Culturally Unsafe Universities

Australia, home to the world’s oldest living cultures, faces a pressing issue in its higher education sector: the cultural safety of its Indigenous academics.

And recent events and testimonies from Indigenous scholars unveiled a troubling undercurrent of institutional racism in some of the country’s most renowned universities.

High-Profile Resignations Highlight Deep-Rooted Issues

The resignation of Dr. Eddie Cubillo from the University of Melbourne’s Law School has sent shockwaves through Australia’s academic community, igniting a broader conversation about the experiences of Indigenous academics in the country’s institutions of higher learning.

“He has raised and discussed these concerns over a long period.” Prof Barry Judd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), University of Melbourne

Dr. Cubillo, who belongs to the Larrakia, Wadjigan, and Central Arrernte communities, did not depart silently with his bold proclamation that the university was the “most culturally unsafe place” he had ever worked resonated deeply with many who have long felt marginalised within academic walls.

But Dr. Cubillo’s departure is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Other Indigenous academics have also walked away from their positions, disillusioned by the challenges they faced, and revelations about a culture rife with defamation threats, complaints, and overt racism further underscore the extent of the issue.


And such testimonies suggest that Australian universities, often seen as bastions of progress and knowledge, might harbour an underbelly of prejudice and systemic bias.

Moreover, these high-profile resignations raise crucial questions: How many Indigenous academics suffer in silence?

How many potential scholars are deterred from pursuing academic careers due to these cultural safety issues?

The very institutions that should be champions of diversity and inclusion appear to be faltering in their responsibility to Indigenous staff.

The broader implications of these resignations cannot be ignored.

And they serve as a clarion call for introspection within the academic community and demand a re-evaluation of how Indigenous academics are valued, supported, and protected within universities.

The experiences of Dr. Cubillo and others highlight an urgent need for tangible change, lest Australia’s institutions continue to lose valuable voices and perspectives.

Aboriginal University

Systemic Challenges in Australian Universities | Aboriginal University

Australia’s universities, often heralded as beacons of innovation, research, and enlightened thought, find themselves at a crossroads.

And while the world of academia champions knowledge and progress, the experiences of Indigenous academics such as Dr. Eddie Cubillospotlight a disconcerting undercurrent that runs counter to these ideals.

The Dominance of Capital: Money speaks volumes in today’s academic landscape. Funding drives research priorities, shapes institutional decisions, and influences academic trajectories. This financial focus often contrasts sharply with the values of Indigenous academics, many of whom come from traditions that prioritise community, shared knowledge, and collective well-being over individual financial gain. And this divergence can place Indigenous scholars at a disadvantage, where their community-driven approaches may be overshadowed by the allure of lucrative research grants or commercial partnerships.

Inherent Biases and Marginalisation: Indigenous academics frequently grapple with feelings of alienation within the hallowed halls of these institutions. Their voices, rich with millennia of Indigenous wisdom, are often relegated to the sidelines, overshadowed by dominant Western academic paradigms.

Hostile Work Environments: Beyond systemic biases, many Indigenous academics recount experiences marked by blatant hostility, ranging from subtle microaggressions to overt acts of discrimination. And these environments aren’t merely challenging; they’re detrimental to the well-being and mental health of Indigenous staff.

Institutional Resistance and Inertia: Large academic institutions, with their layered hierarchies and established traditions, can be slow to adapt. The acknowledgment of issues is one thing, but the journey from realisation to remediation is often marred by resistance, bureaucracy, and, at times, apathy.

The Broader Implications: Sidelining Indigenous voices isn’t just a loss for the individuals in question; it impoverishes the entire academic community. Without diverse perspectives and insights, academia becomes monolithic and less innovative. Moreover, for Indigenous students, the dearth of representation coupled with unwelcoming environments can deter them from academic pursuits, perpetuating cycles of underrepresentation.

Indigenous staff were under-appreciated and subjects were labelled as being “Indigenous-run” despite key decisions being made by non-Indigenous staff.

Guardian article

In sum, while the challenges within Australian universities are undoubtedly deep-seated, they are not insurmountable.

And the path forward requires recognition and a decisive and genuine commitment to change, ensuring that universities become spaces where all knowledge systems are celebrated and capital doesn’t overshadow community values.

Government Funding: Time for a Re-evaluation?

The substantial financial investments by the Australian government in the higher education sector have historically been seen as a testament to the country’s commitment to fostering knowledge and innovation.

However, as revelations about the experiences of Indigenous academics emerge, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a significant portion of this funding may be supporting institutions that don’t always uphold the principles of inclusivity and cultural safety.

And this realisation brings forth a pressing question: Does the current funding model need a comprehensive re-evaluation?

The Power of the Purse: Government funding is more than just monetary support; it’s a powerful tool that signals priorities and shapes institutional behaviour. Universities, inherently reliant on such funding, will often align their strategies, research agendas, and even cultural practices to secure and maintain these funds.

