New centre aims to be Indigenous higher education leader

The New South Wales state government has announced a grant of AU$78.5 million (US$54 million) to Western Sydney University (WSU) under its WestInvest programme to help establish an Indigenous Centre of Excellence (ICE) at the university.

WSU’s Parramatta South Campus, set among some heritage-protected buildings, is located on Darug land, which was an important gathering place for the Indigenous community before European colonisation.

This area has the largest Indigenous community in Australia and the university views the new centre as a way to celebrate both the university’s and the region’s long-standing connection with Indigenous people.

The centre will be headed by one of Australia’s leading Indigenous scholars, Professor Michelle Trudgett, who is currently the deputy vice-chancellor of Indigenous leadership at WSU. She believes that the new centre will be a benchmark for Indigenous leadership and education, where tens of thousands of years of Indigenous knowledge and history will be celebrated throughout a state-of-the-art building.

University World News requested an interview with Trudgett, but she directed us to her press releases and the university’s Indigenous Strategy 2020-25, which aims to establish the university as a leader in Indigenous higher education.

The university will focus on seven areas as its strategic objectives: students; employment; research; learning and teaching; community engagement; leadership; and cultural viability and knowledge.

Everyone’s responsibility

“It is an exciting time to be part of a community that is home to the largest Indigenous population in the country,” said Trudgett in an introduction to the strategy. “The university will ensure these objectives are everyone’s responsibility, and that staff, students and community will see significant positive outcomes that change their experience [of higher education]”.

Trudgett is also grateful to the New South Wales government for supporting the establishment of ICE and argues it will consolidate western Sydney as a region at the forefront of Indigenous education, employment and research.

“It will be an iconic destination where the community can come together to acknowledge the region’s deep connection with Indigenous people as well as lead global discourse on Indigenous knowledge steeped in the principles of reciprocity, generosity and respect,” she notes.

A ‘suite of unique resources’ to empower students

WSU already has about 750 students studying here who identify as ‘First (Indigenous) Australians’. Yet, the university believes that in order to attract, retain and graduate Indigenous students they need to create “a suite of unique resources that empower” them to seek a tertiary education in greater numbers.

Indigenous people have been shut out of Australia’s higher education system for a long time, especially because of the ‘Third World’ conditions under which they live in settlements (reservations) in Northern and Central Australia. Thousands still live in these conditions, dependent on government welfare.

On 13 February the federal government announced an allocation of almost AU$40 million (US$27 million) over four years to improve education facilities for remote Indigenous communities including access to “culturally appropriate” distance education and boarding schooling.

The WSU’s ICE will be established in collaboration with the university’s Elders Advisory Committee and key Indigenous stakeholders, with the university’s planning department to launch a national design competition for the building that would incorporate Indigenous architectural and artistic traditions.

Environmental sustainability and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ connection to country will be central to the building’s architectural design and position within the surrounding natural landscape.

University World News asked an Indigenous scholar associated with the project for comment on how Indigenous wisdom related to a cultural affinity to the land may be incorporated into courses on climate change and how Indigenous arts can be promoted. She was reluctant to comment, saying it was still early days, but she agreed that the centre would need to present Indigenous traditional wisdom as 21st century knowledge in environmental sciences.

A quote included in WSU’s Sustainability and Resilience 2030 publication from Aunty Fran Bodkin, a Dharawal community elder, reflects the importance of this wisdom for today’s generation.

It says: “Over generations we observed and experienced those conditions on This Land, recording in story and song what we had learned, how the times of day were important for certain duties, how the changes in the weather were rhythmic, recurring year after year, and how other, longer cycles either lengthened or shortened the pulse of the rhythms. We learned that the availability and sustainability of those resources upon which our life depended could be extended if we respected the Land rather than used it.”

Indigenous knowledge at the core of the university

A major objective of the ICE is to become a state-of-the-art educational centre for the region’s schools, residents and businesses, where people of all ages can come to learn about the rich Indigenous heritage and culture of the region.

Western Sydney is the fastest growing region of Australia’s largest city.

A showcase for stories from across the western Sydney region, the ICE will incorporate purpose-built facilities and spaces to support the sharing and preservation of Indigenous Australian culture, while informal learning spaces will provide opportunities for engagement and collaboration.

Seminars, talks, performances and Indigenous arts festivals are expected to become major activities of the centre when it is up and running within the next three years.

Trudgett argues that, as the university is located on Aboriginal land, as an anchor educational institution serving the land, the ICE would make it possible for the non-Indigenous community to value and nurture their relationship with the Indigenous community.

“By working together, we will increase Indigenous participation in higher education, pay tribute to the deep learning that has existed on these lands for tens of thousands of years, position Indigenous knowledge at the core of the university and strive towards a sustainable future that nurtures emerging generations for decades to come,” says Trudgett.