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Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014

Chapter 5


Recognising the power of research as a tool for reform, Monash academics were at the forefront of change in Aboriginal Affairs during the 1960s and 1970s, leading the way with research on contemporary issues of Aboriginal employment, education, health and law. During the 1980s, with the establishment of MOSA and commencement of pre-tertiary education for Indigenous students, Monash again led the way. Its two Indigenous programs became three when the University amalgamated with the Gippsland Institute of Advanced Education in 1990. No longer a lone voice, by then most universities were teaching Aboriginal Studies and many were establishing Indigenous research centres of their own. Poorly resourced, Monash’s Indigenous programs got left behind. By the mid 1990s, the KRC’s profile had shrunk to such an extent that even Monash’s own undergraduates were unaware of its existence.

Beginning with the review conducted by Professor Colin Bourke and Associate Professor Eleanor Bourke in 1997, this chapter examines structural and other changes that have helped Monash regain much of its former standing in Indigenous research, teaching, employment and development. Unlike the Centre’s early history when change tended to be initiated and directed by individuals (at the will of government), in the recent past change has been mainly top-down, directed by Monash’s senior management. Strong individuals with clear visions still run the programs, however increased recognition of the vital importance of Indigenous research and teaching, not just in terms of revenue (although this cannot be ignored as a factor) but in terms of the Universities’ responsibility to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and contribution to reconciliation, is now apparent. Fifty-years after Colin Tatz persuaded the University to let him conduct research into contemporary Aboriginal Affairs in a formalised setting, building effective Indigenous programs has become a University-wide priority.

The Bourke Report

In 1997 Professor David Robinson, Monash’s newly appointed Vice Chancellor, invited Colin Bourke, Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Aboriginal and Islander Studies, University of South Australia, and Associate Professor Eleanor Bourke, Director of the Aboriginal Research Institute, University of South Australia, to undertake a review of Monash’s Indigenous programs. Robinson, who had been Vice Chancellor of the University of South Australia before coming to Monash, recognised the Bourkes’ talent for building up and maintaining strong Aboriginal programs; he hoped they could do the same for Monash.

The review commenced mid year and was completed by October. The consultants were given a broad brief. Tasked with investigating the effectiveness – ‘strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures’ – of Monash’s three Aboriginal programs, they interviewed all staff members involved with the Koorie Research Centre (KRC), the Monash Orientation Scheme for Aborigines (MOSA), and the Centre for Koorie Studies at Gippsland (GCKS). Appropriate senior and middle management of the University were also interviewed. The outcome was a series of recommendations that, while acknowledging the strong commitment of staff to their roles and widespread support for Aboriginal programs throughout the University, concluded that the programs were ‘failing to meet their potential’. Monash’s ability to make a ‘significant contribution to Koori research, development and education’ was noted on the first page of the report. The University had been the ‘first … to realize that Indigenous Australians required specific programs and organizational arrangements’, but it had ‘lost its pre-eminent position due to a range of factors’. The Bourkes’ purpose was to ‘provide advice which would enable the programs to achieve their potential in the future’, thereby helping Monash ‘to regain a reputation for being the leading Australian university’ in Indigenous education and research.

University statistics showed that 206 Indigenous students were enrolled across various faculties and campuses in 1996. Of these, only 60 were known to staff involved in Monash’s three Aboriginal programs. If the statistics were correct, this meant that the majority of Indigenous students at Monash were not receiving the benefit of specialised student support. The Bourke’s first recommendation addressed this problem head-on: they called for a database to be established which included the individual names, courses, modes of enrollment, and contact details of all Indigenous students at Monash.

The Bourkes made separate recommendations concerning each of Monash’s Aboriginal programs. Their perspective on MOSA, as noted in the previous chapter, was that it was overstaffed and under-enrolled. They recommended a minimum student enrollment of twenty, and that staffing be reduced. They also proposed that the curriculum be revised to better meet the needs of students. They did not recommend that the program be cut. To the contrary, they suggested that MOSA ‘be broadened to include responsibility for Indigenous student support’ across the whole University, and be renamed Monash Orientation and Support for Aborigines (thereby retaining the acronym MOSA). However, when student enrollments failed to reach their target the following year, MOSA was suspended and eventually disbanded.

