The fundamental rights and freedoms we enjoy as Australians are universal. The universality of these rights and freedoms reminds us that all peoples and cultures are part of the shared inheritance of humanity. Recognising this, our rights and freedoms include specific affirmations that promote and protect the richness of our social and cultural diversity. In Australia, these affirmations recognise the continuing uniqueness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture. Australia has affirmed within our support for fundamental rights and freedoms “that indigenous peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognising the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such”.1

Rights on paper, universal or particular, do not immediately translate into equal access to opportunity or an equal capability to enjoy. The translation of these rights into reality for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples has been a protracted, sometimes painful journey; a journey that is not yet complete.

How, in a diverse society, do we navigate the translation of rights to reality? There has been at times divergence between what Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples choose and value as expressions of who each are, or their visions of the future. These divergences have adversely impacted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ability to realise the quality of or direction in life they seek.

Too often the validation of Aboriginal actions or choices has been framed by the will and preferences of non-Aboriginal people and institutions. For Aboriginal people, this is a top-down approach where the values and choices of the many have outweighed the culture and values of a few. This has historically been responsible for much of the social, economic, and political burden that the last 50 years has sought to lighten.

By building a university community that is responsive to the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, to their culture and diversity, we can strengthen the ability of our community, and society in later years, to thoughtfully add momentum to our current efforts to eliminate inequity, and build a more inclusive and prosperous Australian society. University communities that offer a more intense and complex intellectual and social experience than life in the broader community can create long-term positive social, political, and developmental skills and understandings in students and staff.

Exposing students and staff to different cultural, social and political perspectives would further expand their ability to understand, contribute, participate and lead in Australian society and democracy. Sydney can stand a meaningful and informed demonstration of inclusion as a principle of community and democracy.

Education grows individual and collective capabilities in the technical, social and psychological domains, and in the personal and civic domains of life.

Education is also critical to an individual’s right to be able to live the life they have reason to value. Education can contribute to the integrated development of human, identity and social capital in individuals, and groups in society, by:

  • building knowledge, skills and experience
  • developing trust, networks, relationships and participation
  • expanding confidence, self-image, and respect.

This strategy takes a rights-based approach through which decisions and actions can be compared, to ensure that everyone counts and is able to express their identity and culture freely, and work constructively towards the future they imagine.

The rights element of this strategy structures two approaches. The first is to scrutinise decisions and actions from the bottom up, a scrutiny that commences with the consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander outcomes and works backwards to the decision to ensure that they optimise the good that we do. This approach enables us to ensure that decisions do not unjustly or inadvertently deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, staff and communities the opportunity or capability to access, achieve, contribute and enjoy the benefits that engagement with the University community can offer. In this scrutiny the University of Sydney will consider at least Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’:

  • right to be different and how that might impact resources
  • assessment of intrinsic and instrumental value attached to an issue
  • real freedom to access, act or derive benefit
  • access to an equitable distribution of opportunity and development of capabilities.

The second is to create and frame our actions and choices from a commitment to the University and its ability to enrich the identity, social and human capital of the University community in its broadest embrace. This commitment will, as a beginning, converge around:

  • increasing and supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • building trust and engagement between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students and staff
  • enriching research, learning and teaching
  • partnering enquiry and society.

Moving forward will involve decisions that are challenging and it will be essential that each step on this journey is an informed one; where people who are affected are engaged in building agreement and priorities.

1. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 61/295 on 13 September 2007