Have you ever considered what the educational experiences of young, incarcerated Indigenous males actually looks like? What about the role Aboriginal women’s groups play in building social capital? The Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges (CAIK) has. These are two of the higher degree by research projects underway at CAIK – a centre that in just two years has transformed the way we interact with and understand Indigenous cultures.
In a sunny corner of building 10, three academics are shaping the future of the university.
Professor Michelle Trudgett, Professor Susan Page and Associate Professor Gawaian Bodkin-Andrews have played a leading role in the establishment of the UTS Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges (CAIK). Together, they’re making a major contribution to the progression of Indigenous research and scholarship at UTS.
“Most of our research is based around Indigenous education – that’s the centre focus of what we do,” says Trudgett, CAIK’s Director.
“For Susan and I, our interest is very much based on higher education. We recently completed an Australian Research Council - funded study on the supervision provided to Indigenous doctoral students. I’m particularly passionate about research that looks at Indigenous postgraduate student experiences, and that was the topic of my doctorate when I did it a decade ago.
“Gawaian’s research area is predominantly racism and discrimination in education, and he is one of the most renowned academics in the country in that space.”
Since CAIK’s inception in February 2015, the team have attracted 10 higher degree by research students. Incredibly, supervising these students is a sidebar to CAIK’s broader mandate – the team was brought to UTS specifically to embed an Indigenous graduate attribute into every course at UTS.
But the research program has taken on a life of its own, complementing CAIK’s original mission while simultaneously creating a significant body of new knowledge that directly involves or impacts Indigenous Australians.
The diversity of this knowledge is evident in the wide range of projects that CAIK students are undertaking. PhD student Grace O’Brien is investigating the educational experiences of male Indigenous youth who are incarcerated in Queensland, and what she calls the ‘school to prison pipeline’.
She posits that exclusion from school often results in young Indigenous men coming into contact with police, leading to their dramatic over-representation in the juvenile justice system in Queensland.
“I was just astounded to see that Indigenous children were being incarcerated 28 times more than their non-Indigenous counterparts, even though they made up a smaller percentage of the cohort,” says O’Brien, whose research is supervised by Trudgett.
O’Brien is working with Indigenous community organisations, Elders and individuals in Queensland’s Moreton Bay area to develop Indigenous-led, community-based education solutions to correct the imbalance. Her aim is to give Indigenous kids who’ve been excluded from school, or who are falling through the gaps of the education system, a culturally supportive place to come to where they can get back on track.
“The exciting thing about Indigenous research is that it is an emerging field, but we’ve got the opportunity to look at western theory and try to explain it in our own words”
Lisa Oliver, meanwhile, is a Master of Education student and a Gamilaraay woman. She is supervised by Page, and investigating the role of Aboriginal women’s groups in building social capital. It’s a topic close to her heart – as an Aboriginal woman and a women’s group participant, Oliver has had first-hand experience of the value of these groups in a community setting.
“They play such an important role for Aboriginal women in connecting with each other, in becoming more resilient. I thought there was a need to do some qualitative study with those groups, and also tie some western social capital theory to the types of things that come out of them,” she says.
Oliver’s project uses Indigenous research design and methodologies developed by First Nation researchers. This approach, she says, allows her to conduct research in a way that reflects an Indigenous view of the world.
“The exciting thing about Indigenous research is that it is an emerging field, but we’ve got the opportunity to look at western theory and try to explain it in our own words, in our own terms and to be supported by UTS to do so,” explains Oliver.
CAIK’s students are part of a growing cohort of Indigenous research students across UTS. In 2015, there were 12 Indigenous research students at UTS. Today, there are 36. 14 of whom enrolled in the 2017 Autumn session alone. These numbers reflect a university-wide commitment to Indigenous education, which has resulted in UTS’s high profile reputation as a leader in the field.
According to Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement) Professor Michael McDaniel, this reputation is underpinned by extensive scholarship support for Indigenous research students, the collegiality of the UTS community and high-level Indigenous staff employed across the university. That includes not only the staff in CAIK, but others like Professor Larissa Behrendt, who, McDaniel says, has been the driving force behind the establishment of Indigenous research at UTS.
Departments like CAIK and Jumbunna: Institute for Indigenous Education and Research, which plays a crucial role assisting Indigenous students through the application process and provides cultural, social and academic support over the lifespan of a research degree, are also key to ongoing growth in this area.
Says McDaniel, “I think generally UTS is seen by many Indigenous people as a welcoming university, a university whose academics and the research of those academics is well known and is considered to be ethical and committed to having genuine impact with Aboriginal communities.”