A decade ago, Professor Peter Buckskin – a Narungga man from South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula and Dean of Aboriginal Engagement and Strategic Projects at the University of South Australia, became chair of the peak body for the Indigenous academy.
Last month, he handed over the reins as president to Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson of QUT.
Professor Buckskin remains on the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium executive as Immediate Past President.
We invited him to share some reflections on the changes he has seen over the past decade.
I took up the chair of the National Indigenous Higher Education Network in 2008.
At the time, it was essentially an informal network of the support centres for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at universities.
It focussed on access, retention and completions, and supported the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies programs in universities.
Significantly, NIHEN enabled Indigenous staff to support each other and build their capacity to be a strong Aboriginal representative voice in the academy.
It also provided advice and advocacy on student assistance programs such as ABSTUDY and the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme.
And it was an important forum for the student support services and other academic staff to share and discuss the issues influencing their work in the academy.
At the NIHEN meeting at USQ in 2008, Professor Gary Thomas was stepping down as Chair.
I was impressed with Gary’ leadership and the legacies of previous Chairs in their strong advocacy for better outcomes for Indigenous education.
I believed I had the potential to continue that legacy so I decided to nominate for the Chai’s position along with three other candidates. I was privileged to be elected.
Even though I had over 20 years working in Aboriginal education I was surprised to be elected because it was only my second year in the academy.
I was Dean and Head of School of the David Unapion College of Indigenous Education and Research at Uni of SA, which was one of the largest Indigenous units at the time.
It seemed people shared my vision for the future – and thought I had the lived experience and skills to take the organisation forward.
Together with my colleagues, we set about taking the organisation to its next level.
Our vision was for it to be a professional association that delivered on a long-term NIHEN aspiration to be an Incorporated body that was Independent of universities and Government. And a body that could receive grants from Government and philanthropic organisations.
I remember thinking before I got involved that there was potential for NIHEN to evolve into more of a formal professional body that would strengthen its advocacy across a broader higher education agenda of academic endeavour and research.
I was pleased the Executive Committee and the membership supported the development of an Independent incorporated body.
And so the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium came into being as the successor body to NIHEN’s strong legacy.
I believed NATSIHEC could be the conduit for the Aboriginal academy to bring academics and researchers together to work collectively and advocate for better outcomes for our people.
At the time, the Government had an Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council consisting of learned Indigenous academics and researchers.
In time, NATSIHEC was invited to be an observer to IHEAC.
But I believed NATSIHEC – with its broad membership base from across more than half the nation’s universities – could have a more significant role in our own right.
A role that could be more inclusive of the sector, with a broader cohort of members from the professoriate – the senior academics who did teaching and research – as well the people providing support services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
As IHEAC was approaching the end of its term, I approached Minister Pyne in 2013.
I proposed that NATSIHEC could provide Government with advice to further advance Indigenous progress in higher education.
I put to him the benefits and significance of having an independent consortium with members from across the academic and professional roles in universities.
And – very respectfully to those who served on the previous advisory committee – I felt such a network was able to be an even broader church because of its wider membership and reach.
I saw this could be an opportunity to bring forward the issues its membership thought was important – not just the things the Government thought were important.
And this is precisely what has occurred over the past decade.
In the past ten years, NATSIHEC members have pursued important work on whole-of-university strategies, cultural competencies, and provided advice to the Australian Research Council on its Indigenous grants and programs.
I was very pleased and honoured to become a member of the ARC advisory committee – I served on that body for two terms.
This representation gave us a voice on some of the big issues around research.
We have been a strong advocacy body on these areas of policy – and I was delighted to see the establishment of NIRAKN – the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network.
That was about building the capacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Academics in research.
Today, NIRAKN has a strong program bringing together PhD Candidates to share their work across clusters and disciplines and it’s terrific to see that being led by Professor Peter Anderson.
During the past decade, we and Universities Australia have forged closer engagement with one another.
And UA has listened not only to what we were saying – but also to the intent of what we were saying.
Having the UA Indigenous strategy launched in 2017 was a big achievement that has the capacity to deliver on the aspirations and goals of Aboriginal and Torres peoples in higher education.
Before it, we were concerned the national policy framework was sitting in universities but not getting the traction and momentum it needed and deserved.
The strategy has been a vehicle to make further progress.
Universities will need to work closely in partnership with NATSIHEC and their own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff and students to deliver the commitments they have made in the strategy.
In recent years, we have also worked on the Indigenous Student Support Program (ISSP) with Government. We have been pleased with the improved levels of accountability in the program.
You may recall the big debate about the transfer of this higher education program funding into the Indigenous Advancement Strategy in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
NATSIHEC still advocates for the program to be transferred back to the Department of Education and Training.
We have seen the levels of accountability for the ISSP improved – but believe it needs to connect to the higher education sector and complement other higher education programs.
And we managed to keep ABSTUDY as a standalone program.
ABSTUDY was a flagship program of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy launched in 1989.
It’s important not just as income support for students, but it’s also key to access to higher education.
We felt strongly that it needed to be maintained in its name so Aboriginal people can still see the significant historical impact the program had on providing opportunity for so many of us.
