29 August 2015
Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners, distinguished guests, speakers, colleagues, students, community members and symposium organisers.
Welcome to the University and the symposium. It’s a privilege to have Professors Larkin, Robertson and Cadet-James here today. Steve, Boni and Yvonne have been friends of USC for many years now and we are indeed fortunate to have such distinguished scholars addressing the symposium and engaging in discussion.
As an introduction to USC and our approach to Indigenous education, I thought I would refer to the Good Universities Guide (GUG). We are about to enter the ‘silly season’ that sees the 2016 cohort of students putting in their applications to QTAC (Queensland Tertiary Admissions Centre). This is when the GUG arrives on the scene. I’m not sure how much notice prospective students take of the rankings but Vice-Chancellors certainly show an interest, especially if the ratings go up.
USC, of course, has traditionally done very well with regard to teaching quality and graduate satisfaction. We’ve had five stars for teaching for nine years in a row now. This year our graduate outcomes ranking gained four star status. Graduate outcomes is about how quickly graduates get into the workplace. It’s been a tricky one for us because in the past we’ve had a lower proportion of students graduating in professional degrees than is the case in more established institutions, but we’ve now caught up. It’s a very good result.
Another area where we did very well (four stars) is in social equity. This indicator doesn’t get the attention it deserves but it identifies quite clearly the universities that do the heavy lifting when it comes to engaging with disadvantaged students. The top cohorts here are dominated by regional and outer metropolitan universities.
Indigenous students are generally seen as a component of the social equity environment and it’s an area where USC has commitment and results.
This year we’ll have enrolled more than 280 Indigenous students. That’s an increase of 45% on 2014 and sees representation at over 2% of the total student body. While national equity is around 2.5%, only around 1.1/1.2% of the Sunshine Coast population is of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. So we are doing okay. In addition to locals, we attract students from around Australia.
I often reflect on why were are being so successful. Is it the Buranga Centre and its role in the university experience of current and future students? Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) is a powerful tool for lifting the aspirations of Indigenous kids in the school sector and a great tool for reconciliation. Many of our non-Indigenous students volunteer for this program. Is it that USC has developed a reputation as a safe environment and/or that it is a place where we acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous culture? It’s a combination of all these things, of course, as well as the commitment of staff and the relationship between staff and students.
A really interesting set of data came out of Canberra this week, the official retention figures for students articulating from 2013 to 2014. For a variety of reasons, regional universities have relatively high attrition rates and while ours has been steadily improving, we still have a way to go. However, the retention rate for our Indigenous students was 1.05. This means they have a better retention rate than their non-Indigenous colleagues. This is a very satisfying result.
But we have more to do and part of this will be to see USC move a little further north. Yesterday I was in Hervey Bay for a public announcement about a proposal to transfer the USQ Fraser Coast campus to USC. Its Butchulla country up there and there is a very strong Indigenous presence on the campus. This augers well for the future.
So where is USC going? We don’t have enough Indigenous staff but we are working on it. Our Indigenous Early Career Academic program and an Indigenous Early Career APT (administrative, professional and technical) program will see us progressively place Indigenous staff right across the institution.
We’ve embraced the Behrendt Review, which I’m sure Professor Larkin will be pleased about as he was a member of the panel that produced this most influential document. It’s a work in progress as we ensure the faculties accept greater responsibility. Likewise, Academic Board is overseeing a project that will see Indigenous perspectives and knowledge embedded in curriculum across the university. I’ve always found it strange that teaching and nursing graduates, for example, must have such a skill set to gain professional accreditation but that it has not been deemed necessary for say accountants. All occupations/professions interact with and are staffed by Indigenous Australians.
Right now, we’re in the process of reviewing our Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). We were one of the first universities in the country to develop a RAP and we’re pretty proud of that. Part of the communication plan to accompany the new one will look at new ways of ensuring greater engagement of staff and students.
And for Welcome Week (O’Week) 2016, we will launch an online Welcome to Country module. This will introduce new members of the USC community to the Indigenous cultural heritage of the Sunshine Coast and the broader region and also USC’s approach to reconciliation and celebration of Indigenous culture.
So, in conclusion, USC is committed to the cause, and we’re doing positive things and seeing solid results. And that’s why having this symposium on campus for the 9th consecutive year is so important. As is the case with Buranga – it is an opportunity to ‘listen and learn’.
Enjoy the experience.