Where the Bourkes wanted major change was in the area of undergraduate teaching and research. They recommended devolving Koorie Studies at Clayton to a centralised teaching unit at Gippsland as this would ‘enable rationalization of resources and improved cooperation’. More than that, it would allow the KRC to concentrate on research, consultancy and post-graduate teaching. Being presently devoid of ‘any long term strategies for research development’, the Bourkes recommended the KRC ‘undertake a review of research opportunities in Victoria, and elsewhere, in preparation for developing a rolling three year Research Strategic Plan’. As for Gippsland, their proposal to combine Koorie Studies there was designed to transform a unit which they plainly considered was underperforming. Gippsland offered a Diploma of Arts (Koorie Studies) to mainly Aboriginal students. Non-Aboriginal students were permitted to enroll in designated subjects by distance education. The Bourkes recommended opening the whole course to non-Aboriginal students, and encouraging additional Aboriginal students to enroll through distance education.

The major thrust of the Bourke Report was aimed at reorganising the current programs into a single coordinated unit. Previous attempts to align the programs had failed to produce lasting cohesion, the report noting a distinct ‘lack of coordination between the programs with no senior staff direction to provide leadership, vision and coordination’. They recommended that the University amalgamate the existing programs into a ‘Koorie Institute for Research, Development and Education’. They further recommended that a senior Indigenous academic be appointed at professorial level to provide leadership and oversight of the Institute, and that a Koori Advisory Committee be established to provide advice to the University and the Institute.

The final recommendations related to University-wide curriculum and Aboriginal education and employment strategies, and were closely aligned with Robinson’s master plan for the university, Leading the Way: The Monash Plan 1998–2002. Leading the Way identified internationalisation of the curriculum as a key priority. All award programs were required to demonstrate within their curriculum a ‘commitment to key internationalization outcomes’. The Bourkes wanted the same commitment shown to Aboriginalisation: they called for ‘all appropriate Monash award programs to demonstrate a commitment to Aboriginalisation within the next triennium’. Perceiving no major problems with regard to Aboriginal employment, they called for current Aboriginal Employment Strategy to be maintained.

The Bourke Report was less a roadmap for change than a report card with suggested areas for improvement. Responses were generally positive with the recommendation to appoint an Indigenous professor attracting the most praise. Since the departure of Professor Merle Rickelfs, who had served as Monash’s inaugural Head of Aboriginal Programs, the reporting and accountability structure of the three programs had been poor. Most respondents supported the establishment of the Koori Institute for Research, Development and Education, but not all agreed with its proposed name. Marlene Drysdale, Director of GCKS, suggested that ‘Australian Indigenous’ be substituted for ‘Koori’; Dr Margaret James, the University’s Equal Opportunity Manager, agreed. Echoing arguments against the use of Koori made by Bruce Knox and others in the late 1980s, James pointed out that the name was not appropriate for an Institute offering courses and conducting research on a full range of issues affecting Indigenous people throughout Australia.

The proposal to move the KRC’s undergraduate teaching responsibilities to Gippsland also attracted criticism. Director of MOSA and the KRC, Helen Curzon-Siggers argued that nothing could match the ‘Clayton model’ of individual speakers and person-to-person contact with Aboriginal people. Drysdale was not happy either, but her objections related more to the consultants’ suggestion that the GCKS was not pulling its weight. Describing the report as ‘rushed’, she complained that ‘too many assumptions were made about the programs at Gippsland’. Peter Marshall, assistant general manager (personnel services), was ‘somewhat disappointed with the level of analysis’ devoted to Monash’s Aboriginal employment strategy. He, like Drysdale, felt that perhaps the consultants did not have enough time to properly review Aboriginal employment matters. Given that Monash invested ‘in excess of $50,000 each year in encouraging growth in the levels of Aboriginal employment’, Marshall wanted to know whether the consultants considered this ‘sufficient, or whether economies [could] be achieved through better mainstreaming of Aboriginal employment matters’. Historian Dr Marian Quartly, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, thought the report ‘less than clear in several respects’. With characteristic brusqueness she asked: ‘Which faculty will provide the academic home for the Koori teaching program? What ever it is? And, for that matter, the research program? What formal relationships are envisaged with the faculties?’


