Uni failing Indigenous students

The road to hell is indeed paved with ‘good’ intentions, write Laura Webster and Kyol Blakeney.


Update: Kyol Blakeney has since written a letter regarding this article. The writer(s) in no way mean to criticise or downplay the work of the student support team who are always extremely dedicated, hardworking, and have always offered support and guidance.

In its various attempts to strengthen and grow its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, the University of Sydney has obliterated it.

In 2011, USyd appointed Professor Shane Houston as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Strategies and Services, an important step for the University developing Indigenous culture on campus. At the time, it seemed as though Indigenous students and staff finally would finally have a person in upper level management we could rely on to act in our best interests. In 2014, we can now say for certain that we were wrong.

Universities such as UNSW, UTS, and UWS have a wide range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student support services and structures, including cultural advisory councils, elders in residence, and 24-hour access to safe spaces where support staff are permanently located. Such services are non-existent at USyd, which compounds the loss of our only support network, the Koori Centre.

Since his appointment Houston has consistently undermined the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community that USyd students and staff have worked decades to create. The University’s website features a staff profile where Houston explains that, “We used to march in the street, but now we’ve found ways of sitting down and moving forward together.” Perhaps Houston actually meant, ‘We’ve found ways of sitting down and moving forward in the direction that I want.’

To date, Houston has moved student support staff from their accessible location in the Koori Centre to a fifth-floor office across campus. He has stopped Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ITAS) sessions from being held within the computer lab. He has consistently ignored input from Indigenous students, making them feel disrespected and disempowered.

Students within the Koori Centre have stated that Houston’s method of student consultation leaves much to be desired. Typically, consultation only occurs after strategies and policies have already been approved and implemented by the university – and that’s if it occurs at all.

Houston can hardly claim to be ignorant of our wishes. He has been presented with several petitions, he has attended students meetings to hear our grievances, and he had witnessed the mass rally held at the end of 2012 protesting his changes to the Koori Centre.

Currently, Houston’s pet project is the Wingara Muara – Bunga Barrabugu strategy. The strategy looks good on paper, with a purported focus on increasing student engagement in tertiary education. However, it is undercut by the total absence of implementation and action plans.

The Indigenous Strategies and Services (ISS) Department is quick to remind us that similar plans have been deployed at various universities around the world. But, while they appear to be working well on these campuses, at USyd, they are failing. We believe this is because the Centre for Cultural Competence (which is highly focussed on research) is replacing the student support hub the Koori Centre once provided.

Such action is particularly disappointing for a University that states, “We believe in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation at every level of our study, work and research”. One of the key tenets of Wingara Muara is purportedly its focus on recognising Indigenous Students’ “rights, opportunity and capability”. But in reality, the ISS department is doing the opposite; it is destroying the sense of community and belonging that once existed in the now-crumbling Koori Centre.

Houston is quick to boast the ISS department receives several Commonwealth grants, which provided more than $60 million in 2013. Current students, however, have yet to see how these funds have benefitted them directly.

December 2013 alone saw the department receive $15 million in Commonwealth grants, a portion of which is aimed at establishing an engagement plan to entice Indigenous youth to attend the University of Sydney. These figures are startling to the Indigenous students who had enrolled prior to 2014. They are being left behind both in support and funding, which all seems to be due to the lack of concern that Wingara Muara has for current students.

In fact, Indigenous enrolment and retention rates have dropped as a proportion of total enrolment from one per cent in 2010 to 0.82 per cent in 2012.* Is this decline a product of Wingara Muara or the losses to accessible student support? It’s difficult to say. We can say however, that as members of the Koori Centre who have seen firsthand the changes Houston has implemented, we’re not optimistic about our future.

Koori Centre students have been informed that student support staff have been allocated a part-time office in the Old Teachers College, and that academic staff have been relocated to the Arts and Education faculties across the road.

While some may see this as a win, we say it is nothing more than a token gesture. It merely gives the appearance the University is listening to its discontented students. After all, it was Houston who moved support staff in the first place. Deb Reid, Senior Manager of Trust and Engagement at the ISS, has stated that changes “will not happen overnight”.

She further asserts the ISS department is working hard to create a functioning and inclusive space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and that it’s engaging in discussions with faculties to improve on their accessibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

It seems, however, that Wingara Muara is more concerned with pushing for a high volume of enrolments at the expense of providing quality support and a culturally safe space that welcomes current Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

*At the time of publication, enrollment figures for 2014 were not available.