faculty of Aboriginal and islander studies at the University of South Australia.

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