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Nathan Towney, Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership


Imagine an education system or institution where all staff, students and graduates understand the role they could play in improving life outcomes for marginalised groups. Shouldn’t this be the goal of every University, as they take up the responsibility of educating future policy developers, influencers and implementers?


Recent world events have highlighted the structural discrimination and disadvantage still experienced by marginalised groups, particularly people of colour. Australia is no different. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and communities have been negatively impacted since the time of invasion. The British brought many things to Australia, including ideologies. Bruce Pascoe (2014) outlines how the first colonists were wrought by ideas that their way of life was superior and it was their duty to spread their version of civilisation. Colonial beliefs and commitments have influenced many government policies and structures, creating an endemic cultural bias. These processes of colonisation also dictate what is deemed as important in education settings across the Western world. As Paulo Friere states:


“education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (1968, p.16).


Based on this premise, the Australian education system has been used as a vehicle to attempt to have all students conform to a particular way of thinking, knowing and being, showing a complete disregard for cultural difference. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were thrown into a system that did not make sense to their way of life. The system was attempting to teach knowledge and skills that had no relevance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Egger, Stevens, Binns and Morgan argue that this systemic approach has resulted in a ‘lack of meaning, alienation and loss of culture’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia (2019).


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) life expectancy at birth of Indigenous men was 8.6 years lower than for non-Indigenous men, while Indigenous women were 7.8 years lower than that of non-Indigenous women. Indigenous people accounted for over a quarter (28%) of the total adult prison population and over half (53%) of the juvenile detention population. In 2018, the national attendance rate for Indigenous students was 11 % lower than non-Indigenous students (Closing the Gap report, 2019). Indigenous student’s achievement across all areas of NAPLAN remain well below the achievements of non-Indigenous students (Closing the Gap report 2019).


The current system is not working. So what needs to happen to ensure the inequities are acknowledged and the people of power take an approach that is effective and sustainable?

The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration (2019, p. 2) states that education has the power to transform lives. It supports young people to realise their potential by providing skills they need to participate in the economy and in society, and contributing to every aspect of their wellbeing. The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy (2015, p. 2) outlines a vision that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people achieve their full learning potential, are empowered to shape their own futures, and are supported to embrace their culture and identity as Australia’s First Nations peoples.


A strategic approach is essential in bringing these aspirations to life. An approach that is courageous and dismantles the current structures.


Building the cultural capacity of all staff delivering education would be an important first step. If staff have knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures it allows opportunities for cultural bias to be visible and challenged. It opens educators up to a new way of thinking, being and doing.


To genuinely build the cultural capacity of staff, local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to be involved. This creates opportunities for staff to learn, form sustainable relationships and where appropriate engage this local knowledge into education. In turn, the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community feel empowered and have opportunities for their knowledge and expertise to be valued, where historically this has not been the case.


An education institution where all staff, students and graduates learn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures is possible. When these practices are sustained and valued as much as other knowledge systems, true partnerships will promote respect and improved life outcomes.

Nathan Towney is the Pro-Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Leadership at the University of Newcastle. Nathan is a proud Wiradjuri man from Wellington in NSW and an educational leader. Before joining the University of Newcastle, Nathan was Principal at Newcastle High School and has collaborated with the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education on research and practice initiatives. This post is part of ongoing conversations on social justice and reconceptualising widening participation.

We acknowledge and respect the Awabakal People, the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.

Penny Jane Burke, Global Innovation Chair of Equity and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE)


The collective repetition of George Floyd’s words “I can’t breathe” is bringing people together to demand equal justice and change across a range of diverse contexts and perspectives. The words “I can’t breathe” have become symbolic of the longstanding systemic and structural racism built into our social institutions suffocating the life from our personal bodies and institutional spaces. This includes higher education, which is often perceived as a neutral institution that generates objective modes of research, teaching and learning and provides opportunities for all people regardless of social background through merit-based mechanisms. The discourses of neutrality, objectivity and merit make a significant contribution to sustaining institutionalised racism, by erasing from view the violent histories that have led to and continue to perpetuate the exclusion of bodies of people and knowledge, embedding hegemonic values that thrive on White privilege and undermine knowledge, connection, compassion and hope across multiple dimensions of injustice.

