Racism and discrimination against aboriginal staff rises

Although employed in a supposedly `enlightened and accepting environment’, three-quarters of Indigenous Australians working as academics and general staff in the nation’s universities experience racism and discrimination, mostly from colleagues.

This is a higher proportion than seven years ago, despite federal efforts to combat the problem, according to a study by the National Tertiary Education Union.

Across the nation, Australia’s First People continue to suffer from the white invasion that began 230 years ago when massacres were common and Aborigines were hunted down like wild animals rather than human beings.

And this despite the fact they had occupied the entire continent for more than 60,000 years – the longest of any race on Earth.

An earlier study in 2011 highlighted the extent of racism and discrimination experienced by Indigenous staff in Australia’s universities.

A report of that survey was presumably intended to persuade university leaders to take stronger action to counter discriminatory behaviour against Indigenous staff and students. Instead, the latest study found that three-quarters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander union members continued to encounter racial discrimination as well as racist attitudes in their workplace.

“Universities as employers are duty bound to ensure the safety of their employees. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, places of cultural safety on campus remain fundamental today,” the report states.

“While the majority of Australian universities have implemented a policy to combat racism and discrimination, it would appear these policies and their associated procedures do little to prevent the prevalence of these attitudes in the workplace.”

The report says 75% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members and staff experience racism and discrimination in the workplace – a 3.5% increase from the 2011 survey.

“In the main, the perpetrators of racism and discrimination in the workplace are colleagues of those staff members, making attempts to combat racism in the workplace more difficult.”

Releasing a report on the findings, National Tertiary Education Union President Jeannie Rea said the survey was intended to determine if the situation had improved since a similar survey was conducted in 2011.

That study found more than two-thirds of respondents said they had been treated less respectfully because of their background while most said that racism had been part of their experience working in universities.

Those findings should have triggered changes in the conduct of academics and general staff at the insistence of vice-chancellors. But Indigenous union members reported that the incidence of racially discriminatory attitudes and behaviours had increased over just seven years, Rea said.

She noted that since the 2011 report, a national review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been conducted.

In addition, the federal government had tied Indigenous educational funding to universities committing to increasing and retaining their Indigenous staff.

Rea said that although the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students continued to increase on campuses, universities had failed to ensure they were “safe and inclusive environments”.

Terry Mason, chair of the union’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Committee, said in less than a quarter of reported cases existing university policies had been useful in reaching “a point of resolution for these staff”.

Shocking experiences

“Many respondents wrote of shocking experiences. It is unfathomable that seven years later, almost nothing appears to have changed on campus,” Mason said.

“Racial discrimination across Australian society has increased while racism and cultural disrespect on campus have both increased and instances of violence have also increased.”

According to the latest statistics, the number of Indigenous people attending university or other tertiary institutions more than doubled from 7,000 in 2006 to nearly 16,000 in 2017 – an increase from 2.6% of the indigenous population to 3.9%.

In that time, the proportion of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who had completed the final year of school rose by more than 10% while the number holding trade level qualifications jumped by more than 150%.

Similar large increases have occurred in the number of Indigenous Australians obtaining graduate diplomas and postgraduate degrees. Yet racial discrimination continues against the students and the staff.

Mason said it was significant that although universities appeared to have more policies and committees to address discriminatory issues on campus, the situation had only become worse for Indigenous staff.

“This then, of course, impacts upon the students,” he said. “We expect better of universities and their managements must look at these results and begin to work in more positive and collaborative ways.”