The protocols of a Welcome to Country are well-known in Australia, as they are in many other post-colonial nations. They are a mark of mutual respect – of recognition and diplomacy. They mark an acceptance of place, time and visitation.
But over the past thirty years of seeing many moving welcomes, one stands out.
It was given by a young man, not more than thirty years old. It was a four-part harmony of speech, narrative, poetry, dance, music and performance – all in eight minutes.
It was all the more significant because it was offered by one of our own graduates. Nigel Stewart is a young man of the Bundjalung nation of northern NSW, whose family lineage includes Arakwal, Minjungbul and Yuin ancestry and identity.
Nigel wove in references to boarding school. He quoted an entire poem by the wonderfully evocative (but little-known) Aboriginal writer Hyllus Maris. He acknowledged, with reverence, the Uncle Elder sitting next to me, Professor Norm Sheehan, who leads the University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples.
Nigel told us about his job as a ranger caring for country in the Arakwal National Park at Byron Bay, his first degree at Southern Cross University in Environmental Management and of his interest in coming back to do a second degree in Indigenous Knowledge.
He left us with a deep sense of pride in place, tradition and knowledge.
His welcome reminded me that, as universities, our own capacity to convey a deep sense of pride in place, tradition and knowledge is profound.
In recent decades, we’ve seen significant strides made. Universities have sought to reflect more deeply the long story of Australia – and the vast foundational and continuing contribution of the nation’s first peoples to national identity, culture, understanding, tradition and knowledge.
This is a work in progress.
We now see a growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people graduating from universities, leading university research, moving through the ranks of university leadership and offering wise counsel on university governance and consultative bodies.
As that progress is made, it strengthens the insight, perspective and knowledge of our country’s universities. It deepens understanding. And – I hope – it helps to shape the capacity and skills of more of our graduates and staff to become more fluent in the inspiring achievements of the oldest living cultures on the planet.
That progress has been significant since the early 1980s, when I was first privileged to meet the founders of the Aboriginal politico-literary movement: Kath Walker (later Oodgeroo Noonuccal); Jack Davis; and Kevin Gilbert.
The first time I met Oodgeroo, on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) in Quandamooka (Moreton Bay), she told me, among others things, to “be careful, listen well …. (and) always look for the meanings behind the words” as I sought to glean more about Australian society and history.
Oodgeroo was pitching up some powerful concepts.
She was on about the establishment of sincerity, attention to detail. She advocated observation and negotiation and a large amount of straight-shooting. She talked about careful planning and quiet, attendant listening.
She was advocating for what some people today call twenty-first century skills, but which have been part of the educational traditions of the first Australians for millennia. She also lived and evoked the concept of humour as a catalyst for action and of comic language as an icebreaker.
Those insights have served me well in my career. There are so many occasions when I have recalled her advice to listen carefully in situations of conflict; to really focus on the reasons behind confrontation – rather than its symptoms.
All of us in Australia are aware of just how far the higher education world has progressed over the past thirty years. This nation has become a beacon for enlightened and pragmatic research and a haven for students from every country of the world.
Australian universities have worked closely with the Department of Foreign Affairs in expressions of vital diplomacy; Vice-Chancellors and University Councils have established their own ’embassies’ as Australian campuses have sprung up in more than ten nations. And universities have been one of the most adventurous explorers of digital education and of the digital enablement of learning.
I have learned so much by concentrating: by watching and listening with real focus.
It was the first Australians who taught me that.
I love working in higher education because it attracts change-agents and intellectual risk-takers. Among them are first Australians and more recent Australians. And from them all, we learn more about the continuous shaping of national identity, culture and meaning.
As just one examples, earlier this year I saw a beautiful short video about the Indigenous language reclamation project being led in Coffs Harbour, NSW by Clark Webb. As well as being a proud Gumbaynggirr man, Clark was one of the early leaders of the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, or AIME. Originally begun at the University of Sydney by Jack Manning Bancroft, AIME is one of most successful Indigenous youth transformation projects ever undertaken in this country.
And it is very much a university story.
There are over 1,000 Aboriginal students being mentored in AIME this year by SCU students – a new record. And our own smallest campus – Coffs Harbour – was one of the first sites to have an AIME program outside Sydney twelve years ago. It powers on today even more strongly. That success is mirrored in Lismore, in the Gold Coast, and everywhere that we operate.
Although Southern Cross is one of smallest universities in Australia by total population, it has one of the highest Indigenous participation rates of any institution of higher education in the nation. Every day that I enter the VCs office I remember that fact. And telling that story gives all of us a greater appreciation of future potential, of what Australia could be.
That story is being written right now – and there is still work to be done. Despite the significant advances in Indigenous participation over the past decade, Indigenous people still comprise only 1.6 per cent of domestic enrolments.
That’s why, earlier this year, Universities Australia launched a sector wide Indigenous strategy. It unveiled ambitious targets to lift the university enrolment and completion rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I’m very proud that Southern Cross is partnering with all Australian universities to see the number of Indigenous students grow significantly in coming years.
The ambition our universities have expressed in this strategy is an ambition for the country. Because in realising this vision, it will strengthen Australia’s self-knowledge, insight and cohesion.
Each day, I am reminded of the history and traditions that we carry forward.
Our university is named for a constellation that has guided Indigenous travellers for eons. Oodgeroo wrote of the Southern Cross as Mirabooka, who was endowed with lights for his hands and feet and stretched across the sky, ‘so that he could watch forever the tribes he loved’.
Perhaps there is a powerful metaphor in this too. For as universities, we strive to endow our graduates with the light of learning – so that they, too, can be watchful in the world.