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Deep Divisions Over Uni Reconciliation

19 June 2015

On 18 March 2015, at the 2015 University Wominjeka (Indigenous Welcome), the University of Melbourne formally launched its second Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). In his foreword to the plan, Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis declares RAP 2’s intent to “maintain and build on earlier commitments” to the University’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) students and staff, more broadly engage the student and staff communities in cultural exchanges, and bolster the profile of ATSI peoples and values on campus.

One of the plan’s key aims is reaching population parity for ATSI representation in staff and student numbers: currently, Indigenous Australians make up 2.6 per cent of the national population but only 0.9 per cent of staff (approx.) and 0.4 percent of students. The plan declares 2020 as its target year for parity in staff representation, requiring an increase of 20 staff per year, and 2050 for student parity, at an increase of five per cent in the proportion of Indigenous students admitted to the graduate and undergraduate courses each year.

The process of developing RAP 2 was initiated by the University in 2013, seeking the advice of Indigenous Elders to work with academic and administrative staff to review progress made in the wake of RAP 1. Created itself in 2010, RAP 1 formed part of Reconciliation Australia’s national RAP program, which encourages organisations around the country to develop formal documented plans which consider and detail how they might leverage their role in the community to promote reconciliation, equality, and harmony between Indigenous and other Australians.

Within a higher education context, the University of Melbourne’s RAP reinforces its commitment to integrating Indigenous development programs into existing accountability frameworks and core activities of teaching and learning, and research and engagement. As such, RAP 2 details a number of bureaucracies put in place to ensure that the entire university structure is comprehensively working towards reconciliation outcomes such as inclusion, including an additional Indigenous Outcomes Report to be published in April of each year, detailing the progress of RAP 2 and the University’s other commitments to Indigenous development.

One such example is the Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, established in 2009 to oversee the university-wide impact of programs targeted at ATSI students. As part of their role in developing RAP 2, Murrup Barak consulted with Indigenous staff and students at the University to gather their perspectives on the major priorities to be recognised within the plan. This process came in the form of a series of formal drafting panels, meetings between Murrup Barak staff (the majority of whom are non-Indigenous) and Indigenous student leaders on campus throughout the consultation period, as well as more broadly open student consultation sessions.

Moreover, a RAP Working Group was created in September of last year, consisting of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous university staff. The purpose of the group was to develop a draft RAP which took into consideration the grassroots suggestions of the campus community before it was presented to the University Executive in December.

Former Indigenous Officer to the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU), Maddee Clark, who participated in the Murrup Barak consultations, expressed concern for the transparency and efficacy of the process. Clark flagged a lack of indication that the suggestions of student representatives were being taken seriously in the drafting process and decision making as a major letdown, citing meeting minutes which failed to include their additions and having to wait “2-3 months to get responses in writing to very simple questions” as sources of frustration. Further to this Clark criticised the RAP itself, saying that the absence of stipulations regarding “Indigenous student and staff quality of life, racism among teaching staff, Indigenous student poverty and housing, and appropriate health services” pointed to an abdication of responsibility on the part of the University for tangible matters of inequity. Clark said of the RAP “It should be exclusively written by the Indigenous community on campus without non-Indigenous people mediating or controlling the process to suit their own interests”, and iterated that the fixation of the University upon parity numbers and externally measurable indicators of Indigenous inclusion (manifest in a RAP proposed annual update of enrolment/staff numbers published each November) led to a glossing over of underlying issues such as precarious employment and student disillusionment.

Clark’s successor to the role, current UMSU Indigenous Officer Tyson Holloway-Clarke, stated similar concerns, saying that the unnecessarily convoluted language in the report was indicative of a “tokenistic approach from the vice-chancellory” towards reconciliation action. In particular, Holloway-Clarke highlighted the claimed intent to form partnerships with ATSI communities as part of the RAP as an action which distracted from much needed campus services and, based on similar claims in the past, was unlikely to come to fruition.

Manager of Partnerships and Development at Murrup Barak, Ellen Day, stressed that RAP’s focus on parity numbers is an important measure in closing the gap in ATSI student engagement in higher education. Day noted a “15 percent increase [in intake] between 2014 and 2015” as a result of the University’s national recruitment program and partnerships with schools around the country as crucial in encouraging more Indigenous students to seek out university by promoting awareness of tertiary education options in different communities. Day also expressed the need to improve the proportion of Indigenous students completing university degrees, currently at just 35 per cent. While Holloway-Clarke stated that RAP “palmed off responsibility to academic faculties and schools”, Day cited the success of the University’s Onemda VicHealth Koori Health Unit and the Willen Centre at the Victorian College of the Arts as examples of the unique capabilities of faculty-specific planning and program development.


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