Will uni students have to learn about Indigenous culture?

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?

16 thoughts on “Will uni students have to learn about Indigenous culture?

  1. It’s another wacky suggestion — I think the sad thing is is that we actually have to worry about it, because it might actually gain some traction. I might say that this isn’t the only oddity — it’s surprising how much attention is paid to indigenous issues. Where I work, for example, the accrediting body forces us to have “indigenous content” in our course. There are also innumerate indigenous schemes and boxes you need to tick on innumerate different forms for this and that.

    This is of course all really odd — whilst it might have some relevance in the Northern Territory, it really should be a non-issue in Victoria where all of 28,000 people claim to be Aboriginal (and god knows how many of them really are). Surely we have better things to worry about that affect more people.

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  2. “There are also innumerate indigenous schemes…”
    Presumably these are to counterbalance the illiterate non-indigenous schemes in which conrad has obviously participated.

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  3. Off topic, but when I reviewed the VCE Economics syllabus last year for a friend on the curriculum committee, I was surprised to find a reference to “indigenous knowledge”. I had no idea what this was meant to be about and I wonder how it has been interpreted by actual teachers and schools. Mind you, there was even more of a focus on Australia’s agricultural sector, which is a very minor share of the economy. No doubt the government trying to keep the regions happy.

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  4. This is bad enough, but it’s not on a par with the Howard government’s attempts to mandate a tory version of history, and Country Party values, in schools. As rajat notes there’s still plenty of this stuff in school curricula.

    At least uni students should be in a better position than primary school ones to resist propaganda, whether of left or right.

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  5. DD, of course school curricula are still set by the States, so Howard can’t be blamed for the strong agricultural focus of VCE Eco. I think ever since Bracks won in ’98 due to a regional backlash against Kennett, Victorian Labor has remained fairly attuned to the sensitivities of non-metro areas.

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  6. What utter twaddle. If I remember correctly this idea about embedding compulsory knowledge about indigenous culture into tertiary curricula was first tabled as a motion at the 1997 or 1998 Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations (CAPA) conference.

    I was one of the few people to speak against it, and given that most people thought I was a radical leftie, to be suddenly called a racist for opposing it came as quite a shock.

    I pointed out that adding a core unit of indigenous studies or adding time to couses to include it would force students to pay more HECS against their will.

    The issue of forcing students to pay more, now under the FEE-HELP system, to study things they don’t want to study is unacceptable.

    This subject belongs in primary and secondary school.

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  7. Andrew, I agree, such a discussion might cause some discomfort and thereby clarify some core values.

    There is a long discussion about the validity of modern ” knowledge/s” , particularly Women’s Studies in US universities, over at Crooked Timber. Maybe the American flavour put me off, but it seemed to me that no-one came to any real epistemological conclusions.

    http://crookedtimber.org/2009/03/18/its-an-outrage/

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  8. This is one of the most disturbing items I have read about higher education in quite some time. Far better would be to make mathematics, Greco-Roman history, and science compulsory for ALL students, especially Aboriginals. It might work well in England where “Indigenous knowledge” would mean Locke, Mill, Russel, Newton, and Shakespeare.

    Good god, imagine the types who would be force-feeding us this “Indigenous knowledge ” guff!

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  9. Have these proposers not understood that every extra subject comes at a cost (excluding other subjects). Sometimes the excluded subjects are deemed necessary (by goodness knows who, the professional admission boards?) and, may actually be necessary, so they are then added to a professional year, increasing student costs in both time and HECS.

    Interesting proposal, John Greenfield, maybe Melbourne uni is heading in the right direction, with a liberal arts beginning and a professional postgraduate ending? Back to the future with the Oxford PPE ( Politics, Philosophy and Economics) of the 1920’s?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that!

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  10. Martha – I am not sure whether ‘Indigenous knowledge’ is a euphemism for superstition or material about Indigenous experience or bush survival skills or something else entirely. Whatever it is, no evidence or reason has been provided that every student needs to know it.

    BTW, what Melbourne offers is not a liberal arts course – though one could be constructed out of the subjects on offer. The distinctive features of the Melbourne undergraduate courses are the absence (apart from Commerce) of vocational degrees and the requirement of a 25% ‘breadth’ component, so that everyone must take subjects outside their major field of study.

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  11. What a strange suggestion – an idea apt for primary or secondary school but not tertiary institutions. I feel I’ve read it before somewhere, but I can’t put my finger on where.

    But, if it was decided to implement it, imagine the disruption implementing it would cause. How, physically, would it be implemented?

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  12. The dumbing down gets worse. From 2010, NSW History HSC exam will include multiple choice questions, which are also being considered for English!

    Bureacratic functionary’s justification? Why “best practice” of course

    “The spokeswoman said most other exams already included multiple choice questions, and it was best practice to provide a variety of question styles to test students in different ways. ”

    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25231964-13881,00.html

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  13. Multiple choice questions can be marked by scanning the answer sheets, so there’s probably a cost saving motivation there.

    And if you think that the study of history is about what happened, rather than why it happened, then there really shouldn’t be any objection on pedagogical grounds. (I think students should be marked on their ability to explain the why, rather than remember the what, but I am unfashionably old-school in that respect.)

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  14. The what and the why are both important.

    One of my colleagues sets examinations where students have to answer a MCQ and then provide a paragraph justifying their choice. He reckons it works very well.

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