Letters //

Let’s have some facts about Wingara Mura

A letter from Shane Houston.

One of the great things about The University of Sydney is that it’s a place of debate. Debate includes both opinion and facts. The article Uni Failing Indigenous Students (Webster and Blakeney Honi Week 5 Semester 1) is an example of two people’s opinions about the university’s commitment to Wingara Mura, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education strategy. I think it’s important that I inject some facts into this debate because the good work of so many staff and students deserves more than uninformed derision.

The authors seem to have a problem with me being focused on Wingara Mura, my pet project as they call it. They think my effort and the effort of many has been a failure.

Unfortunately the article was just factually wrong about access to student support services. The move of Aboriginal student support from the Koori Centre to Jane Foss Russell has not meant Aboriginal students have lost out or that they are being left behind. The Koori Centre common room, library and computer facilities are still there and they are still used.

The student support team has gone from two to seven full time staff, providing enhanced individualised case management and targeted support. Contacts with students have improved dramatically and access to tutorial support and other academic advice has also improved. More Aboriginal students are engaging in events organised by Student Support. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are talking to senior mentors in the university, helping their first year transition to university life. Wingara Mura supported students, including one of the authors, to participate in the National Indigenous University Games in 2013. These are all terrific initiatives.

When they say that Wingara Mura is not being implemented, that it exists only on paper, they are just plain wrong again. The fact is that in 2013 every faculty and many professional service units developed local implementation plans that to their credit are already delivering worthwhile gains.

The Wingara Mura Bunga Barrabugu Summer Program brought more than 200 university staff and students together with about 220 young talented Aboriginal people from all over Australia in an exciting on campus programme. These Year 9 – 12 high school students were excited and encouraged by their time at the University. The program and the university team really delivered; 98% of the program participants felt more motivated to achieve at school and 98% saw university as a real option for them.

I think the authors are confused about the $60million mentioned in the article. We have received more than $5million to support new scholarships for Aboriginal people who want to study at Sydney but couldn’t because their families need their salary pay the bills. Successful negotiations have now paved the way for the implement this important Wingara Mura initiative.

We have received more than $5million to establish the National Centre for Cultural Competence (NCCC), the first academic unit of its kind in the country. This is not just about research, the NCCC will work across learning and teaching, student outcomes and research and scholarship. The NCCC is about working ethically and effectively in spaces where there is more than one culture in play. This is something Aboriginal people have argued for over many years. We are in the middle of recruiting staff to this exciting initiative. This innovation is all part of Wingara Mura.

 We are keen to make the possibility of study at the University of Sydney a reality for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Why would anyone object to that? I thought that they would support more of our mob getting to the University. And we are seeing results. Over the last 3 years Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander have shown more interest in coming to the University as a destination and we are increasingly a university of first choice. The number of offers to students is also increasing and the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enrolling at Sydney is also up.

Debate is important and it is something that is part of our DNA. But debate should be informed by the facts and unfortunately the article was not informed or factual. The authors of the article can attack me personally but Wingara Mura is more than me.  It’s about a great many people doing great things. Why are we all so committed to Wingara Mura? Because we believe Sydney can make a difference, we can be Australia’s leading university in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education and because our mob deserve a fair go.

Shane Houston
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services)