Indigenous students studying in the Chau Chak Wing Building at UTS. Photo by Anna Zhu.

Indigenous students studying in the Chau Chak Wing Building at UTS. Photo by Anna Zhu.

In summary: 
  • Since 2011, over 50 Indigenous initiatives have been undertake at UTS, the latest, Home@UTS, will offer 58 Indigenous students the option to live rent-free, right next door to campus
  • The program has been made possible by a $1.5 million fund, including a $500 000 commitment from the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation

It’s only been five years, but thanks to UTS’s Indigenous Education and Employment Policy, the university is changing. The latest initiative, Home@UTS, will offer 58 Indigenous students the option to live rent-free, right next door to campus. The most ambitious initiative will ensure that by 2018, every UTS graduate has a professional capacity to work with, and for, Indigenous Australians.

Yindyamarra. Go on, say it out loud. Yindyamarra.

This beautiful, singsong word from the Wiradjuri Nation essentially means that you must move through the world carefully and mindfully because everything you say and do has impacts beyond which you will ever know.

It’s also a fitting way to explain the thoughtful and inclusive approach taken by UTS to encourage and support Indigenous people to succeed in their education and career ambitions.

The Indigenous Education and Employment Policy (IEEP) was instituted in 2011 and for the first time, articulated a comprehensive, whole-of-university approach to creating Indigenous jobs, boosting Indigenous student participation and essentially making the university’s Indigenous commitment ‘core business’.

In the five short years since, UTS has been in the express lane; but Michael McDaniel is convinced the story actually started when the university was founded.

“UTS is good soil,” says McDaniel, Director of Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning – a special space on campus that offers academic and cultural support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

“From its inception, UTS had its social justice identity written into its DNA. The progress we’ve made since is the result of attracting staff with a shared passion to grow this commitment.”

To give an idea of the scale of work that has been going on since the IEEP came into play, over 50 Indigenous initiatives have been progressed across the university. In McDaniel’s own words: “We are interested in every possible opportunity for Indigenous advancement across the entire agenda. It’s all hands on deck!”

Supported by significant investment from the university, the strategy includes new degree programs, free-of-charge tutors, social support, international experiences, strategic recruitment, outreach programs, referral services, improved facilities, fundraising, new scholarships, on-campus programs, career opportunities and rent-free accommodation.

Right up to the bold Indigenous Graduate Attribute program (more on this later) – making connections, building community and sewing the seeds of the future has been the focus. Yindyamarra.

One of the strategy’s most important focus areas is the provision of accommodation. According to the Behrendt Report of the Review into Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (commissioned by the Federal Government and chaired by top UTS Indigenous researcher Larissa Behrendt), the difficulty of finding affordable accommodation is a major barrier for Indigenous students who want to come to university.

“While we must keep working hard to inspire more Indigenous Australians to come to university, we must also make it possible for them to live affordably, safely and comfortably,” McDaniel says.

Home@UTS opened its doors in February 2016 offering 58 Indigenous students the option of living in rent-free accommodation within a supportive community of their peers, right next door to campus. This initiative, which McDaniel’s believes is an Australian first, will more than double the number of students UTS is currently able to support and has been made possible by a $1.5 million fund. Students also receive a weekly stipend to assist with living expenses.

“Residents will also be able to seek advice on practical, social and educational matters from a dedicated Indigenous Housing Officer to make their transition to uni easier,” says McDaniel.

With a host of pilot projects successfully hatched and itching to spread their wings, attention has also turned to fundraising. This was addressed in March 2015 when Brigette Sancho was appointed as the newly created, full-time Indigenous Advancement Manager.

Brigette Sancho and Michael McDaniel. Photo by Hannah Jenkins. Brigette Sancho and Michael McDaniel. Photo by Hannah Jenkins.

She is off to a good start. In her first year in the job, Sancho doubled her fundraising target of $500 000 to nearly $1 million, including a $500 000 commitment from the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

Sancho’s passion for her job is evident. She feels privileged to help Indigenous students achieve their ambitions and match philanthropists with the causes they believe in. “It’s a real pleasure to facilitate this exchange and then witness the positive impacts on everyone involved.

“For real change to happen it is essential that more Indigenous people get into decision-making positions,” Sancho says. “And education is the key.”

Her focus for this year is pursuing more accommodation scholarships and funds to extend outreach initiatives such as the burgeoning GaIuwa program – a five-day, on-campus residential experience for Indigenous high school students.

Perhaps the most ambitious and all-encompassing idea, and one that has seen tremendous groundwork and planning, is the aforementioned Indigenous Graduate Attribute (IGA) program.

“We are coming from the standpoint that Indigenous education is not just for Indigenous people and is not just delivered by Indigenous people. It is for all people, and it is by all people. It’s about nation building. The IGA will see Indigenous knowledges embedded in the curriculum – university wide.

“What this means is that by 2018 every UTS student will graduate with a professional capacity to work with and for Indigenous Australians. That’s approximately 9000 people per year!” explains McDaniel.

The transformative IGA agenda is the main priority of the Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges (CAIK). The centre was established in February 2015 with the appointment of three first-class Indigenous Australian academics – Professor Michelle Trudgett as the inaugural Director and Professor Susan Page and Associate Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews shortly after.

Trudgett says they have hit the ground running. “I’m genuinely impressed by the community and culture that exists at UTS. We have met some highly talented people and are already hard at work developing a foundation subject, for students in all disciplines, called Aboriginal Sydney Now which will play a crucial role in ensuring that students meet the requirements of the IGA.”

What’s really impressive about how the whole-of-university strategy has unfurled so far, has been a thoughtful recognition of the vast number of interconnected factors, some of which are invisible, that prevent Indigenous students succeeding at university. But with careful and mindful planning today, and always keeping the big picture in mind, McDaniel is confident that the future will take care of itself. Yindyamarra.