In mid-October, a gathering of Indigenous and community leaders, public service members, business partners and academics met in Canberra to witness the Prime Minister launch the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity Program.
It was a milestone moment for Indigenous leadership and social change campaigners across Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific: the birth of a 20 year program aiming to tackle the broader issues of social inequality and how parity can be achieved for all people, regardless of cultural background, race, gender, health or financial status.
The Fellowships, which will produce up to 500 social change agents - all of whom are committed to advancing a fairer, healthier, more resilient and inclusive society - is made possible by $50 million USD from Atlantic Philanthropies and a further $40 million in Federal Government support.
Their vision and support is vitally needed, as the social disadvantage of Indigenous peoples across the region is well documented and well understood.
Universities can play a key role in addressing these challenges. They equip graduates with the knowledge and skills to make a difference. Through research universities produce the know-how for change. But universities, like other Australian institutions, can be too transfixed on the “Indigenous problem”.
A new Indigenous leadership is emerging which is seeking to leverage success. They are innovating, leading social change and scaling up effective interventions. Indigenous empowerment is key to the co-creation of the future in which all sectors of the community engage. Universities are in a privileged position to grasp this pivot point.
Today, there are over 15,000 Indigenous students in the higher education system. Indigenous enrolments are growing at around nine per cent per annum, faster than those of domestic students, currently around four per cent per annum.
This is on the back of improving secondary school outcomes. Nationally, we are on track to halve the gap in retention to year 12 by 2020. In 2015, Indigenous retention to year 12 was at almost 60 per cent (compared to 84 per cent for non-Indigenous students).
Improved educational outcomes provide a significant new opportunity. Leadership development is one aspect of this.
Throughout Australian history, Indigenous leaders have grappled with the challenges facing our communities. But each generation needs to renew its leadership. This enables upcoming leaders to respond to new opportunities and challenges.
Previous generations of Indigenous leaders struggled for rights such as native title. They established Indigenous services. Their efforts focussed on cultural renewal such as language revival. This is of course unfinished business. Yet there have been significant achievements.
Today, Indigenous leaders emerge in uncharted territory. They lead reform of professions as diverse as medicine and engineering. They are making a mark in global bodies such as the United Nations. They are reforming Australian businesses, which have diversified supply chains and successfully pursued Indigenous employment programs.
Indigenous leaders are championing reform in their home communities on diverse and challenging issues such as domestic violence, welfare reform and economic development.
This new generation of Indigenous leaders work across government, the private sector and non-government sector. They have to lead change with authenticity and cultural legitimacy. They need allies that connect them to national and international networks of influence.
Indigenous leaders need new narratives that inspire positive change in the face of growing inequalities and increasing social tensions within our complexly layered multicultural society.
Universities have capabilities to support this Indigenous leadership agenda. They have capabilities in leadership development. They also have deep expertise in the many fields relevant to contemporary leadership priorities. This is perhaps self-evident.
Equally important, Universities are connectors. They are hubs that connect businesses, profession and decision makers. These networks are a resource to be tapped by Indigenous leaders.
Universities have a convening power and neutrality that has the potential to incubate emerging leaders for a field that is highly politicised. They can bring decision makers and experts to the table with Indigenous leaders.
But the capabilities that Universities have need to be packaged in a form relevant to the contemporary context of Indigenous leadership.
The US$50 million investment by Atlantic Philanthropies to create an Australia hub for mid-career leaders in social equity provides a unique opportunity.
With a twenty-year horizon, this program will produce a new generation of over five hundred Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders. It is focussed on the challenges and emerging opportunities for Indigenous Australia. It aims to bring together Indigenous leaders along with non-Indigenous leaders into an intercultural and multi-sector program that grows their networks and readiness for step change.
But more is needed for the University sector to capitalise on this and other programs for Indigenous leadership.
Australia’s higher education sector needs to broaden its approach to Indigenous education. It needs to do more than create educational pathways and focus on participation. It has the potential to create opportunity and leverage change.
Universities should actively identify Indigenous students with leadership potential. These students need to be supported and stretched at every stage of their educational pathway. They need to excel in their studies but also seek the optimum graduate career choice. All these require a shift from simply remediating educational disadvantage.