Professor Shane Houston reflects, takes stock and considers the future of education for Aboriginal people in Australia as we celebrate 50 years since Dr Charles Perkins graduated from the University of Sydney.
Fifty years ago Charles Perkins did something no Aboriginal man had ever done. Donning cap and gown and before family and friends and hundreds of other students and their families, he strode up the steps in the Great Hall to greet the Chancellor of the University of Sydney to receive his degree. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, he became the first Aboriginal man in Australia to graduate with a university degree.
Given the known potential of education to help people overcome other disadvantage, 50 years on it’s worth reflecting, taking stock and thinking about the future.
Reflection involves serious thinking about what we have done and left undone, what we have learnt, what still confounds us and why. Reflecting reminds us that Charles’ graduation anniversary coincides with other significant events in Aboriginal life. It is 50 years almost since the 1967 Constitutional Referendum, since the Freedom Rides in NSW, since the Gurindji walked off Wave Hill Station. It has been around 40 years since the Racial Discrimination Act was passed, since the Northern Territory Lands Rights Act, and since the Electoral Act guaranteed Aboriginal rights to vote in all State and Territory elections. It has been 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and almost a quarter of a century since the Mabo decision. Its been 20 years since the Bringing Them Home Report, since the native Title Act and the Wik Judgement.
And it’s been 10 years since the Northern Territory Intervention and just under 10 years since the National Apology. And let’s not forget it is 70 years since the Pilbara strike by Aboriginal pastoral workers, Australia’s longest strike ever. All of these big moments helped us think about how Australian society saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. And as these moments unfolded they illuminated the opportunity for Aboriginal people to see themselves in Australian society. Seeing and being seen are inseparable features of recognition.
Typically, we take stock before we make big decisions, and our nation faces some big decisions in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. Celebrating Charles’ graduation reminds us that a university degree is a passport to a better social and economic life. For students like Aboriginal students, who might not form the usual student cohort, a degree can deliver an even bigger positive impact.
Charles graduated and went on to a life of leadership, advocacy, service and commitment that contributed much to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. He was also at times a provocateur, poking us in order to get us to think more deeply. Charles certainly did this during his time as a student, challenging society for example when he and 28 other University of Sydney students exposed racism in rural NSW through the 1965 Freedom Ride.
According to the latest data, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are entering higher education. In 2015 more than 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were studying at Australian universities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student numbers have increased 50% since 2009. This increase is greater than the increase seen more broadly in Australian university enrolments. Access is improving.
But is improved access enough? Do increasing enrolments translate into effective participation in higher education and increasing completions? It seems clear that in both cases the answer is mixed. In 2015 about 74% of Aboriginal students nationally passed their university exams and these results varied quite widely. When taking stock we must ask why are the results so mixed and what do we do next? Charles struggled at university then, and struggle seems to be part of the university experience now. What is it about university that causes Aboriginal students to struggle and why is it that fewer go on to complete their degrees?
It is lazy to just write off Aboriginal students as simply less capable. There is evidence for example from the University of Sydney that tells us this. Aboriginal students who come to this institution do equally as well as other students where we put in place programs that emphasise the right of Aboriginal students to be proud, confident and engaged cultural beings; that secure opportunity and build the capability of the university to offer a student experience; and that respond to the complex questions of inclusion and diversity. As much of what has been written about education since Charles graduated tells us, there is no one silver bullet. The Sydney experience tells us that there is no substitute for a comprehensive, embedded strategy backed up by real commitment and the hard work that follows in implementation.
So what does the future hold? The Sydney Centre for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statistics estimates there will be 1.325 million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia in 2150. What will the future hold for my great, great, great, great grandchildren?
We should be no less committed to the future than Charles and the many great leaders that preceded him and travelled with him. Unlike then, we now have five Aboriginal people in the Federal Parliament, the epicentre of national decision making. How will we grab this anniversary, this moment, this opportunity to springboard into a future, and what treasures and gifts will we leave future generations of Aboriginal families?
Universities around Australia, most definitely the University of Sydney, have a crucial role. Knowledge and the benefits it brings straddle the generations, and universities have a unique role in generating, sharing, improving knowledge, and protecting this gift. We also carry the awesome responsibility of equipping current and future generations to steward and use it wisely.
Professor Shane Houston is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services). This article originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.
Aboriginal students who come to this institution do equally as well as other students where we put in place programs that emphasise the right of Aboriginal students to be proud, confident and engaged cultural beings; that secure opportunity and build the capability of the university to offer a student experience; and that respond to the complex questions of inclusion and diversity.