A Map to World Class Dreams

19 November 2013

After urging from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander advocates, the Coalition government has agreed to delay the progress of the referendum on Aboriginal constitutional recognition to enable further consultation on its wording. This is the right call. After all, as the 1999 republic referendum showed, broad public support for constitutional change is hard won, and it is worth investing the time to get the settings right.

Similarly the Coalition government must now also take the time to refine its election policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. It must do so to ensure it is comprehensive enough to achieve its stated objectives and also that it has benefited not just from the input of incoming members of the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council but from a much broader stakeholder group within the community.

Universities for instance could play a key role in helping the government achieve its policy objectives, not only in terms of education and employment, but across the full range of outcomes. Universities are the glaring omission from the Coalition's current thinking on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. Indeed there is no mention of university education in the Coalition's policy for indigenous affairs that it took to the September election.

It is worth asking whether this policy's value would be improved by promoting university education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? Absolutely - education is the key to productivity and prosperity. University graduates earn higher wages and Aboriginal graduates are highly sought after in Australian workplaces.

And here is where the Coalition could make a real contribution. Improving access to a university education is fundamental but alone is not sufficient to ensure greater prosperity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. We need to complement our record on improving access with equal achievement in improving completions. And we need to go further and lift the standard of completions - aiming not just for passes but passes with distinction averages or honours.

We need to convert more of the growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with undergraduate degrees into graduates with high quality postgraduate degrees, especially PhDs. Completion rates and the competitiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university graduates in the open market should be important and paired economic and social goals.

As it stands, the Coalition's indigenous affairs policy emphasises in its education section getting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children through the school gate to attend classes. It extends to the teaching of phonics and the expansion of boarding school scholarship opportunities before turning its focus to employment and the need for practical training initiatives to secure jobs - all worthy initiatives. The government is no doubt operating on the premise that extreme disadvantage must first be fixed to achieve basic outcomes before we can hope to strive for excellence.

But by omitting university as part of its policy for indigenous affairs, the government risks failing to close the gap between the growing prosperity of Australians and that of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If growth in prosperity for other Australians exceeds that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the gap will widen. Plainly put, policy should inspire and deliver greater change in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians than for other Australians. This is how the gap will be closed.

Reducing unemployment must be a given. But increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates moving into leadership positions and competitive well-paid jobs will deliver a better result than just increasing the number of people employed in less skilled work.

University education by way of degree-dependent professions such as medicine, allied health, business, law and engineering does, and could, further have a critical impact on disadvantaged communities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long pointed to the importance of role models and I see much ambition in the eyes of Aboriginal students.

The omission has also symbolic ramifications. It would be understandable that an Aboriginal child who reads this document now, or in the future, would believe that somehow university is an opportunity within our society that does not or did not belong to them.

It also separates Aboriginal children along advantage and geographic lines suggesting extreme disadvantage and remoteness is where help is needed. But if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people attend school in an urban environment (about 60 per cent live in major cities and inner regional areas), there is no urgent work to be done.

There are three important additions to the Coalition's indigenous affairs policy which should be considered.

First, it is critical to recognise university education as an essential contributor to the government's plans for ''closing the gap''. Second, graduation and access rates should be made equal and harmonised policy objectives. Third, the policy should contain an aspiration for excellence. This means pursuing policies that provide Aboriginal students with the best chance of graduating not just with passes but with high levels of achievement.

For true reconciliation we need to identify young Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people with the potential for leadership and to give them support and encouragement to realise their promise.

As a leader of a university with a particular interest in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander empowerment it is heartening to see the newly elected Prime Minister elevate indigenous affairs into his own portfolio. There is no doubt he is driven by a passion for social justice. However the pursuit of excellence must go hand in hand with the pursuit of social justice to truly achieve transformational change.

Dr Michael Spence is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.

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