Eleanor Bourke

Source: Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies

These were all matters that would be resolved in time. Curzon-Siggers’ five-year contract as Director of MOSA and the KRC expired at the end of 1998 and was not renewed. Emotionally and physically drained, Curzon-Siggers had no desire to continue in the role. After a short break, she started her own consultancy business before taking a position as Aboriginal Hospital Liaison Officer at the Southern Health Care Network. Pending the appointment of a senior Indigenous academic, Associate Professor Andrew Markus served as Acting Head of Aboriginal Programs. In 1998 the Monash Council approved a Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies within the Faculty of Arts. The following year Professor Eleanor Bourke was appointed to the Chair with dual responsibility as Director, Monash Aboriginal Programs.

Descended from the Wergaia and Wamba Wamba peoples of western Victoria, Eleanor Bourke (formerly Koumalatsos, née Anderson) was a strong advocate of the benefits of education for Aboriginal people. Leading by example, she completed a Diploma of Arts (RMIT), Bachelor of Arts (CCAE), and Masters of Education (University of Adelaide) and was enrolled as a PhD candidate at the time of her appointment. Her association with Monash began in the late 1970s when, as Aboriginal Student Liaison officer at the University of Melbourne, she began working with then Director of the ARC, Colin Bourke, facilitating the delivery of Black Studies lectures at the University of Melbourne. She later served on the Board of the ARC. Her return to Monash in 1999 was well received. She oversaw the disestablishment of the KRC, the GCKS and MOSA, and establishment of the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies (CAIS) in the Faculty of Arts.

CAIS consolidated the three antecedent Aboriginal programs into a single unit comprising teaching, research and Indigenous support. Contrary to the Bourke Report, Indigenous Studies continued to be taught from Clayton and Gippsland. A new first-year sequence, Introduction to Australian Indigenous Studies I & II, was introduced which enabled students to undertake a major or minor in Indigenous Studies at either campus. At second and third year, students could choose from a range of electives, including: Land Rights and Native Title; Australian Aboriginal Women; Australian Indigenous Health; Human Rights and the Indigenous Australian Experience; Aboriginal People and the Law, Archeology of Indigenous Australia; and Tourism and Indigenous Australia. CAIS at Clayton offered an honours program and a Masters by research program. CAIS at Gippsland hosted a Junior University program – a four-day orientation for Year 11 and 12 Indigenous students designed to introduce prospective students to university life – and plans were in place for the introduction of a two-year full-time Diploma in Arts (Australian Indigenous Studies) for Indigenous students with Year 11 (or mature age entry) at Clayton and Gippsland.

An Indigenous Student Support Unit was established within CAIS which provided assistance to prospective students, ongoing support to Indigenous students enrolled in all courses at all campuses of Monash, and arranged individual tutoring assistance under the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme. Clayton-based students had access to the Elizabeth Eggleston Library (formerly Memorial Resource Centre) which now held over 4000 monographs, journals and audio-visual materials. In 2000 Bourke won a large Australian Research Council infrastructure grant ($101,000) to catalogue the Eggleston Library and establish links with the main library. That year the federal member for Chisholm and Monash alumna, Anna Burke, praised CAIS’s ‘fantastic work’ in a speech in the House of Representatives. CAIS was not only a ‘centre for learning and research’, she enthused, but ‘a meeting place … where Indigenous students can relax, feel at home and get support and counseling from the friendly and accessible, if overworked, staff’.

The Centre was functioning well. In January 2001 Bourke gave notice of her intention to retire; she left the University in June. CAIS Senior Research Fellow, Dr Lynette Russell, was appointed Acting Director. When the position of CAIS Director and Chair of Indigenous Studies was advertised later that year, she applied and was successful. Russell grew up in a working-class outer Melbourne suburb. Like many Aboriginal families trying to survive in the face of relentless persecution and legalised discrimination, hers passed as white. So effective was her family’s passing that Russell was unaware of her Aboriginal heritage until the 1980s. Then studying archeology at La Trobe University, she shifted her attention to history, gaining a PhD from the University of Melbourne in 1995. Her thesis, ‘(Re)presented pasts: historical and contemporary constructions of Australian Aboriginalities’, was later published as Savage Imaginings (2001). She worked as a lecturer at the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University, and held a Faculty of Arts Post-doctoral Fellowship in the School of Historical Studies, Monash University, prior to joining CAIS.

