One of the less remarked-on sections of the Bradley report claimed that
it is critical that Indigenous knowledge is recognised as an important, unique element of higher education, contributing economic productivity by equipping graduates with the capacity to work across Australian society and in particular with Indigenous communities.
Arguments for incorporation of Indigenous knowledge go beyond the provision of Indigenous-specific courses to embedding Indigenous cultural competency into the curriculum to ensure that all graduates have a good understanding of Indigenous culture.
As this was a ‘finding’ rather than a ‘recommendation’, most readers were probably content to take it as a necessary, but empty, gesture to the hurt felt by the Indigenous Australians. After all, only a tiny proportion of graduates will ever work in contexts where knowledge of Indigenous people – let alone ‘Indigenous knowledge’ – will be useful, and it would be far more efficient to pick it up as needed than to build it into unrelated courses.
But now the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council is, according to the SMH, taking it a step further and proposing that
ALL university students and staff will be required to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture under proposals to be considered by the Federal Government.
This would be a radical move, because for all the micromanaging of universities from Canberra they have respected one university tradition, which is the freedom of universities to set their own curriculum. Mandating that universities teach anything in particular would breach this last line of resistance, and – at least in principle – reduce them to the status of public schools, as branches of the education department.
As ALSF President Byron Hodgkinson notes in the SMH piece, it is also likely to be unpopular among students, who would have to pay both the direct and opportunity costs of acquiring knowledge of direct use to few of them. This isn’t like school, where students are stuck there anyway. (And what about the international students?)
If this proposal goes anywhere (which I seriously doubt) it will be fascinating to watch the reactions of academics and universities. There was heated ‘academic freedom’ criticism of the previous government over relatively trivial incidents in which Brendan Nelson rejected a small number of Australian Research Council grant recommendations, and when Joe Hockey merely engaged in some colorful criticism of left-wing research. How would they react to a far larger assault on academic freedom, but in the name of an official victim group?