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Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs
Language learning in Indigenous communities

OLDFIELD, Ms Janine Gai, Lecturer B, Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Education

Committee met at 10:01

CHAIR ( Mr Neumann ): Welcome. I declare open this Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs inquiry into language learning in Indigenous communities. I welcome those few people who are present here today in Alice Springs. The committee would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay our respects to their elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who may be in the room as well.

Please note these meetings are formal proceedings of parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest, and it can be considered a serious matter to attempt to mislead the committee. I do not yet know what punishment is meted out, having said that many, many times. This hearing is open to the public and is being broadcast live via the internet, and a transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee's website.

Janine, before we proceed to questions, would you like to tell us about the Batchelor institute, how long you have been working there, where it is up to, how viable it is, what the future holds for Batchelor and what work is being done at Batchelor.

Ms Oldfield : I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners as well. I have been at Batchelor for 11 years, so I have seen quite a lot of change. It began in the 1980s, from what I can gather, as a teachers college just outside of Darwin. It has grown from strength to strength. A couple of staff members were in the original teachers degree, which was called the Remote Area Teacher Federation RATF—program. It was done in conjunction with Deakin University. For many years the only higher degrees were the teaching degrees and I think there was a health worker degree as well and a couple of others. In about 2005 or 2006 there were some dramatic changes at Batchelor. The director and board decided to make it more focused and extend the university arm of the college. So quite a number of different degrees were on offer. At the time our enrolments were quite healthy. In our course alone, which was a teaching course, we had about 100 students at any one time. I am not sure of the entire higher degree enrolments. Then there were some issues about funding. From what I could gather, funding had not changed in real terms from about 2001.

CHAIR: From where—state, federal or local?

Ms Oldfield : Federal, I think. The state gave the VET funding, so this is the higher ed—the federal funding. The college became bankrupt, basically, and the government moved to manage the college. That happened in about 2007 or 2008. In the meantime there was a dramatic drop in student numbers. The minister for education at the time, Julia Gillard, said that the Batchelor was to amalgamate with CDU to create an organisation called ACIKE.

Mr HAASE: To amalgamate with whom?

Ms Oldfield : Charles Darwin University.

Mr HAASE: Thank you; I did not recognise the acronym.

Ms Oldfield : The Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education was created. This happened this year. Last year we were still working as Batchelor institute, with Batchelor's own degrees. We still had a drop in numbers. Many students have actually left all the degrees and some of the degrees have disappeared altogether. The health worker degree, which is one that is extremely needed in the Northern Territory and Queensland, is not there at all now because CDU did not want to take it over.

So there is a big hole there for people in the Territory, of course, in particular. There has been a big drop in numbers. Many of our existing students decided not to carry through with a CDU degree—quite a few did; quite a few did not. We do not appear to have any new enrolments; we think there is a complication with the enrolment status. People have to do online enrolment, which is quite difficult for remote people. It is a very complicated enrolment process. I find it extraordinarily difficult; I can barely get through it myself. It is not well advertised. People do not know anything about ACIKE, so it is not attracting people. People do not even know Batchelor is still doing higher ed. Remote areas are being told by schools and principals that there is no Batchelor higher ed anymore. So at this stage we are seeing a drastic reduction in numbers. There is the possibility of a couple of new enrolments in second semester, but we are looking at probably a redundancy of 30 staff in higher ed because the numbers are so low. We do not think we are going to get the funding to keep going. This is the rumour. We cannot be certain of this, of course.

CHAIR: Was that in language learning as well, and education?

Ms Oldfield : Yes. That is in linguistics, education, creative writing and social policy and studies.

CHAIR: Tell us what happens at the Batchelor institute that is relevant to our inquiry here into language learning.