The call for justice and change being made by the Black Lives Matter movement requires that each of us engage in processes of self-reflexivity about our social positioning(s) and complicity in institutional racism, including those of us committed to social justice. It demands attention to the inter-relationship between the personal and the political, the microlevel experiences and the macrolevel structures and the discourses that profoundly shape the meanings we bring to projects such as “equity in higher education”. The ultimate effect of institutionalised oppression is dehumanisation, as Paulo Freire so importantly argued in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In denying a person the space to breathe, to be, to speak, to act in the world, insidious and multiple expressions of dehumanisation are sustained. We are all situated in these deeply embedded dehumanising systems and we need collective reflection and action to open up counter-hegemonic possibilities that work hard to dismantle racialised inequalities. This needs to be done with careful consideration of the intersecting political forces that are co-supporting the interests of the much smaller but powerful dominant and dominating groups in societies. This requires close analysis of the working of power and translation of that analysis to activism – or “praxis”.

In CEEHE, we have brought attention to power and inequality as central to the work of creating equity in and through higher education through praxis-based approaches. As part of this, we have argued that hegemonic methods of measurement and evaluation, including “datafication”, in which all that we are is subjected to ranking, measurement and assessment, deepens multidimensional inequalities and further excludes the perspectives and values of communities historically excluded from occupying the authoritative position as the evaluator. Truth claims that rest on decontextualised, ahistorical and disembodied forms of evidence but deeply impact on marginalised communities erase the traces of histories of oppression, violence and gross injustices. Yet such hegemonic methods increasingly shape “equity” work, for which we turn to the “evidence” to focus on building the “success” of “equity students”. How success is measured (the methodological underpinnings) and by whom (those who have the power to do so) is taken for granted and/or erased from view. The profound effects of this on bodies of people and knowledge is also erased from view, except for perhaps instances of counting numbers of students from equity groups or by “adding value” through including some Indigenous knowledge on the curriculum. Both of these examples are tokenistic gestures to “equity” rather than deep commitments to institutional transformation for social and racial justice. This includes recognition of the ways histories of explicit forms of institutionalised violence and exclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to be experienced through current forms of symbolic violence in higher education through those “equity practices” claimed to be “value-free”, “unbiased” and “objective”, denying that knowledge and power are inextricably entwined and producing evidence that benefits some (mainly White) groups and marginalises (mainly Black) others.

However, this is not a blame game – this is understanding that we are all complicit in these power relations and thus must work together differently. It is through our differences that we can better comprehend the ways unequal power relations might be transformed through an ongoing, tenacious, collective commitment to social justice methodologies and principles. This is about reflexive, deep orientations to “empowerment” that enable analysis of systems of oppression and ways to effect change. My experiences of the social world are constructed through my embodied subjectivity as a White woman with significant personal experiences of gendered violence and inequality and I recognise that I cannot speak on behalf of those with lived experience of racial injustice through their embodied subjectivity as a Black person. Indeed, Black feminist scholars across the world (for example Angela Davis) have enabled significant understanding of the problematic positioning of White feminists speaking on behalf of all women, without understanding intersectional oppression of race and gender (at both the structural and personal levels), illuminating the centrality of difference in our social justice work. In engaging with difference, I aim to challenge problematic polarising debates that serve to divide and homogenise. My commitment is to take part in collaborative processes of understanding and then dismantling structures, relations and practices of injustice and oppression.

We have the potential to work together across our differences to effect transformative social justice change within our institutions, including higher education, a most significant site of the legitimation – and exclusion - of bodies of knowers and knowledges. The relationship between the personal and political, and the political and personal, remains key in my view. By drawing from our different experiences of inequality (whether direct or as witness to) we can use that precious knowledge and understanding towards a collective process of social justice transformation, refusing to accept those dehumanising practices that cause long-standing pain, trauma, harm and shame. This is necessarily a collaborative project in which I understand my contribution as in solidarity with those who have direct experiences of institutional racism. I recognise that I am situated in the very power relations I aim to transform, and due to this social location, I too am complicit in structural forms of inequality. The protests centred around the symbolic repetition of “I can’t breathe” carries with it potential for transformative praxis, for which higher education carries tremendous responsibility, and for which all of us privileged to take part in such processes must strive hard towards generating change.


We acknowledge and respect the Awabakal People, the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.

We are sharing an audio post this time to launch the editorial project 'An invitation to reconceptualise widening participation through praxis'. Papers in this online publication will be released gradually, commencing with Professor Penny Jane Burke's framing essay 'Reconceptualising widening participation: a personal, professional and scholarly project'.


Penny, Matt and Matt recorded some thoughts about the project and Penny's piece, on zoom from their respective home office set-ups. Click play to launch right in to the discussion.


Speakers:

Julia Shaw is the CEEHE Research Coordinator

Professor Penny Jane Burke is the Global Innovation Chair of Equity and Director of CEEHE.

Matt Lumb is the Associate Director, CEEHE

Dr Matt Bunn is the CEEHE Research Fellow

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work, the Pambalong Clan of the Awabakal People, and pay our respect to Elders past, present and emerging.