Continuing a process commenced under Bourke, one of the first things Russell did when she took over as Director of CAIS was to check that all the students listed as Indigenous were actually Indigenous. She ran her ‘finger down the list of students’ and found a significant number who appeared to be international students. Assuming that most had probably misunderstood the question at enrollment, she instituted a ‘double checking mechanism’ – ‘we rang every student’ – and the numbers dropped: ‘it looked on paper as though I managed to cut the numbers in half’, she recalled. The University’s senior managers were not pleased: ‘Central didn’t like it … the Vice Chancellor did not like it’. However, since the University received government funding based on the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled, Russell felt it was important to get the figures right. She was not prepared to take money on ‘false pretenses’; she wanted to be able ‘to sleep at night’. The number of Indigenous students at Monash fluctuated over the next few years, but remained low: from a ‘real base’ of 98 in 2002, it dropped to 92 in 2005 before rising to 116 in 2007.

That year Monash ranked eighth in the Group of Eight (Go8) universities for Indigenous Access. One of the University’s Key Performance Indicators, Indigenous Access referred to the number of Indigenous students and staff on campus. Seeking ways to improve its ranking, the Vice Chancellor, Robinson, established an Indigenous Access and Support Programs Task Force to explore different strategies for Indigenous recruitment. The Task Force made it clear that while Monash’s Indigenous engagement initiatives were broader than CAIS – for example, in 2006 the Indigenous Health Unit of the School of Rural Health at Monash, in collaboration with James Cook University and the University of New South Wales, undertook a project to identify strategies for improvement in the recruitment of Indigenous medical students – CAIS needed to be better supported in order to achieve better results.

The main obstacle to recruitment continued to be the low number of Year 12 completions among Indigenous students: in 2005, the Year 12 retention rate for Indigenous students nationally was 39.5 percent compared to 76.6 percent for non-Indigenous students. Since increasing this number would increase the pool of potential applicants to Monash, the Task Force focused its attention on ways of encouraging Indigenous students to finish Year 12. It examined the efforts of several other Go8 universities and was sufficiently impressed by programs at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales to recommend that Monash follow their lead. At the University of Sydney a highly successful paid mentoring scheme paired Indigenous undergraduate students with Indigenous high school students. Relationships were developed over a number of years, providing academic as well as other types of support. Taking a different approach, UNSW ran an Indigenous Winter School, Nura Gili, for Indigenous students in Years 10–12. A one-week residential program, Nura Gili was credited with lifting UNSW from 8th to 5th position in the Go8 for Indigenous Access. The Task Force recommended that CAIS develop similar programs, and that renewed attention be given to creating entry pathways to university for Indigenous students without Year 12, or with low Year 12 scores. In particular, the Task Force suggested the possibility of offering Year 12 equivalent enabling courses through Monash College, a provider of pathways for international students. As discussed below, many of these ideas were taken up by the Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit (established in 2011).

The Task Force concluded that CAIS’s effectiveness was limited by its organisational structure, especially its ‘bottom heavy’ staffing profile. Russell was effectively Director of two separate units within CAIS, one responsible for academic matters (teaching and research), and the other for access and support, yet her only administrative assistance came from junior- to middle-level professional staff. The Task Force proposed the appointment of a senior administrator who would be responsible for driving the strategic direction of the Support Unit. It also suggested that the Support Unit, while remaining within CAIS and under Russell’s oversight, report to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) and have its own budget. These changes were implemented in 2008.

On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd formally apologised to Australia’s Indigenous people, particularly those affected by child removal policies. Within days, the Council of Monash responded with the following resolution:

Monash University is fifty years old this year. But its half-century cannot compare with the tens of thousands of years in which Indigenous Australians have walked, lived and flourished across the breadth and length of Australia.

Echoing the sentiments of apology and partnership affirmed by the Prime Minister, Monash reaffirms its role to advance the educational and career aspirations of Indigenous Australians.

This will occur on every one of Monash’s eight campuses – metropolitan, regional and international – and in our staffing, educational and research programs.

Giving effect to the Council’s resolution, recently appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), Professor Adam Shoemaker, convened a series of three roundtable discussions during May and June 2008. All Indigenous staff and students at Monash were invited, and invitations were also extended to non-Indigenous students, staff and the wider community. The roundtables were well attended with 25– 50 people present at each session. At Shoemaker’s request, Helen Fletcher-Kennedy, a non-Indigenous senior administrator, took note of everything that was said. Fletcher-Kennedy recalled Shoemaker telling her before the first roundtable that ‘in this space you need to listen … listen carefully and observe’; she ‘didn’t say a word’.

