Contextually, this project is aligned with the Australian Governments’ priority area of improving access to and outcomes of higher education for Indigenous peoples as a part of the larger ‘closing the gap’ agenda. The recent Closing the Gap Prime Minister’s Report (Commonwealth of Australia 2017) indicated that efforts directed at understanding factors that optimise persistence at university is vital to improving Indigenous student completions and reaping the benefits that are central to increasing Indigenous Australians quality-of-life. Growing Indigenous university student enrolments in recent times, although still significantly below parity, have been stymied by high drop-out rates that are twice that of non-Indigenous students (Edwards & McMillan 2015). Yet, for those Indigenous Australians who complete university the benefits are considerable in that they typically find work faster and have a higher commencing salary than their non-Indigenous counterparts (Turnbull 2017). Creating ‘university places’ that optimise the persistence of Indigenous Australians attends to this national agenda and was the focus of this seed project.
Much research has focused upon access to university for Indigenous students (e.g. Wilks & Wilson 2014), however little is known of the factors that support persistence. Factors identified as enablers of persistence for Indigenous students include whole-of-university efforts to enhance the university environment (see Behrendt et al. 2012; Universities Australia 2017). What is missing from the current stock of knowledge is a nuanced understanding of these factors, the interplay between them, and the consequences of them for Indigenous Australians in today’s increasingly complex ‘university places’.
For many Indigenous students, cultural safety and cultural security are key ‘university place’ factors (Bin-Sallik 2003). Cultural awareness precedes cultural safety in an organisation and cultural safety then advances to cultural security when understandings are directly linked to activities (Coffin 2007). That is, cultural security is a shift from ‘knowing’ to ‘doing’ across an entire organisation (Lumby & Farrelly 2009). This requires a disruption to status quo thinking and praxis and a conscious dislodging of the bystander effect, whereby individuals assume others are responsible or have already taken action (Darket & Latane 1968).
Ultimately, imagine a culturally secure ‘university place’ where Indigenous students can be, become and belong, and where accumulated positive experiences engender engagement, optimising students’ persistence and shaping their higher education outcomes and impact. It was this imagining that was the impetus for this project. Furthermore, the complexity of ‘university places’ and the inadequacies of past research presented the opportunity for this project to seed new thinking—one that includes students’ identities (as a student, as Indigenous, as an emerging professional) and an ecological worldview featuring continuous co-creation.