Mismatched Priorities: With the current funding mechanisms, there’s a potential mismatch between government objectives and university practices. While the government may aim to promote diversity, inclusivity, and Indigenous representation, the current funding structures may inadvertently reward universities that prioritise high-profile, often Western-centric research projects, sidelining Indigenous knowledge and scholars in the process.

A Call for Accountability: Given the systemic issues that Indigenous academics face, it’s vital for the government to ensure that its funding supports institutions genuinely committed to cultural safety and inclusivity. And this may mean introducing more stringent accountability measures and tying funding to clear benchmarks related to Indigenous representation, support, and research.

Exploring Alternatives: Beyond traditional universities, there’s a burgeoning world of independent Indigenous researchers and community-driven knowledge hubs that offer a culturally safe environment for Indigenous knowledge to flourish. And by redirecting a portion of the funding towards these entities, the government can support Indigenous scholarship directly and send a clear message to traditional institutions about the value of Indigenous knowledge and scholars.

The Broader Impact: Re-evaluating government funding isn’t just about money; it’s about reshaping the academic landscape of Australia. It’s about acknowledging and rectifying historical oversights and ensuring that future generations of Indigenous scholars find a welcoming and supportive environment in Australia’s academic institutions.

So while government funding is crucial for the sustenance and growth of the higher education sector, it’s essential to ensure that these funds promote genuine inclusivity and respect for all knowledge systems.

And as more Indigenous voices call for change, it’s an opportune moment for the government to listen, reflect, and act.

The Case for Independent Indigenous Academic Researchers

Amid the tumultuous backdrop of institutional challenges faced by Indigenous academics within Australia’s traditional university system, a promising alternative is emerging: independent Indigenous academic researchers.

This cadre of scholars, deeply rooted in Indigenous traditions and knowledge systems, presents a compelling case for a shift in how we approach and fund academic research in Australia.

Authentic Representation of Indigenous Knowledge: Independent Indigenous researchers, unencumbered by the bureaucratic constraints of larger institutions, are uniquely positioned to offer an authentic representation of Indigenous knowledge. And their work isn’t just about studying Indigenous cultures; it’s a lived experience, providing depth, nuance, and context that can be challenging to achieve in more conventional academic settings.

Culturally Safe Research Environments: One of the glaring issues within traditional universities is the lack of cultural safety for Indigenous academics but independent researchers operate in inherently culturally safe environments, allowing for research to be conducted without the added stress of battling systemic biases or institutional racism.

Community-Centric Approach: Unlike traditional academia’s more individualistic or departmental approach, many independent Indigenous researchers adopt a community-centric methodology. And their research often directly benefits Indigenous communities, ensuring that the knowledge generated is not only about the community but also for its betterment.

Flexibility and Innovation: Independent researchers are often more agile than their counterparts in larger institutions. And this agility allows for innovative research methods, interdisciplinary approaches, and the exploration of topics that might be deemed “non-traditional” or “niche” in conventional academic circles.

A Counter to Institutional Inertia: As highlighted by Dr. Eddie Cubillo’s and others’ experiences, larger institutions can sometimes resist change due to entrenched practices and hierarchies…. so supporting independent Indigenous researchers offers a direct counter to this institutional inertia, pushing the broader academic community towards change by example.

Economic Implications: By supporting independent Indigenous researchers, there’s potential for more efficient use of funds because of the lower overhead costs and direct application of funds to research; there’s often greater value derived from each dollar invested.

Bridging the Gap: Independent Indigenous researchers can also play a crucial role in bridging the gap between traditional Indigenous knowledge systems and Western academic practices because they can serve as ambassadors, translators, and mediators, ensuring that Indigenous knowledge is preserved and integrated into the broader academic discourse.

In light of the challenges faced by Indigenous academics within traditional university systems, the case for supporting independent Indigenous academic researchers becomes increasingly compelling.

So as Australia grapples with how to make its academic institutions more inclusive and respectful of Indigenous knowledge, these independent researchers offer a beacon of hope and a roadmap for a more inclusive future.

Conclusion: A Call for Genuine Reform

The stories and experiences of Indigenous academics in Australia’s higher education institutions, like those of Dr. Eddie Cubillo, are not isolated incidents but symptomatic of a deeper, systemic issue.

And as these narratives come to the fore, it’s essential for the academic community, policymakers, and society at large to engage in a moment of collective reflection.

We must ask ourselves: How have our esteemed institutions, which should stand as pillars of knowledge and inclusivity, faltered in their duty to Indigenous scholars?

The time for mere acknowledgment has passed. The urgency of the situation demands genuine reform.

Reform should not be about token gestures or surface-level changes but a deep-rooted transformation addressing the core issues.

And this should involve rethinking hiring practices, reassessing funding models, overhauling institutional cultures, and actively promoting and valuing Indigenous knowledge and perspectives.

Unsafe Aboriginal University_A Challenge to Australia Higher Education

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