A Canadian-born scholar of indigenous literature and culture, Shoemaker was another ‘outsider’ who saw Indigenous disadvantage as a wrong to be righted. Given university-wide responsibility for Indigenous matters, he viewed the roundtables as a starting point for change. They resulted in a set of five initiatives designed to demonstrate and publically promote Monash’s recognition of, and respect for, Indigenous history, culture and heritage:

1. Ensure that each campus of the University signifies, symbolically and publically, the University’s commitment to Indigenous people, by flying both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

2. Implement an appropriate custom for Graduation ceremonies whereby Indigenous staff and students are offered the opportunity to wear a stole, sash or other tricolor garment in traditional colours to signify their cultural heritage and the University’s recognition of it.

3. Ensure that NAIDOC week, National Sorry Day, and other Indigenous days of significance are formally noted in the student diary and the University’s Cultural Calendar. Establish a centrally organized and supported University-wide celebration of NAIDOC week as an annual even on the University calendar.

4. Establish an annual Indigenous Welcome Day where elders and traditional custodians are hosted at a lunch or dinner gathering by members of Council and members of senior management.

5. Incorporate local Aboriginal language elements, and references to traditional custodians, on the University website.

The University Council endorsed the initiatives in 2009. In the same year the Victorian State Government passed the Monash Act 2009. Under this Act, Monash was required to:

f. use its expertise and resources to involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia in its teaching, learning, research and advancement of knowledge activities and thereby contribute to:

i. realizing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aspirations; and

ii. the safeguarding of the ancient and rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.

Appreciating the significance of the moment, Shoemaker wasted no time in implementing the roundtables’ suggestions.

Flying the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags at every campus helped to identify and affirm Monash as a ‘culturally safe place for all Indigenous people’. The flags and stoles, together with the other initiatives listed above, were enabling steps which allowed Monash to move toward its desired (and legislated) goal of improved access for Indigenous people to all aspects of university life. The establishment of an Aboriginal garden at the Clayton campus also helped. Botanist Dr Beth Gott from the School of Biological Sciences hoped the garden, which featured a range of plants known to have been used for food, medicine, fibre or tools by Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia, would encourage non-Indigenous people ‘to experience a connection with the land’.

The next step was the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Council. Under the chairmanship of Professor Colin Bourke, the IAC set up a Strategic Working Group to consider the processes required for achieving improved access for Indigenous staff and students at Monash. The Working Group identified four key areas of Indigenous related activity: Indigenous Studies (research and teaching); Indigenous Student Access, Recruitment and Support; Indigenous Employment and Development; Indigenous Community Engagement. The Working Group advocated a ‘whole-of-university’ approach to achieving improved Indigenous access and pointed to a lack of Indigenous staff and resources focused exclusively on achieving this. It also highlighted what it saw as a misalignment of organisational structures and accountabilities, for while the overall responsibility for Indigenous access and participation rested with the portfolio of the DVCE, the unit primarily engaged in the business of Indigenous student access, recruitment and support, as well as teaching and research, CAIS, was aligned with the Faculty of Arts. This created numerous headaches. The biggest problem, as far as Fletcher-Kennedy was concerned, was that it was ‘very, very difficult to have the staff within an Arts Faculty … telling a Business faculty or a Medicine faculty what they needed to be doing with Indigenous students’.

Fletcher-Kennedy was referring to the staff of the Indigenous Student Support Unit located within CAIS. The appointment of a senior administrator to look after the ISSU had eased Russell’s workload giving her more time to focus on the academic side of CAIS’s work, but she was effectively still doing two jobs. Russell and CAIS’s academic staff were focused on building CAIS’s reputation as a research and teaching centre. A strong advocate of research-led teaching – ‘otherwise you’re a high school, you’re teaching what other people have put in text books’ – Russell had developed an Indigenous Studies curriculum around the research interests of CAIS’s staff. However, with low to very low enrolments across all units, few honours students and negligible numbers of international students, it was apparent that something needed to change. In 2010 Russell commissioned Professor Ian Lilley from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland to conduct a review of CAIS’s curriculum. Lilley interviewed CAIS teaching and research staff, and carried out a detailed assessment of CAIS’s unit offerings. His report identified the absence of a ‘coherent plan purpose-designed to achieve an unambiguous end-goal’ as one of the Centre’s main weaknesses. A ‘thorough renewal’ of CAIS’s entire academic program was needed, Lilley asserted, one in which CAIS staff ‘had a long, hard look at what they teach, why and how, to ensure that all staff and students share a clear idea of what the academic program is for and how staff and students should go about achieving this end’. Lilley also recommended separating CAIS’s academic program from the support unit to form a stand-alone teaching and research entity.