This single program has got a lot us to where we are today – including me.
As a consortium, we’ve tried to be very cognisant of what we had to do as core business in higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
That includes looking at issues around student retention and completions.
It also includes work to build our own talent pipeline.
We’ve seen very clearly the need to focus on postgraduate study to build the pipeline of our people with those qualifications who can be employed in senior academic and research roles in universities.
In 2013, when I sat down with Minister Pyne to promote NATSIHEC, I said ‘here is our agenda and I think we are the key stakeholder that can help you achieve yours’.
And he said if we worked with UA, the Indigenous Advisory Group to the Prime Minister, and the Department of Education as key stakeholders, then he would consider NATSIHEC as the Indigenous key stakeholder.
The relationship with those stakeholders has matured and we regularly invite these organisations and Government Departments to present at NATSIHEC meetings to update members on their work.
That isn’t only useful to us.
It also helps them to see what each other is doing. And it underscores our expectations that funding bodies work together in a strategic way and be informed by Aboriginal voices and perspectives.
Over the past decade, it’s been a fast-moving agenda that we’ve needed to keep up with.
We are all very busy academic and professional people in universities – so we work hard to get to NATSIHEC meetings and do the work that needs to get done between meetings.
We had no funding to do that as an organisation but with our increasing representative and advocacy work, we need to secure funds for a secretariat.
The Higher Education Advisory Council had a secretariat and funding to hold meetings and forums.
NATSIHEC continues to work well considering the financial constraints – and the professionalism and intellectual rigour the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander membership has brought to the organisation is commendable.
Due to our strong reputation amongst our stakeholders and the broader higher education sector, our advice is sought regularly.
Our Executive members are invited onto interview panels, reviews of student support services, culturally-inclusive curriculum projects, to make submissions to Parliamentary inquiries and to help institutions to develop connections with the community.
Internationally, we have become an accredited Indigenous People’s Organisation – a standing that enables us to participate in the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
We are significant members of the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium and the board of the World Indigenous Nations University.
I have been pleased our international presence has made impact and allowed us to learn and develop-our capacity to improve our governance and support our students to engage internationally.
And we have been able to share insights and successes from Australia about the policy and participation progress we have forged – including through flagship programs such as ABSTUDY.
As I step out of the Chair’s role after a decade, I am really pleased to hand over the organisation in such great shape.
I think the new structure that we have adopted for NATSIHEC will make us even more effective.
We will have strong continuity with an Immediate Past President, Current President, and a President-Elect all serving on the executive now – so the succession plan is clear.
And we have restructured our Vice-President roles to align them more with the UA structures.
We now have five VPs – whose roles cover academic (teaching and learning), research, corporate and community engagement, international and eldership.
That gives us an even stronger connection with UA which gives us the foundation of that pivotal relationship.
We have been pleased to work with UA and other stakeholders like the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency and Australian Council of Graduate Research.
It is terrific that we are getting very senior people right throughout these organisations paying attention and wanting to work together with us.
And as we see that respect given to the consortium, our membership will grow.
Our vision is to be the professional association for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in higher education. We contribute from small amounts of money from within our universities.
In the past, we didn’t have enough opportunities amongst ourselves to have positive and respectful conversations where we can really talk things through in a robust way.
I’ve tried to ensure that we do that within NATSIHEC.
I’ve sought to give people the opportunities to have a conversation they feel their voice is being respected and their argument is being considered.
And I don’t worry about status of the individual talking. I am more focussed on the idea and the intent and the passionate argument that people are putting forward.
I see people being assertive because for so long our people were pushed to the margins of society.
The other thing I seek to do is to ensure strong integrity – our cultural integrity – at the core of what we say and do.
We have to reach inside our hearts and minds and look at that cultural intent.
I hope that everything I’ve done in my career reflects that cultural integrity and respects my Elders who have guided me.
When I am talking to my colleagues, what I look for is their cultural integrity.
I look to connect with that cultural integrity that people bring to their work.
Some people are still working through their family stories, their identity, and their connections.
But those old songlines and the stories are very much inside of us.
We just have to reflect that and remember why we are making these decisions.
There is an inherent challenge between trying to forge collective progress and the way that careers are advanced in the academy – which is often about the individual and your own personal credentialing.
I say, yes, it’s important to have your own personal intellectual profile in the academy, but it’s also important to always keep connected to community and always think about the benefits to the collectiveness of community.
The more you can work together, the more impact you can have in the academy.
We need to ensure that we don’t lose our ways and our intellectual contribution by relegating our own ways of cultural being, doing and knowing to the margins.
I am pleased to see the leadership of NATSIHEC being a combination of very experienced academics and professional staff from across the breath of the academy.
Aileen will lead well.
And the next generation of emerging academics will have an even bigger impact on the academy, building on the strong progress that we have forged.
I will still be here to support that work.
For we have more to do to position Aboriginal knowledges and ways of being across the disciplines to maintain our cultural future.
We are the oldest living culture of humanity – and we have a responsibility to keep our culture strong for all the generations to come.