London university develops ‘Indigenous-led’ teaching and research

King’s College London moves opens debate over role of such knowledge in countries without significant Aboriginal populations

May 23, 2019
Source: Alamy

King’s College London has unveiled the UK’s first “Indigenous-led” research and teaching effort, sparking debate about the role of such knowledge in countries without significant Indigenous populations of their own.

The King’s Indigenous initiative, which has an initial focus on health and education, aims to develop research collaborations between the university’s academics and experts in Indigenous knowledge – for example, between researchers in medicine and traditional healing.

The programme also plans to develop optional modules on Indigenous health and culture, which could develop in the longer term into a full degree.

The initiative’s architects say that King’s Indigenous sets out to “develop innovative approaches to global challenges by exploring, testing and applying First Peoples-centred concepts and practices of research, exchange and teaching” and to “build new, ‘decolonised’, robust, nurturing and sustainable structures of pedagogy”.

Ian Henderson, director of the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s, said that greater awareness of cross-cultural working could be very useful for trainee doctors in the UK, and particularly those who went on to work internationally and had dealings with “the 370 million First People alive in the world today”.

While it was valuable to be exposed to other ways of thinking, Dr Henderson saw a particular significance in Australian Indigenous Knowledge, given that “Aboriginal Australians have the longest continuous culture in the world”. “They have managed to live through other periods of climate change and sustain their culture,” suggesting that their knowledge could contain “a vital quality we want to build into any form of knowledge or technological development if we want to survive as a race”, he said.

Australian and Canadian universities in particular have made significant efforts to “indigenise” higher education, both in terms of recruiting and supporting more Indigenous students and faculty. However, some critics of attempts to build Indigenous medicine and science into university curricula have argued that “respect” for such knowledge and the authority of “elders” can mean that it is not adequately tested according to academic standards.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said that the King’s initiative would have to guard against this.

“When I read things [on the King’s website] like ‘innovate at the intersection of multiple cultures of knowing, researching and teaching’, I ask myself what they really mean. Call me sceptical, but I fear that such terminology might invite quackery and worse,” Professor Ernst said.

Other academics have praised the King’s initiative. Serena Masino, lecturer in international development at the University of Westminster, said that it was “informed by the objective to decolonise at least part of the medical knowledge we rely on today”. Although this did not “mean invalidating or undermining biomedical knowledge in any way”, she said, bringing Indigenous medical knowledge from Australia and beyond into the curriculum could lead to benefits “from improved ways of environmental conservation down to alternative ways of providing psychological support to patients from different backgrounds residing in the UK”, while also playing a “crucial role in conflict or public health emergency interventions”.

Victoria Grieve-Williams, an honorary Indigenous research fellow at the University of Sydney, pointed to “the fact of the Indigenous peoples being the ‘sentinels’ for the Anthropocene – they are increasingly living the marginalised, uncertain and unstable lives that the rest of humanity also face into the future”. Furthermore, “Aboriginal philosophy shares much in common with other Indigenous philosophies and has many applications in diverse areas, globally”, notably in the fields of “well-being and human resilience”, she argued.

Dr Henderson said that King’s was in part responding to the desires of Australian partner universities to “develop aspirations for international careers for their Indigenous leaders”. Fifteen national health leadership fellows from the University of Melbourne’s Poche Centre for Indigenous Health are currently visiting London, coinciding with an exhibition, The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Bush Medicine, which celebrates 65,000 years of healing practices through contemporary art and runs at Bush House until 28 June.

In Dr Henderson’s view, there was “always robust debate within Indigenous communities about any knowledge”. Projects are likely to focus on Australian Aboriginal knowledge initially, but could branch out to other First Nation cultures globally in future.

“There are certain protocols about the sharing of the knowledge, but once the knowledge is shared, I have great confidence in its robustness and no anxiety about it being put up for any form of testing which is respectful and directly engaged with the custodians of that knowledge. Anything taught at university has to stand up to the critical gaze,” Dr Henderson said.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Call to widen ‘indigenisation’ of curricula

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