In light of Lilley’s report and in keeping with the IAC’s Strategic Working Group’s recommendations, Shoemaker decided to establish a stand alone Indigenous Engagement Unit at the end of 2010. For Russell, the split seemed to come out of nowhere: she thought it extremely ill-conceived and poorly executed. She recalled how, ‘literally one afternoon, I was told I was no longer in charge of student support’. It was not meant as a slight, nor as a criticism of her work, but that was how it felt. At the same time, it was a relief. Looking back on 2010, Russell remembers sagging under the weight of work and responsibility. On reflection, she acknowledged that everything ‘worked out quite well’, but at the time it was very difficult not to take the division of CAIS personally.

Yulendj: ‘A Slow Revolution’

Clearly demarcating the line between what had formerly been two units within CAIS, the academic (teaching and research) program was renamed the Monash Indigenous Centre (MIC), and the new program devoted to Indigenous recruitment, engagement and support was given an Aboriginal name, Yulendj, a Kulin word for knowledge and intelligence. Formally established on 1 January 2011, Yulendj brought together staff of the Indigenous Student Support Unit and staff of the Office of the DVCE into a single, centrally funded hub with a university-wide remit. Headed by Fletcher-Kennedy, the Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit was housed in the Gallery Building alongside the MIC until 2014 when MIC moved to the 8th floor of the Menzies Building.


Staff at Yulendj Indigenous Engagement Unit. From left to right: Cathy Doe, Jason Brailey, Helen Fletcher-Kennedy, Aunty Diane Singh, Angela Estcourt, Kristel Keleher, and Brian Walker on the occasion of Monash receiving a Wurreker Award for University Pathways (October, 2014)

Source: Helen Fletcher-Kennedy

One of the first steps Fletcher-Kennedy took in her new role was to establish the position of ‘Elder in Residence’, a continuing appointment split between Yulendj and MIC that Aunty Diane Singh has held since 2011. A MOSA graduate (1991 intake), Singh worked at CAIS for many years in a number of different roles including as Community Liaison Officer. Her three daughters all attended Monash, and one of her grand-daughters attended the ‘Hands On Monash Camp’ in 2015 (see below). Singh’s experience, which exemplifies the level of intergenerational involvement made possible by the University’s long commitment to Indigenous programs, makes her an invaluable resource and role model to Indigenous staff and students.

Taking a rights-based approach to facilitating University objectives, Yulendj’s core business was (and is) students. While it also devoted considerable time and resources to community engagement and Indigenous staff employment and development, the main challenge inherited by Yulendj was to create new opportunities to increase the number of Indigenous students at Monash. The University’s track record for retention and completion was good; the problem lay in getting Indigenous students to come to Monash in the first place. The number of universities in Victoria alone – nine in 2011 – made for a highly competitive environment. Working directly with secondary schools, Yulendj developed a range of new programs including ‘Hands on Monash Camp’, a three-day camp held at Clayton, and ‘Experience Monash Day’, an annual event attracting hundreds of Indigenous students from schools across Victoria to Clayton, which managed to boost undergraduate enrolments of Indigenous students from 69 in 2011, to over 100 in 2014. Total enrolments of indigenous students across all course types over the same period increased from 117 to 152, a growth rate of 29 percent.

