“University is Not Seen as a Black Space”

By Dr Katelyn Barney

While the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students studying at universities has increased significantly since the 1960s, Indigenous students are still grossly under-represented in Research Higher Degrees (RHDs). There is a need to build pathways for Indigenous students to consider RHDs as an option.

Universities Australia[1] reported that Indigenous students are only 1.1 per cent of all RHDs students. This is despite a relative increase in the Indigenous population to 2.4 per cent of the general population and an overall increase in Indigenous school participation.

Many Indigenous students view universities as places where only the elite are welcome. As one Indigenous PhD graduate noted in an interview with me, university is “not seen as a black space; it is seen as a largely white space. It’s not really for us. It’s for somebody else.”

How can this be changed? How can universities build mechanisms for culturally appropriate research supervision, Indigenous research methods, and culturally‐safe learning spaces? How can networking opportunities for Indigenous students undertaking RHDs be created?

It is of key importance that the tertiary sector develops a heightened awareness of Indigenous student participation in RHDs programs. It is also necessary to strengthen the network of stakeholders in higher education with a focus on addressing this issue.

Building the pipeline of Indigenous students into RHDs holds the possibility of a pathway to careers in academia for Indigenous people, which is critical to support access and success in higher education for future generations of Indigenous people.

While much of the existing work in this area focuses on explaining failure, Devlin[2] acknowledges that the focus should shift towards deepening our understanding of the factors that contribute to Indigenous student success. Finding out “what works” in successful pathways to RHDs for Indigenous students across a wide range of disciplines is necessary to address Indigenous student equity and Indigenous rights in higher education.

I became passionate about building pathways for Indigenous students to RHDs through my work in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at The University of Queensland (UQ). I am a non-Indigenous woman who grew up on Jagera and Turrball country in Brisbane, Queensland.

My interest in undertaking research with Indigenous people began in 2001 while undertaking an undergraduate course titled “Indigenous Australian Women’s Music and Dance”. During the course, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women performed workshops in the classroom.

This was the first time I had participated in an Indigenous performance of any kind and it required me to move beyond the boundaries of what I knew and was familiar with. The course opened my eyes and ears to the exciting nature of Indigenous performance practices and also led me to begin thinking critically about the ethics of representing and working with Indigenous Australian performers, and my place in this discourse as a non-Indigenous woman.

I began my PhD research with Indigenous Australian women performers in 2002 and interviewed twenty Indigenous Australian women who perform contemporary music across Australia.

Since then, my research has sought to develop a collaborative framework and I have undertaken a number of collaborative projects with Indigenous researchers.

One of these projects was with Monique Proud, an Aboriginal researcher and student support officer. The project explored the experiences of Indigenous postgraduate students and considered how UQ could better support Indigenous postgraduate students.

In response to the voiced experiences of Indigenous postgraduate students, a website called the Postgraduate Meeting Place was developed and launched. It is designed to provide information for current and prospective Indigenous postgraduates and also assist Indigenous postgraduate students at UQ to network and meet.

It is important to note that there have been a number of other important initiatives undertaken at universities across Australia to support Indigenous students undertaking postgraduate study. The Queensland University of Technology, the University of Melbourne, Flinders University and the University of Sydney have each created support programs.

For example, the University of Melbourne’s Professional Certificate in Indigenous Research brings together Indigenous postgraduate students with their supervisors and senior Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars from the Social Sciences.

The purpose of the Professional Certificate is to provide students with the knowledge, skills and mentoring to help them successfully complete their postgraduate degrees and further their careers. A number of participants have noted that initiatives like this are important to allow Indigenous postgraduate students to network and meet each other. One student noted:

I think things like summer schools are important like the summer school that Marcia Langton and others run at Melbourne Uni … I think that’s really important and there should be more of that kind of thing around the country. I think we should have more Indigenous researchers, student researcher gatherings … I think that’s important because student/peer support is really important.

Existing programs like these are useful but there are few that engage with and support undergraduate Indigenous students to transition into postgraduate study.

Working closely with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group, I am involved in facilitating activities as part of a National Teaching Fellowship with the Office for Learning and Teaching, to assist in improving postgraduate enrolments of Indigenous Australians at universities.

We plan to run workshops for undergraduate Indigenous students across universities and relevant staff who work with undergraduate Indigenous students. These workshops will involve Indigenous RHDs graduates from a wide range of disciplines, sharing stories of their pathways and successful experiences of undertaking RHDs. The program will also include activities to build relationships between Indigenous undergraduate students and academic staff across the spectrum of disciplines.

A symposium on“Indigenous Student Pathways to Success in RHDs” will bring university stakeholders from around the country into conversation about strategies to support and build aspirations of Indigenous students in the transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study. Guidelines and resources to boost the capacity of universities will also be developed to support Indigenous students to transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study.

Listening to the experiences of Indigenous students illustrates that there are many complex issues faced by Indigenous students undertaking postgraduate study.

Social and cultural isolation are often experienced and it is important to find ways to provide students with opportunities to network. This is particularly important because Indigenous students can feel alienated both at university – as a result of not being aware of other Indigenous postgraduates in their school or faculty – and from their families because many are first generation university students.

Indigenous students emphasise the lack of mentors and Indigenous supervisors available and the limited peer-to-peer support and networking opportunities. Indigenous students have also highlighted that cultural safety within universities is important to them, yet there is still a lack of cultural understanding and support.

Further strategies are needed to increase participation rates in order to achieve key national social justice goals of reducing Indigenous disadvantage.

Overall, it is hoped that further work can be done to empower Indigenous students to achieve their education goals, have their voices heard and help build a better future for Indigenous Australians.

Dr Katelyn Barney is a Research Fellow in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at The University of Queensland. She is an Office for Learning and Teaching National Teaching Fellow, co-leader of the Australian Indigenous Studies Learning and Teaching Network and Managing Editor of The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education.

Support for the activities described in this article has been provided by the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.



[1] Universities Australia. (2013). An Agenda for Higher Education 2013-2016. A Smarter Australia. Canberra: Universities Australia.

[2] Devlin, M. (2009). Indigenous higher education student equity: Focusing on what works. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 38, 1‐8.