Priorities Behind University’s Indigenous Students Support Questioned

Max Hall brings you the story behind the press releases.

In the wake of the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Freedom Ride, the University of Sydney has attempted to position itself as an emerging leader in Indigenous Tertiary Education.

The statement, “It’s time Australia’s First Peoples came first” headlined Sydney University’s extensive marketing campaign throughout 2014, acting as a precursor to their plans. In addition to funding a recreation of the original Freedom Ride, the University established a new scholarship for Indigenous students, and publicly committed to a 65% increase in Indigenous student numbers by 2016. A request for donations states that the intention of the new scholarship is to “provide support to Aboriginal students who need help with accommodation and other costs associated with studying at Sydney.”

Some students have questioned whether USyd’s claim to leadership in this area is accurate, particularly when compared to services and support offered to Indigenous students at other universities. In recent years, the services provided by the Koori Centre have been wound back. The dedicated support staff that once worked from the Centre’s space in the Old Teacher’s College are now fewer in number; many have now shifted to work as a part of the Student Retention team in Student Services.

Instead, the National Centre for Cultural Competency, established in 2014, has taken responsibility. Delivering a “whole-of-university approach” to “build and strengthen social inclusion”, the Centre integrates cultural sensitivity to Indigenous issues into curriculum, teaching and research practices. The Centre’s focus is understood to be primarily research based.

By contrast, UTS’s Jumbunna House of Learning provides similar facilities to the Koori Centre. With dedicated Indigenous Student Support Officers, they provide one-on-one advice on academic work and support students in finding housing and navigating university. At UWS, Student Support Officers work in the same capacity from the Badanami Centre. UNSW’s Nura Gili gives students access

to Academic Support Officers who help them navigate university administration. All of the above universities, including USyd, participate in the government funded Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme which provides one-on-one academic support.

Students’ Representative Council Indigenous Officer, Nathan Sheldon- Anderson, expressed concerns about plans to rapidly increase Indigenous student numbers without a corresponding increase in support services. “If they believe that the current support is appropriate for the current population then logically an increase in the Indigenous student population would necessitate an increase in support,” he said.

It is undoubtedly positive that the University is seeking to quickly increase numbers of Indigenous students. Whether this automatically translates to being a leader in supporting Indigenous students remains to be seen.