“We’re about providing a balanced education that tells the truth.”

Juanita Sherwood, Professor of Australian Indigenous Education, UTS

On 29 and 30 November, UTS hosted the Indigenous Higher Education Curriculum Conference (IHECC) to support the advancement of the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy 2022-25. Two days of presentation, discussion and debate offered a culturally safe space for academics to share their scholarship and insights on Indigenous curriculum design, development and delivery, fostering a process for collaboration to build a national and international community of practice. 

After a warm Welcome to Country by proud Wiradjuri woman Aunty Yvonne Weldon, and introduction from Conference Convenor Associate Professor Annette Gainsford, Associate Dean Indigenous Teaching and Learning, a keynote address from Juanita Sherwood (Professor of Australian Indigenous Education at UTS) set the tone for the day. Focussing on social justice themes including the costs and impacts of systemic racism and the need for cultural safety in health services and beyond, Juanita highlighted our shared responsibilities as educators and leaders in higher education to both confront the past and work to de-colonise current curriculum.

Read on for a few highlights from Day 1 of the Conference, including further resources to explore on many of the themes arising.

Cultural safety and humility as key foundations

Everyone who steps into a hospital bed is diminished in power.

Kate Robinson, Australian Catholic University

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience 2.3x more hospitalisations than non-Indigenous people. They are also less likely to access services and more likely to leave hospital early or not attend. As several of our speakers noted, these statistics are exacerbated by complex factors, but a key theme throughout the day was the issue of cultural safety.

Cultural safety is not about cultural identity or traditions, but focusses on the individual and how they are impacted by the power imbalances in settings such as hospitals and other healthcare providers. As Ali Moloney, a registered nurse and educational team leader from TAFE Queensland noted in her session, it is the responsibility of healthcare practitioners and educators to better understand the history and systems that contribute to this imbalance, and to develop the knowledge, skills and more importantly, attitudes that impact patient experiences and outcomes:

Nursing is like building a house – without a foundation of communication as well as anatomy and physiology, it’s hard to build curriculum.

Ali Moloney, TAFE Queensland

Along with cultural safety, speakers noted that cultural humility must also be a key focus, requiring self-reflection and engagement in learning, dialogue and communication. Echoing this theme, Nursing Lecturer Kate Robinson (ACU) shared learnings from her work with nursing students on cultural safety, in particular focussing on the use of Yarning Circles in tutorial settings. A traditional method of communication used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for millennia, this approach encourages deep learning, critical thinking and can help to cultivate culturally safe communication.

Challenging systems and legacies: law and libraries

Aside from healthcare, many systems were discussed during the day where attention is needed to tackle entrenched attitudes and often tacit assumptions which impact experiences and outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Deanne Holmes (University of Adelaide Library) spoke about positioning academic libraries as places of cultural safety to enable Indigenous knowledges perspectives in the curriculum, sharing the iterative approach taken by the University of Adelaide Library to articulate and demonstrate a commitment to cultural diversity, safety and respect across their staff, collections, resource and spaces.

In a wide-ranging presentation, representatives from the University of Canberra shared their reflections in indigenising the curriculum not only at the Canberra Law School, but also in the health and education faculties. Wayne Applebee, Rachel Bacon, Cristy Clark, Alison Gerard, Marina Martiniello, Stirling Sharpe, Dave Spillman and Ben Wilson touched on the framework and implementation processes developed in partnership with local Ngunnawal Elders, seeking to embed Indigenous cultural competence not only in curriculum, but also in professional development, governance and employment and student strategies.

We’re looking at black ways of knowing, so that we can re-frame education in this way.

Ben Wilson, Associate Professor, University of Canberra

Marcelle Burns (Associate Dean Indigenous Leadership and Engagement, Faculty of Law, UTS) shared her own reflections on the Indigenous Cultural Competency for Legal Academics (ICCLAP) program, a cross-institutional project to build the capacity of legal academics to embed Indigenous cultural competency into law programs. A positive outcome of the project has been the inclusion of Indigenous Cultural Competency as an area of prescribed knowledge to be taught in law curricula under the Australian Law School Standards (Council of Australian Law Deans, 2020). Marcelle reinforced the need for a whole-of-curriculum approach, including Indigenous knowledges and recognising the importance of place and the need to engage with local, regional and national communities.

Re-discovering place, people and community relationships

The afternoon’s international plenary, ‘Indigenous Curriculum in Higher Education – International Perspectives’, featured panellists Dr Carwyn Jones, Professor Jeff Corntassel and Professor Juanita Sherwood, bringing together themes from the day’s sessions and discussions so far.

Dr Carwyn Jones (Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington) spoke about the work to indigenise the LLB in New Zealand to better reflect Aotearoa and create safer spaces for society, providing a bijural, bicultural and bilingual legal education. He emphasised the importance of work being Māori-led, informed by dialogue and discussions which acknowledge and involve local communities and include Indigenous world-views, stories and narratives. Jeff Ganohalidoh Corntassel spoke more broadly about issues and legacies in higher education systems, reflecting on the importance of individual leadership, practice and making this relatable to others. Sharing many stories from North American Indigenous contexts, he highlighted four areas of focus to consider: holistic co-creation, land-based learning, reciprocal mentorship and sustainable relationships.

Juanita Sherwood closed the conversion with reflections on themes of nation-building, recognising trauma and the need to share the ‘cultural load’ and collaborate.

We have to show how to do business.

Juanita Sherwood, Professor of Australian Indigenous Education, UTS

Further reading and resources

There’s a lot to discover, explore or re-visit, especially if you’re already working with Indigenous curriculum in higher education. Here are just a few of the resources shared and recommended by some of our speakers:

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