Ms Oldfield : Batchelor institute is a both-ways institute. What that means is that we use the culture of our students as the basis of our learning. That is where we start. It does not start from a white perspective; it actually starts from Indigenous genres and Indigenous language, including Aboriginal English and languages of people. Some people can make their oral presentations in all courses, if the lecturer so chooses, in their first language. It is acknowledging the experiences and the knowledge that come with people and using that as a means to educate and acquaint people with Western ways of doing things—but with an Indigenous bent. The way we see education in Batchelor is as a site of discourse or contestation, which means we see it as a site where discourses can be argued over, fought over and changed so that it does accommodate marginalised and, in this case, Indigenous people. That means they are included more fully in our society generally. They have much greater say, much better health outcomes, much better social and emotional outcomes, and much better employment outcomes. In this way it does impact directly on the language community. The language community is not just about language; it is about culture. Language is culture. Language is identity. This is what we preserve at Batchelor for our students.

Dr STONE: You said that in 2007-08 the first dramatic drop in students was observed. What triggered that? Was it just the enrolment process?

Ms Oldfield : There was a financial crisis at Batchelor, so I think people got a bit scared about enrolling. Also, we had not had funding for a number of years for marketing, so people were not aware. Batchelor was off the radar.

Dr STONE: Is your campus here in Alice Springs?

Ms Oldfield : We used to be at Bloomfield Street campus and that is another issue for Batchelor. Some of us are here; some of us are still in town. Batchelor has to maintain two campuses and it just cannot do it—it is going broke. They have asked again and again for money for residential facilities here and for the library to be placed here—they have been asking that for the last 10 years—and still have not got it.

Dr STONE: You had a residential facility in downtown Alice Springs?

Ms Oldfield : It is still there. The buildings are falling apart.

Dr STONE: How were students financed? If they got into a teacher training course or health worker course, for example, did they have a stipend to help them survive during their course studies?

Ms Oldfield : They get Austudy.

Dr STONE: So it is just the same as mainstream study.

Ms Oldfield : Yes, although there are some particular scholarships around now for teacher education for Indigenous teachers. I am not really sure about the health side of things. There could be scholarships for them as well. Some people have managed to tap into that.

Dr STONE: You referred to some students making all their presentations in language. Was a part of the training also to have the students competent in Australian standard English?

Ms Oldfield : Yes. I think it would depend on your content area. For instance, when I teach science we do Western science plus I get the students to bring in their own culture. So of course it is their own culture and their own language that they have to incorporate. When they are designing lessons, they are actually using their own stuff as well, which they have to for their students. It is engaging their students. Maths is not about standard English, so they can do oral presentations in language if they so choose, but for English obviously they have to do standard Australian English. There are certain things in the degrees of teacher education that are nationwide now. There are national benchmarks, so Batchelor conforms to those benchmarks as well. But they do have a bit of leniency outside that to make things very focused on empowerment and focused on Indigenous ways of doing things. We also use Indigenous learning methodologies here at Batchelor, which you do not get in the mainstream.

Dr STONE: What would you call Indigenous learning methodologies? Are men and women separate?

Ms Oldfield : It could be, depending on how they feel. It could be the way you present information. There are a lot of graphic diagrams.

Dr STONE: Visual and written.

Ms Oldfield : Visual stuff. Yes. There is perhaps a lot of oral—probably more oral. Our students are very strong on oral skills and because they are marginalised there is a certain intellectualism that they bring to bear on that. In designing the teacher education degree, we knew the first-year students would not have the standard English of normal first-year students so we scaffolded them from first to fourth year so that they actually exited with the same standard English outcomes. We do not do that now with the CDU degree. It is just not in there, so students are finding it extremely—

Dr STONE: Which might be part of the reason for the exit of students from the course.

Ms Oldfield : It probably is, yes. At the first or second year it is crucial to do that, and it has almost completely gone.

Dr STONE: How many graduates have you achieved during the time that you have been up here and are they now progressing in the schools or have they shifted to somewhere else? Can you identify your graduates as teachers, or are they all teachers' aides?

Ms Oldfield : To be honest, I do not have the numbers, but I suppose we were getting between five and 10 graduates a year—and it could have been more, because we have two campuses that graduate. Everybody I know that has graduated has got work in schools. Many of them were going remote, to the Top End islands. One we have in Yipirinya School down here.

