There is no ambiguity in Professor Michael McDaniel’s vision for what Indigenous higher education should look like. It is, he says “something that is for all Australians”. While providing opportunities for Indigenous people in a sector where they have been consistently underrepresented is a vital focus, prioritising Indigenous higher education also presents both an opportunity and a responsibility for non-Indigenous people – “it means the opportunity to learn something of substance in relation to this land, and this 2,000 generations of heritage that we are all connected to in some way – and I think Indigenous education also means for non-Indigenous people the requirement to be professionally capable when it comes to Indigenous people”. For McDaniel, this is part of a broader process in considering the historical legacies of Australia, which have by and large, excluded Indigenous people from being part of the social fabric of the country – “You can in fact be a non-Indigenous person in Australia, live your whole life and never have an Indigenous friend. And in some ways we live in a kind of apartheid, where you can live in this land for generations and not have any connection to anything beyond the commencement of your family’s time, European arrival.”

“…We’ve been separated from the economic system, and non-Indigenous people have been separated from us, and from knowledge about us. And that’s a burden that the entire society carries. We are all diminished as Australians, as a nation, because of that legacy. So, that’s why I think Indigenous education is important, it’s about creating an Australian society in which all people can thrive, including Indigenous people. And one in which we take a greater pride in the land and the legacy of culture that we have here. And my hope is that one day, as a society we are comfortable enough to stop seeing ourselves as a society with two separate strands, but one society that sees itself as being a place of human civilisation, of culture, of philosophy, of spirituality, astronomy, mathematics, of land management and agriculture, of social organisation, that’s 2000 generations old.”

A whole of University approach

McDaniel tracks a turning point at UTS back to 2011, starting with the decision to use a ‘whole of University approach’, on the basis “that Indigenous education is everyone’s responsibility, and that we’re all the beneficiaries of Indigenous education”. This brought together a number of initiatives, including the Indigenous Education and Employment Policy, which sets out a number of objectives, clear principles guiding the achievement of those objectives, as well as governance and leadership structures overseeing the approach. This policy closely connects to additional strategies, including the Wingarra Indigenous Employment Strategy and the Indigenous Education Strategy (which also covers research). McDaniel sees this initiative as emblematic of a number of aims. “One was to ensure that we were aligning the University with national Indigenous higher education objectives, as well as international principles that applied to Indigenous people, as set out in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.” Equally as important was the alignment of the strategies with an unwavering principle of Indigenous self-determination, which McDaniel explains “in itself is an internationally recognised right, in the declaration of the rights of Indigenous people. So through our policy, and our strategies, we are setting in train the wishes and aspirations of Indigenous people. And in fact, the first principle of our policy is Indigenous self-determination.” The policy and strategies were also formulated specifically to ensure that the goals set out are achievable, can be reported on, and that all responsible are accountable for achieving the set goals.

Results of the UTS approach

With the current Indigenous strategies coming to their renewal period at the end of 2018, McDaniel has now been tasked with taking UTS from being a national leader in this sector to a global leader in Indigenous higher education and research by 2023, which he sees as “a great ambition, and it’s really just building on our existing strengths and achievements.”

And he has plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what can be achieved through the Indigenous higher education policies he has already implemented at UTS. Since the implementation of the Indigenous Education and Employment Policy:

  • Undergraduate student enrolments have increased by 30%
  • A 10% increase in Undergraduate student success rates, and a 13% increase in student retention
  • A 400% increase in research student enrolments, an overall 3.5% participation rate, and a retention rate 6% higher than non-Indigenous students (among the highest in the sector)
  • 58% of Indigenous students have had an international experience, against a target goal of 25% of all students
  • UTS has 2.4% employment rate, above the sector average of 1.1%
  • Where many universities rely on one or two Indigenous Professors or Associate Professors, UTS has a total of 14 across the entire University

McDaniel acknowledges that there are still gaps to close between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, but the achievements that have come as a result of the UTS policies and strategies are huge leaps, particularly for a sector which has often remained conservative regarding change in this arena.

The Indigenous Graduate Attribute

From late 2014, UTS has been committed to the Indigenous Graduate Attribute (IGA), being “a commitment that all UTS graduates will have a professional capacity to work with and for Indigenous people. And that’s an assessed capacity, not simply a presumed capacity. So by doing this kind of thing we hope to not only influence the sector, but also the professions over time, and ensure there’s a greater comfort and capability to engage with Indigenous people in solving some of the challenges that exist for Indigenous people”. McDaniel says that it’s a project that has come into being with significant leadership and guidance from the Centre of the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges, partnering with faculties across the University.

