Words || Isil Ozkartal
Macquarie University has the lowest number of Indigenous enrolments in the state. It also has the lowest retention rate of Indigenous students, the lowest number of course completions for Indigenous students, and the lowest number of Indigenous staff.
Dr Leanne Holt, Director of Walanga Muru (the university’s Office of Indigenous Strategy), says these figures are largely to do with the location of Macquarie’s campus, but there are other factors also at play.
“We’re not quite in the regional area and were not quite in the middle of the city area,” she tells Grapeshot. “Sitting on the north shore has this implication that it’s going to be expensive living costs.”
Holt is a Worimi woman (Karuah, New South Wales) who has further connections to Biripai Country (Port Macquarie). She submitted a PhD about the journey of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s contribution to the development of Aboriginal education policy, and has been working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in universities for over two decades. While demographics is part of the reason for Macquarie’s low number of Indigenous staff and students, Dr Holt is quick to acknowledge the historical reasons for the disproportionately poor presence of Indigenous people attending university.
Aboriginal students were excluded from public schools in New South Wales, even in to the 60s and 70s, and the ramifications of that are still at play today. Understanding the historical impacts of the exclusion of Aboriginal people from education is important when trying to understand why some Indigenous people are not encouraged by their family to undertake higher education.
“You’re talking about two generations back that have been affected by the educational exclusion of the 70s, so the community and family attitude towards educational institutions is very negative,” says Holt.
Holt said that the overall lack of academic confidence in Indigenous students combined with a lack of a robust cultural support system can also explain the low retention rates in Indigenous students at Macquarie.
“Many of our Indigenous students come through ‘Aboriginal Entry’ and so our students don’t come in a lot of the time with the academic confidence. There’s always that feeling that they’re not supposed to be here.” Holt added that the feeling of cultural disconnect in universities is also present among Australians who are from a non-Anglo Celtic background and may be first in the family to attend university.
“A lot of our students are struggling with their cultural identity and who they are within a new environment… I think you get that when you’ve got diversity among students; it’s not only Aboriginal students that feel that; obviously first in family and people from other cultural contexts feel it as well.”
Creating a positive university experience for Indigenous students goes beyond traditional academic support, says Holt.
“I think our biggest challenge is creating a sense of belonging and community; ensuring that this institution is just as much a home and a community for Aboriginal students as it is for any other student. I feel that most of the students need more than academic support; they need an engagement that’s strong and positive, that provides all the opportunities that you can take up to have a wonderful experience whether its academic, social or cultural while you’re at university, because it should be a positive time.”
The reason why Macquarie performed so poorly with its Indigenous community in the past is, as Holt identified, there had never been a consolidated approach across Macquarie University to solve the issues at hand: “It was always reliant on a small group of people or on the goodwill of other academic and professional staff across the university… you can’t rely on a small group of people to make the significant changes that need to be made because it’s a cultural change that needs to be made.”
In September 2016, Macquarie introduced a 10-year strategy that aims to lift the number of enrollments and improve the retention rate of Indigenous students, as well as increasing the number of Indigenous employees at Macquarie. Closing the education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is something that all universities in Australia have been encouraged to bring to the forefront of their strategic agenda.
In March 2017, Universities Australia launched an Indigenous strategy which is the first national document of its kind that seeks to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled in university, as well as aiming for equal success and award course completion rates for Indigenous students.
Going forward, Walanga Muru is investing in first year advisors, which are third year students or above, that will be mentors for Indigenous students in their first year. They have also invested in ‘Studiosity’ which is an online tutoring program which Indigenous students can access 6 days a week. Commencing this year, Holt is certain that both the mentors and the online program will assist future Indigenous students in their university journey at Macquarie.
The importance of having Aboriginal people in higher academic professional roles and as employees in a University environment is what Holt identifies as the simple fact that we need Indigenous answers to Indigenous questions.
“When we’re talking about workforce; we’re not just doing it to help with numbers, it’s about valuing the contributions that the community brings. Faculties really need to realise if they don’t have the expertise to be teaching Aboriginal studies. It’s a fact; what they need is Aboriginal expertise.”
Although last year Macquarie was ranked 23 out of 40 national universities for access, participation and success for Indigenous students, the university has also had its highest ever number of Indigenous students graduate last year, as well as growth in the number of Indigenous research higher degrees.
Holt is also working towards looking at systems and trying to provide input that improves university life for all students, such as pushing the date for withdrawal from units without academic penalty to a later date. Holt believes that through a consolidated approach, Macquarie can be a successful place for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.
“It’s about providing a space where students feel not just safe, but inspired, and that they feel inspired within a strong cultural environment. We need to work on the whole university environment becoming a good environment, not just for Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander students, but for all students.”