Michael McDaniel and school never got on. But today, he is the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement) at UTS and breaking new ground with the launch of Australia’s first university Indigenous Residential College. Michael shares how his early experiences shaped his outlook on higher education and why the college is set to contribute to a more inclusive and Indigenous celebrating society.
I left school at the age of 14. And like many Aboriginal young people, I’d had an unpleasant experience.
I also initially left home at a very young age and did a number of short-term jobs – I was in the Army for six years, I was a security guard, I had a job sorting mail by night for the National Australia Bank.
Then, I saw an advertisement for a university offering bridging programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There was nothing in my track record to suggest I’d succeed – I wasn’t very studious at school and had probably written only four or five letters while I was in the Army. I also wasn’t aware of any other person in my immediate and extended family who had been to university, but I thought I’d give it a go. And that bridging course completely changed my life.
You’ve got to understand, university isn’t part of the experience of many Aboriginal families. That’s why we have to raise the aspiration of young Indigenous people and help them understand how higher education can lead to a life of meaningful work and contribution to society.
While there are an increasing number of Indigenous students who are thriving in the education system, the reality is, many Indigenous students don’t obtain marks at the same level as their non-Indigenous peers, even when they do finish Year 12. It’s not that they’re not intelligent and not keen, but life circumstances tend to create an environment that’s not conducive to successful study.
The other challenge for Indigenous people is, of course, accommodation, particularly if they’re living in a rural or remote region. Imagine you’re a student living in a small country town, aspiration has been raised, you want to go to university, the alternative pathway is there, you’ve passed the testing and assessment and an offer has been made to you. But, the one thing you don’t know is where you’re going to live.
The thought of moving away from home, from your community, and the questions of where you might live and how you might pay for your accommodation, may well deter you from taking up the offer. So, why would you put yourself in that situation?
That’s why we need to break new ground.
What we’re proposing is the establishment of Australia’s first Indigenous Residential College. It will be a world-class facility with approximately 250 beds accommodating Indigenous and non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students will be offered cost-covered accommodation, as we’re doing at the moment at our Wattle Lane residence, and provided a stipend to support their living costs. The other thing we’ll be doing is continuing to provide an accelerated tutorial learning development program. And that will be done through Jumbunna – a dedicated unit at UTS that supports the academic, social, cultural and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
The Indigenous Residential College is not an equity initiative. This is an excellence initiative. And it’s a new way of approaching Indigenous education. For the first time in history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will be able to choose a college that has a celebration of their own identity, culture and traditions at its heart.
I think, anecdotally, many would consider UTS a leading university in terms of Indigenous education and research, if not ‘the’ leading university. The philosophy that drives that success is our belief that Indigenous education is for all Australians. It’s not about the three per cent of the most disadvantaged Australians, it’s about all of us. It’s about nation building.
While many Australian universities are struggling in terms of Indigenous higher education – struggling for answers, struggling to find models that really work – we’ve found models that work in every single area of Indigenous interest and the results show this. For example, we’ve seen significant improvements in Indigenous student retention rates and currently have a retention rate of 81 per cent, noting that the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is closing. The number of Indigenous research students at UTS has increased 400 per cent between 2011 and 2018. Our Indigenous research student retention rate sits at 95 per cent, which is significantly higher than that of non-Indigenous research students. We have one of, if not the, largest Indigenous professoriates in Australia with rising Indigenous research output and impact to match.
And, excitingly, we’ve also seen a significant expansion in Indigenous research across UTS with the number of Indigenous research entities growing, including increased success in relation to research grants.
Regarding the university more broadly, since 2015, we’ve been rolling out an Indigenous Graduate Attribute project that involves a commitment that all UTS graduates will have a professional capacity to work with and for Indigenous Australians. And, we’re committed to sharing our successes across the sector.
I imagine the college in 10 to 20 years’ time having graduated thousands of people in middle to senior levels in the public service, private sector, community organisations and, possibly, even in government; all networking together, all sharing a vision. It would have been ridiculous to propose a college like this 20 years ago, even 10 years ago. But, now, I think there’s a new way of being Australian.
I don’t think we can fully appreciate the degree to which the college will impact Indigenous Australians. I like to think what it might be like in the future when a grandparent accompanies their grandchildren to Sydney while they’re encouraging them to stay at school and do their best. They will be able to point to this college and say there are lots of Aboriginal people from all over the country in there who are all going to be great people and are proud of their culture and identity. And in this building, this community, there’s a place for you when you’re ready. I think that’s going to be exceptional!
The college is set to be built in Ultimo on the land of the Gadigal people and aims to be open by 2024.
The estimated $100 million world–class Indigenous Residential College will offer:
- Approximately 250 beds for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students
- Scholarships and cost-covered accommodation for Indigenous students
- An architect-designed landmark building and contemporary interior design, informed by Indigenous designers with Indigenous culture and identity at its core
- Publicly accessible cultural, arts and community spaces celebrating Indigenous traditions and heritage
- Program of events and opportunities in collaboration with a range of education, cultural, community, industry and government partners
- Ongoing mentoring and leadership development
Find out more at www.indigenouscollege.uts.edu.au