It’s difficult to comprehend just how large and complex the IGA project is – all 44,000 UTS students are guided by and benefit from it in some area of their studies. And as McDaniel explains, there are many potential sensitivities that must be considered in the process – “it’s not only just a complex project in the sense of academically, intellectually, on a curriculum basis, what it might mean, it’s also challenging emotionally and psychologically for people as they engage in it. And while it is also a project that has the potential for incredible value, and positive impact, if not done well, from an Indigenous student perspective, it has the potential to be damaging. So we have to engage with it intellectually, emotionally, we have to do it seriously, and slowly, and in some ways the project itself goes to the heart of our national identity. The reason this project is so hard, is because of the histories that we’ve inherited, the sensitivities we’ve inherited.”

Overcoming the challenges Indigenous Australians face on the path to education

Building a university model that includes and allows Indigenous higher education to thrive requires a deep understanding of the obstacles that Indigenous people face in trying to access education at all levels. McDaniel says “apart from perhaps the education system itself, and the curriculum in the education system, and the teaching methodologies in the education system not necessarily working, and that’s possibly for more people, not just Indigenous people, it’s not working well” and that the education system is delivered “on the basis of a number of presumptions about a child’s home, family and economic stability. So you can see how the education system itself is not prepared to deliver to Indigenous students. As it’s not prepared to deliver to many people who aren’t in those ideal socioeconomic circumstances.”

On how his work is influenced by his own experience with the education system, McDaniel says:

“my personal experience of education, as would be the experience of many Indigenous people of my generation, was of an unpleasant experience, it was to be avoided at all cost on a daily basis. I certainly didn’t enjoy school, school didn’t enjoy me. And when I left at the age of 14 I think we were both glad to see the last of each other. Education had not been part of my family’s experience and the educational experience had been for most of my family members I think, unpleasant, humiliating, irrelevant and something that should be finished as soon as possible, so you can get out in the workforce. So that’s what I was born into, that world, and I was also born into a world in which Indigenous people are not successfully engaging with the education system, and to flip that, the education system is not successfully engaging with Indigenous people. When it’s not happening on such a large scale, it’s not because of individual Indigenous people, obviously the system is failing.”

“…I’m the result of an Indigenous pathways program into a university. I didn’t have a High School Certificate, I didn’t have a leaving school certificate. In fact, I had barely engaged with the education system at all. But I was given, at the age of 24, after kicking around doing a whole lot of jobs that included security work, and being in the army, and working on dairy farms, and being a shop assistant – it really gave me a second chance in life. And that really demonstrated to me, that personal experience – one, the value of education, but secondly, the potential that we have in so many people, that the education system just simply fails. Society is, the poorer, every time that we don’t take the opportunity to develop someone who wants more from life.”

It’s a passion for helping others and changing the culture of Australian higher education that drives McDaniel. He reflects on how the application process at UTS often reveals how much Indigenous students want to use their own experiences to help their communities. “So every time we graduate an Indigenous student, we’re graduating someone who will engage in a life of work and contribution, to the benefit of their own people. You know we might have them for three years, but for the next sixty or more years, they’re going to be making a contribution to their own people in Australian society, and that’s what really excites me.”

Feature image is courtesy of the Office of Indigenous Engagement and Leadership. 

Many thanks to Natasha Mitchell and Shannan Dodson for their assistance in facilitating this interview. 

  • This is the kind of attitude Id like to see in schools now for my Aboriginal grandchildren. Already the system has failed them and school is a real trial and they are thought of as problems. We also need more culture camps in our communities like we used to have

    • Hi Catherine, I’m really sorry to hear that your grandchildren have had such a negative experience, they deserve better. I agree with you about culture camps, having more of them available would deliver some great opportunities for kids. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Thanks for this article. I wholeheartedly agree, Professor McDaniel, that it’s vital for us all to develop “a professional capacity to work with and for Indigenous people” and that “intellectually, emotionally, we have to do it seriously, and slowly, and [our individual and corporate evolution] … goes to the heart of our national identity …because of the histories that we’ve inherited, the sensitivities we’ve inherited.” For me too, education had not been part of my Aboriginal family’s experience and was for most of us was “unpleasant, humiliating and irrelevant”. My experience of education was complicated by rifts that occurred in the 1940’s between family members who acknowledged their Aboriginal identities and those who did not. Not that we know very much at all, but that is changing, thanks to education. Rifts are healing as my generation reconnects to share our stories. It takes time for some of us (me!) to overcome disdain for authority figures. It takes time to find our teachers, and to experience the power of knowledge.

    • Hi Lisa, thank you for reading and for your thoughtful comment! Those stories are so important, and it’s encouraging to hear that you’re seeing change in this area.

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