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Speaking notes for ATSIC Commissioner David Curtis to the 1st National Conference of the National Indigenous Postgraduates Association, Canberra



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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (A TS IC ) Homepage, Australia

14 December 1998

Speaking notes for ATSIC Commissioner David Curtis to the:

1st National Conference of the National Indigenous Postgraduates Association 26 November 1998 - Canberra

Pamela Croft; delegates —

Commissioner David Curtis; speaks --

I feel privileged to speak at this first ever symposium organised by the National Indigenous Postgraduate Association.

I understand that you’re hoping to make this an annual event and I hope you do so.

I think networks such as these are essential to the continuing development of indigenous self-determination.

An annual conference of indigenous postgraduates could become the launching pad to increase the interest and motivation of indigenous graduates who are unsure about the next step.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the Ngunawal people as the traditional owners of this region and thank them for their welcome.

Respect for culture is a vital part of our existence as indigenous people.lt remains an important aspect of our identities no matter where we go and no matter what position we hold in the community.

As indigenous Australians, we face the daily task of reconciling many different forces — family, community, campus or employment, mainstream culture and our own individual aspirations.

For us, every day is a day of reconciliation at some level.

We become experts in the art of adjusting our circumstances to accommodate all the different issues thrown at us.

It’s an amazing fact that we never lose sight of our identities, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

It seems to me that this is the strength that both keeps us sane and keeps our integrity as indigenous Australians.

I know that the number of indigenous people with postgraduate qualifications is very small, but growing.

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I understand there has been an increase in the number of indigenous postgraduate students of the order 500 per cent over the last decade.

In the mainstream, most people have the benefit of role models or mentors when they set out on a course of learning.

But for most of you, that was never an option.

You chose the hardest path — to pursue courses of study that probably no one you know has ever followed.

You have defied the overall trend in education that sees indigenous people drop out of courses.

You have taken the plunge without the safety net of having people you know and trust who have already been through the experience.

You have had to battle through institutions that aren’t equipped to deal with the cultural needs of indigenous Australians.

It’s a cruel irony that many institutions cater well to the cultural needs of students of other cultures but fail indigenous Australians.

There seems to be a galloping trend towards designing campuses that will attract cash-rich foreign students while ignoring the needs of Australia’s First Peoples.

And yet you still pay the crippling fees associated with postgraduate study to gain access to a system that can’t even provide suitable supervisors — that can’t even provide suitable texts and resource materials.

A number of you have added to your burdens by choosing fields of study that demand a new approach — the indigenous perspective.

It’s amazing that anyone would willingly take all of this on.

But you did — and you did so successfully.

And for that you have the admiration and respect of all indigenous people.

But I don’t want to paint you as martyrs.

Martyrs are dead people who have may be inspirational but have no further practical use.

I believe indigenous postgraduates are an important national resource.

We need to both encourage growth in your numbers and use your talents wisely. You are highly valued as role models and pathfinders for graduates.

Many of you will make your careers in academia where you will become lecturers and professors, mentors and supervisors.

But in addition, your research will build into an important intellectual resource that agencies like ATSIC and Employment, Training and Youth Affairs can use.

I’m told that NIPA has built a strong relationship with the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations.

It seems that indigenous people are building positive relationships wherever we interact with the mainstream community.

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It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about native title, land use, economic development or education — co-existence and partnership are the strong features of most of our initiatives.

Because we spend our entire lives balancing different cultural factors, it is second nature to us to try to find resolutions that accommodate a range of interests.

Reconciliation is our natural response to many issues.

With this much practice in reconciliation in our everyday and professional lives, it is natural for us to look for common interests in education.

And it is natural to build partnerships wherever we can.

I’d like to acknowledge the commitment that CAPA has shown to indigenous postgraduates.

At this point, I should turn to discussing how ATSIC fits into the picture.

ATSIC doesn’t have a primary role in the provision of education programs.

These are mostly the responsibility of the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs and state and territory governments.

And ATSIC doesn’t have the financial scope to develop education programs.

Our role is to advocate and represent indigenous perspectives on all issues — including education.

Last July, I addressed the 16th session of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva.

To give you an idea of ATSIC’s concerns, I want to mention some of the issues I raised in that speech.

I reported that education and the preservation of languages are among the most important issues facing indigenous Australians.

But the education of non-indigenous Australians about indigenous issues is also of fundamental importance.

The importance of this wider education cannot be over-stated, yet its value is often under-appreciated by governments.

In recent times, we have seen the rise of right-wing political forces that encourage resentment of indigenous achievements.

There is no doubt in my mind that Australians properly educated about indigenous cultures and issues would not have allowed Pauline Hanson and One Nation to evolve.

I told WGIP that ATSIC is limited to providing policy advice and generating research on key issues to bring to the attention of government.

