In 1985, Irene Watson was South Australia’s first Aboriginal person to graduate with a law degree. More than 30 years later, we are still seeing many “firsts” for Aboriginal people within higher education.
For that first law graduate – and now UniSA’s Pro Vice Chancellor of Aboriginal Leadership and Strategy, Professor Irene Watson – there is hope for a future where there will be equality for Aboriginal people in higher education.
As one of the leaders behind developing UniSA’s new Stretch Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), Prof Watson says there are plans in place to achieve good numbers of Aboriginal graduates across all disciplines.
“To achieve that we need to ensure that Aboriginal people are able to engage in a higher education sector in which there is a positive image of Aboriginal people and their future,” she says.
“In our Stretch RAP, we’ve outlined areas that are important like creating a culturally safe place – a place where Aboriginal students can thrive; and bring with them and or access their ancient knowledges of Aboriginal culture, creating a more inclusive space.
“This plan will help to build a space in which there is greater visibility of Aboriginal peoples and our knowledges and cultures, while also creating a vibrant curriculum that continues to grow in its Aboriginal content.”
UniSA has become the first university in South Australia to develop a Stretch RAP, following approval of the plan by University Council in late August and endorsement by Reconciliation Australia in early September.
The Stretch RAP is guided by Universities Australia’s Indigenous Strategy for 2017 to 2020; and builds on UniSA’s previous RAP which extended UniSA’s proud history in Aboriginal education by embedding real and measurable actions into the organisation.
RAP co-chair and UniSA Dean of Aboriginal Engagement and Strategic Projects, Professor Peter Buckskin, says the plan will foster a stronger two-way relationship with Aboriginal peoples.
“Our plan is both aspirational and innovative, and is built on the principles of inclusion, engagement, respect and reciprocity,” Prof Buckskin says.
“A significant aspect of the plan is ensuring Aboriginal knowledges, histories and cultures will be acknowledged and celebrated in our programs.
“The plan actively seeks Aboriginal voices to position UniSA as the ‘University of Choice’ for Aboriginal peoples.”
The Stretch RAP acknowledges the three key pillars of Reconciliation Australia’s RAP Framework which are relationships, respect and opportunity and has its own five themes of Place and Language; Aboriginal Knowledges, Culture and Engagement; Aboriginal Education; Aboriginal Research; and Aboriginal Governance, Evaluation and Reporting.
These themes came from consultation with Aboriginal Elders, community members and organisations; and the development of the plan has involved the input of many UniSA people.
RAP co-chair, Professor Esther May, says she’s been impressed with the enthusiasm and commitment of our staff and students in preparing the plan.
“We are looking forward to seeing how the Stretch RAP will be used effectively within the University community,” Prof May says.
The RAP has determined sets of actions for each of the five themes.
Prof Watson is currently working on the Aboriginal Research theme with UniSA’s Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research, Professor Tanya Monro.
“We are developing an Aboriginal research strategy that comes from a notion of a two-way approach that will give Aboriginal people a voice in determining the kinds of research that best suits Aboriginal community development,” Prof Watson says.
“This two-way approach is important in all of the five themes. It’s important that we not only take up the challenge of meeting targets but do so by engaging with Aboriginal people from a standpoint of reciprocity.
“Overall, this new plan gives us targets for how we might achieve greater equity and parity for Aboriginal peoples who are in a position to engage with higher education.”
The Stretch RAP can be viewed online.