Building on the work done in recruitment, Yulendj created pathways to ensure prospective students were given the means and opportunity to succeed. In 2011 an Indigenous Enabling Program (IEP) was set up to widen access while ensuring academic preparedness. A partnership with Monash College was forged which enabled Indigenous IEP students to meet the prerequisites for a wide range of degrees including Science, Nursing, Emergency Health, Education, Business and Economics, and Information Technology. Although only small numbers were involved (in 2014, seven students enrolled into an IEP, six completed the course, and five enrolled at Monash), the individual care and attention each student received from staff at Yulendj ensured a high retention rate; much higher than expected. The successor, in many ways, to MOSA, the IEP encountered the same type of mindset regarding the ‘lowering of university standards’ when it began. Locating the IEP outside the University (at Monash College) helped to reduce the risk for ‘standards focused people’, Fletcher Kennedy explained, none of whom ‘expected that every student would get through as they are’. This ‘sofly, softly’ approach to change, working behind the scenes to create new pathways for small numbers of Indigenous students, sometimes individual students, was (and is) Yulendj’s path to ‘slow revolution’.

Growing student numbers at a sustainable level is only part of Yulendj’s remit. The team of seven (all of whom, apart from Fletcher-Kennedy, are Indigenous) also ensures that Indigenous students receive adequate support during their time at Monash. Tutoring is offered to any Indigenous student who needs it. Jason Brailey, manager of Yulendj, is quick to point out that ‘no-one gets into Monash who hasn’t earned the right to be here, whether it’s through direct entry or through a pathway’, therefore most of the tutoring is ‘not remedial’. He stresses that there is no ‘scaffolding of Indigenous students’ at Monash. Instead, for the most part, Indigenous tutoring is about boosting ‘self-confidence … [and] managing the transition into a pretty strange culture’. ‘University culture is odd for everyone’, Brailey quips, but for Indigenous students, the majority of whom are the first in their families to attend university, it can be a very ‘isolating experience’. In 2013, nearly 70 percent of commencing Indigenous students at Monash were classed as ‘first in family’. For such students, the support provided by Yulendj helps to fill in a range of sophisticated cultural gaps. Rightfully proud of Yulendj’s role in transforming ‘shy, little timid kids … into awesome adults who go off and work in Aboriginal community organisations and do really good work’, Brailey sees the Engagement Unit’s role in providing a ‘safe and comfortable place where they can build … cultural pride’ as one of its most important functions.

Yulendj is responsible for developing, promoting and facilitating ‘cultural safety’ training for staff and students. In 2013 it ran an Introduction to Indigenous Cultural Safety workshop involving over three-hundred staff, and in 2014 it launched an online cultural awareness program for students at Monash. Yulendj is also responsible for coordinating Monash’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). Released in 2013, the RAP provides guidance in Indigenous education, research, employment outcomes, and community engagement, and forms part of Monash’s Indigenous Strategic Framework. At its core is a statement of respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and knowledge, a commitment to working towards ‘addressing the legacies of the past’, and a ‘desire to make a difference’. The latter, it is noted, ‘informs everything we do’.

Yulendj’s ability to facilitate certain RAP objectives, such as the requirement to build Indigenous viewpoints and content into curriculum, increase the number of Indigenous staff, both academic and professional, and increase opportunities within Monash to advance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff interests, is limited by a lack of resourcing and a lack of a senior Indigenous leadership in senior management roles. Yet, as Brailey observes, the resourcing of Yulendj is part of the ebb and flow of university life. Monash, like any complex organisation, has many competing interests, and it is up to Yulendj to demonstrate the need for additional resources; that is part of its job. Beyond such challenges lies a philosophical and arguably more fundamental problem of perception. For Brailey, it is a question of how Yulendj is seen by the broader University community. He worries that once the gap in education, access and opportunity is closed, an argument will be made that units like Yulendj are no longer needed. Rather than surplus to requirement, Brailey insists that there will always be a need for ‘Aboriginal places and spaces’ on campus ‘by virtue of the fact that it is Aboriginal land’. His vision is that Yulendj will evolve into a ‘place of recognition’; ‘a place where Aboriginal people can make from it what they will … a place of excellence in all sorts of different ways’.

Monash Indigenous Centre

Excellence is also high on Russell’s agenda for the future. Conservative in her approach to change, she believes ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’, and since the MIC ‘doesn’t seem broken’ to her, her plans for the future revolve around enhancement rather than reform. Her ultimate vision is for the MIC to become the ‘premier Indigenous Studies unit in Australia’, a place ‘known for its academic excellence’. With Russell in charge, this seems an achievable objective.