We hold strongly to the view that education is the means for maintaining and developing our cultural identity — our language, knowledge, traditions and heritage.

In fact, the profound loss of our languages is a stark symptom of the threat to the transmission of our cultural identities across generations.

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It is estimated that at least 250 separate indigenous languages and many more dialects existed at the time of European settlement.

Today, only 90 indigenous languages are spoken and only 30 of these are actively used and can be passed down to the next generation.

ATSIC has developed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages Initiatives Program to counter this.

We fund Regional Language Centres and Regional Language Management Committees to undertake language activities and support local community projects.

These cover community language classes, oral history production, and language programs for radio.

Broadcasting is an important vehicle for maintaining indigenous languages.

The task of preserving languages throws up challenges in three areas:

1. Language Maintenance — where an indigenous language is still spoken as a first language; 2. Language Retrieval — where only a handful of speakers remain; and 3. Language Heritage — where there are no speakers but there is extensive

archival material not currently accessible to the community.

Meanwhile, the task of improving educational levels is itself very challenging.

The indigenous population is growing at an annual rate of 2 per cent — a much higher rate than the 1.2 per cent growth in the total Australian population.

In 1996, the median age of our people was 20 years compared with 34 years for the total population.

Forty per cent of our population was under 15 years of age, compared with 21 per cent of the total population.

In simple terms, this means that there is almost twice the demand for educational, training and employment opportunities among our young people.

An educated indigenous population is fundamental to our broader economic development.

This was one of the conclusions of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which found that existing education systems have failed to service the needs of indigenous Australians.

Things have not changes significantly since the Royal Commission reported in 1991.

At the same time, Australia is undergoing a lengthy period of economic restructuring.

Industry is demanding more specialised skills at a time when there is a decline in employment in many traditional industries.

Failure to adapt to the new economic environment will mean we fall even further behind in social and economic life.

The 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey found that nearly half of our people aged 15 and over had no formal education or had not reached Year 10 levels.

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For nearly three in ten, the Year 10 school certificate was the highest educational attainment.

One in six had obtained a post-school educational qualification.

But young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have a growing sense of urgency to take control of their futures.

They see opportunities that have never existed before and they have a renewed sense of identity about being indigenous Australians.

This all relevant at WGIP because Articles 12 to14 of the United Nations’ Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples emphasise the importance of cultural identity.

Article 15, on education, provides a context for this.

One of the primary tools for increasing education among indigenous Australians is ABSTUDY.

ATSIC commissioned a review of ABSTUDY last year, based on four principles:

• education expenditure is investment;

• improving the economic and social status of indigenous people creates benefits for all Australians;

• less than universal application of a good policy does not justify it being abandoned; and

• problems with administration should not justify abandoning a good policy.

The study found that governments have regarded ABSTUDY as a major factor in encouraging indigenous students to participate in education.

But while education has been one of the most successful areas of indigenous development over the past 30 years, the rate of improved outcomes has started to falter.

Mainstream education systems are still failing indigenous Australians.

The ABSTUDY review found that the outcomes are failing to meet the targets set by all Australian governments — federal and state — in 1989 and again in 1995.

The literacy and numeracy skills of indigenous students in primary schools are well below those of non-indigenous students.

Since 1992, retention rates for indigenous students in Year 10 have declined at three times the rate for other Australians.

Retention rates for Year 12 students are lower than for non-indigenous students and are declining.

The proportion of indigenous students completing higher education currently stands at one third of the expected level — and this, too, is in decline.

The ATSIC review makes a number of recommendations, including that the federal government must recognise the importance of specific educational programs for indigenous people.

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This in turn must be supported with appropriate financial commitment to ensure that students are able to access and participate in such programs.

The review also recommends that the government defends ABSTUDY from the continued, uninformed criticism that comes from sections of the community.

A quick look through the report on the CAPA project on barriers to indigenous postgraduate study suggests that these problems are common to all levels of indigenous education.

But I want to re-emphasise one of ATSIC’s four principles on education — that is, expenditure on education is an investment .

Improved educational outcomes and economic development are inseparable.The federal government has committed itself to economic development as one of its major priorities in indigenous affairs.ATSIC will what we can to ensure that governments recognise the importance of effective indigenous education programs.

These programs need to both attract and hold the growing number of young indigenous people.

They must also attract and hold people like yourselves who want to take their studies further.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank you again for this chance to talk with you today.

One of the best things about being an ATSIC Commissioner is the opportunity to move around the country and share in the many inspiring developments involving indigenous people.

It’s exciting to witness the huge strides that our people are making in every area.

I urge you to let us know how we, as ATSIC Commissioners, can support you — through lobbying, representation or other means.

But for now, I look forward to joining you for lunch and learning more about your individual achievements.

Thank you.

Jd

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