Dr STONE: As teachers or teachers' aides?

Ms Oldfield : Teachers. We are higher ed, so they are qualified teachers when they leave. There are hundreds of IEWs, Indigenous education workers, out there. It is quite a healthy—

Dr STONE: sector.

Ms Oldfield : Yes, quite a healthy number of students. They always overenrol in VET bachelor by about 30 per cent because they have such high demand, but for the last few years the VET allocation funding has not increased.

Dr STONE: So is VET in a state of collapse as well as higher ed?

Ms Oldfield : People are saying that it is going to be at risk too because there is no growth in terms of the finding despite large demand and other organisations coming into remote areas that are not experts in delivering to Indigenous people. They come in for a few years and they cannot sustain it because it is a particular way of doing things, and we have been doing this for 30 or 40 years. That is really not of benefit to remote Indigenous people either.

Mr HAASE: Janine, the accommodation aspect of bachelor you say is in poor repair. Do you know what the charge to students being accommodated is?

Ms Oldfield : That comes through a different bucket of funding. It is to do with particular travel funding that the federal government provides. The students do not get charged for that.

Mr HAASE: That might be a source of the problem. Are the courses that are being run that you have had experience with full-time, normal, mainstream, semester courses?

Ms Oldfield : Yes. Some people are part time, but, yes, ours are full time.

Mr HAASE: Is there any extension of courses online? Are your courses available online?

Ms Oldfield : We have made a move to make ours available online. I see what you mean. The delivery mode is a workshop mode. People come in for an extensive period of study, maybe for one week, to do one to three different units—usually no more than three.

Mr HAASE: With what frequency? I am just trying to get an impression of how often one has to come off country and live in Alice with the possible domestic disruption—

Ms Oldfield : It could be about four to six weeks a semester. It has been reduced. It used to be eight weeks a semester; it has been reduced to about four to six.

Mr HAASE: Taking a different tack now, in relation to delivering work in language, what language skills do lecturers have and what languages are spoken by lecturers?

Ms Oldfield : From what I could gather, the education lecturers were not Indigenous language speakers. I have a smattering of Luritja and Arrernte, but that is it. The students' Aboriginal English, or standard English, is quite good. They can interpret what the lecturers are saying. But the thing is that when they are presenting or when they are designing something they can use their own language first.

Mr HAASE: How would an assessment be carried out by a lecturer if there were no language skills and a student chose to present in language?

Ms Oldfield : Often there would be a written component that went with the oral component. It could be a PowerPoint presentation, a couple of written paragraphs or an essay.

Mr HAASE: Just more. Going directly to our issue—the teaching—you are saying Batchelor is running and accepting language, but having no part in teaching language.

Ms Oldfield : No, the linguistics do teach the language. Linguistics degrees and the linguistics VET courses involve teaching the languages.

Mr HAASE: They formalise the native tongue?

Ms Oldfield : Yes.

Mr HAASE: So they teach grammar?

Ms Oldfield : Yes.

Mr HAASE: Is there is any evidence of Batchelor getting involved in teaching interpretation?

Ms Oldfield : Linguistics is not my area.

Mr HAASE: That is fine, if you do not know.

Ms Oldfield : I know that the Institute for Aboriginal development were doing that. I think we have a linguistics degree which could lead onto interpretation, but I am not sure whether it allows you to be an interpreter, to be honest. I am not 100 per cent sure on that. I know it is definitely connected, but you would have to ask someone from linguistics.

Mr HAASE: And your Indigenous education workers?

Ms Oldfield : Yes?

Mr HAASE: Are they taught how to interpret—how to be the conduit between language and Australian standard English?

Ms Oldfield : They have particular competencies that they have to complete. To be honest, I do not know whether they are taught that. But they are also very good English speakers, so the interpretation is not an issue generally when they are interpreting for their students.