The Monash Indigenous Centre turned fifty in December 2014. Abroad at the time, Russell was a world away from the lone office at Clayton where the Centre began. Awarded a prestigious visiting fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, she was ensconced in one of the wealthiest colleges at the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Her fellowship was (and is) a significant achievement for any academic, especially for an Indigenous academic, and is testament to the value she places on academic rigour and excellence. During her time as Chair of Indigenous Studies at Monash, Russell has published twelve books and countless articles and book chapters, won numerous small and large research grants, including an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship (2011–2016), and was recently elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Such extraordinary success often comes at a price. For Russell, the cost has been community engagement: she freely acknowledges that she is ‘much less community focused’ than previous Centre Directors. Yet, with Yulendj now responsible for community engagement, the cost is muted.

In 2014 MIC was staffed by a mixture of Indigenous and non-Indigenous academics and professional staff, and had a growing number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous HDR students. Russell, who ‘talent spots’ potential new recruits at conferences and seminars, is proud of what the MIC has achieved during her Directorship. She points especially to the ‘bringing in of Anthropology and Archeology … and History and Performance Studies’. While still focusing on contemporary experiences and issues involving Aboriginal peoples, identities and culture, today MIC is a ‘much more integrated and intellectually engaged space than ever before’. International perspectives inform much of the Centre’s teaching and research. Driven less by the university-wide emphases on internationalisation, and more by Russell’s conviction that students need to see and understand ‘the kinds of experiences that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have as part of the global system of colonization’, every MIC course includes an international comparative element. Strong partnerships and ongoing collaborations with individual researchers and research centres at universities in New Zealand, Europe and North America support this focus.

Conclusion: How Far Have We Come?

Have Monash’s Indigenous programs made a difference in Aboriginal peoples’ lives? The founder and inaugural director of the Centre for Research in Aboriginal Affairs, now the Monash Indigenous Centre, Professor Colin Tatz returned to Monash in 2014 to give his perspective on ‘how far we’ve come’. Taking a long view, and commenting on a wide range of social indicators, Tatz concluded that basically ‘we’re kind of slow learners’. Despite all the advances and developments of the previous fifty years, Aboriginal people were still ‘segregated enough in the political and bureaucratic minds, still removed enough from society, to impose restrictions on wages, on incomes, on income access, on food access, on alcohol access, and to being subject to special “mutual responsibility agreements”’. This meant that many Aboriginal people were ‘still separated from the mainstream society and the services that are provided by the mainstream society’. In terms of legal equality, wage parity, health, and housing, some improvements had been made, but the overall picture remained one of gross disadvantage for Aboriginal people. For every ‘win’, symbolic or real, there were an equal or greater number of losses: Land Rights versus the ‘institutionalization of Aboriginal youth’; fewer deaths due to tuberculosis, more due to heart disease and renal failure; the modern tragedy of Aboriginal suicide, which Tatz described as ‘the social indicator to end all indicators’; and so on.

Yet it was not all doom and gloom. ‘Fantastic’ changes had occurred in the areas of education and academia. Whereas during the early 1960s Aboriginal people were ‘objects of scientific curiosity’ with academic interest limited to recording the last remnants of a people and a culture in decline, Tatz observed that the ‘menu’ had completely changed. Aboriginal people were now, and had been for some time, co-ventures in research, organising and running projects of their own design. And whereas in 1969 the number of Aborigines at university around the country could be counted on two hands (which, at the time, was an ‘amazing’ achievement, Tatz recalled), now there were dozens of Aboriginal doctors, lawyers, and hundreds of other tertiary educated Aboriginal professionals. The Monash Centre for Research into Aboriginal Affairs had played a role in initiating these changes which, Tatz concluded, ultimately made life better for Aboriginal people in 2014 than in 1964. All things considered, he reasoned that ‘in terms of freedom; in terms of human rights; in terms of dignity, I’d rather be a young Aboriginal now than then’. When to this list is added the support provided by Yulendj and academic stimulation provided by MIC, it is likely that many of the nearly 200 Indigenous students enrolled at Monash in 2015 would probably agree. Led by people of exceptional character, skill and determination, the research, teaching, support and development conducted by Monash’s Indigenous programs over fifty years have contributed to better understandings of the causes of Indigenous disadvantage which in turn have helped to improve the material circumstances of Indigenous peoples’ lives. But there is still more work to be done.

Making a Difference: Fifty Years of Indigenous Programs at Monash University, 1964–2014

   by Rani Kerin