Mr HAASE: I think the officers of the committee are conscious that there are real skills in being impartial and interpreting from one language to another. It is quite a skill.

Ms Oldfield : Yes. Maybe that is something—to be honest, I am not 100 per cent. I have not see it. I used to teach that course, but I have not taught it for a long time. It certainly was not there when I was teaching it. So maybe that is something to consider.

Ms GRIERSON: You are suggesting that under the Batchelor model that was existing you could do that support and transition in the first couple of years to get them to the final point, which is an acceptable qualification at an acceptable tertiary standard. Are you suggesting that that would not be possible under an amalgamation with Charles Darwin?

Ms Oldfield : Batchelor lecturers have been doing it, because we are used to doing it, but it is not defined yet as a curriculum. That is what we are concerned about.

Ms GRIERSON: So you need the curriculum to be written in a way that acknowledges the starting point for Indigenous learners and the gaps that they need to enrich what they already know.

Ms Oldfield : That would give a clear direction to the lecturers of what they are to do. At the moment, you could get a new lecturer coming in and if they have got no experience with Indigenous students they would just start teaching mainstream stuff and it would not work.

Ms GRIERSON: Does Charles Darwin have a campus in Alice Springs?

Ms Oldfield : It does. It has an Alice Springs campus.

Ms GRIERSON: Are you going to combine the centres or are you aware of what is going to happen?

Ms Oldfield : No, we have ACIKE students coming through this Batchelor campus. They do have Indigenous students too—they could be internal or external and they would go through Alice Springs and Casuarina.

Ms GRIERSON: I guess that you are suggesting to us that the Batchelor Institute has had a lot of experience in working with Indigenous communities, that you have been well known and well understood and that your success rate is such that people want to come and do these courses. How do your students get to do your course? Do all the schools in the remote communities know about you?

Ms Oldfield : Yes, they were. We were getting assistant teachers coming through us to do degrees. Yes, it was a common way of getting students through.

Ms GRIERSON: So if we saw Aboriginal education workers out in schools—and we did—could they then go on to do your course?

Ms Oldfield : They can.

Ms GRIERSON: How would they be serviced if they did not want to leave their community?

Ms Oldfield : That is a bit difficult. They actually have to. They have to do the work.

Ms GRIERSON: They have to leave the community.

Ms Oldfield : Yes, because they are finding the online environment extremely problematic.

Ms GRIERSON: Yes, it is problematic.

Ms Oldfield : That is the problem with the CDU degree: it is often largely online unless you are on campus at Casuarina.

Ms GRIERSON: Age of the people taking up the courses? Is it mostly the young ones coming straight through or is it people who have come back?

Ms Oldfield : No, it is typical of the other universities with Indigenous students. It is women who have got families. They are in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Ms GRIERSON: You mentioned the health workers course. Is that an accredited course.

Ms Oldfield : It was an accredited course. There are many health centres around the Territory that use health workers. Sometimes health workers are the only health personnel in a centre. They are trained up to a degree where they are not quite nurses but they are able to give out medication, give needles and stuff like that.

Ms GRIERSON: So it is a degree qualification, not a TAFE certificate type of qualification?

Ms Oldfield : You can do both.

Ms GRIERSON: All right. We will be in Darwin. I have to say that the Vice-Chancellor of CDU is a good friend of mine, formerly from Newcastle. I will take up some of those issues with them.

Ms Oldfield : The health worker course is an extremely important one that is now missing.

CHAIR: Sharon always believes that if you were born in Newcastle or you come from Newcastle, you are obviously a good person.

Ms Oldfield : Oh, okay.

Ms GRIERSON: We like to fix things up.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for coming here today and providing us with that evidence. The transcript of your evidence will be placed on the website. If you want to make any alterations or additions to it—if there are some errors with names or if something else is inaccurate—please let us know.

Ms Oldfield : I would actually like other staff members at Batchelor to have a look, because there might be things that are—

CHAIR: If they wish to make a submission to us, that would be useful as well.

Ms Oldfield : Okay. Because it is subjective.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.