Decolonise Sydney University: The legacies of colonialism on higher education

The University of Sydney is built on the stolen land and wealth of First Nations people. Graphic: Isaac Nellist

First Nations people have historically been excluded from Australian universities. Even the so-called “sandstone universities,” such as the University of Sydney (USyd), were built on a foundation of invasion, genocide and land theft.

The ideology and knowledge systems of the colonisers have permeated higher education since, while management has been left to reactionary bureaucrats who stifle progressive change.

Gadigal people were pushed off land on which USyd was built just 18 months after the invasion in 1778. Governor Arthur Phillip “set aside” the land, deemed “terra nullius", as Crown reserve land in 1790. There was no acknowledgement it held spiritual, cultural and pedagogical importance to the Gadigal people.

Instead, according to officer and author Watkin Tench, early colonists nicknamed it “Kangaroo Ground” due to the number of kangaroos.

The land was divided up for farming and granted to settlers, such as for Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose’s farm in 1792, which was also used as a military camp. A school for orphans and a convict stockade were also set up. Little remains of the site’s natural topography and ecology: most of the existing vegetation, including a forest of gum trees, was cleared for farming and grazing cattle and many of the original creeks and swamps were landscaped over.

The Gadigal people, along with the other clans who used the site and surrounding areas, were devastated by the invasion and occupation. Historians John Cleverley and Yuin woman Janet Mooney wrote in Taking Our Place that by the end of 1791 “most of the [local] community was dead from smallpox, respiratory diseases or scurvy … and the handful of survivors would lose access to their land and its resources — clean water, food, medicine and sacred sites, and to the Elders whose duty it was to pass down the clan’s learning”.

Traditional modes of education were erased and usurped by a vision of education representing the British Empire.

Gai-mariagal and Wiradjuri historian Dennis Foley collected oral history about the site prior to invasion from his grandmother, Clarice Lougher, her half sister Eunice Watcon and their cousin Willie De Serve. They explained that the area to the east near Victoria Park had a fresh water spring and was an important site for women. Near the intersection of City and Parramatta Roads, which were existing Aboriginal tracks, “the southern clans would come and sit and do business with the Cadigal”.

They also describe a “paint-up spot”, located at what is now the east wing of the great court, and an “open forest of mature trees that went to the north”.

They explained that “this was a sorry site as after a cremation, wrapped bones were placed in some of the trees … It is said that the Great Hall and the Macleay Museum stands on what is a part of the Cadigal cemetery”. Poignantly, Foley recounts that “there used to be two scar trees at the university. My father’s mother Ruby Foley often spoke of them. I looked for them in the 1970s but they are long gone”.

First Nations people used the site for food, medicine and other technologies. The leaves of the long-leaf mat rush were woven into baskets; the bark of the sally wattle was used as a poison to stun fish, making them very easy to catch, but still edible. Sap from the red bloodwood was used to treat fishing lines; food sources included the native cherry and roots of the clover sorrell, and the leaves of the "headache vine” were used as medicine to treat headaches.

Stolen materials

The New South Wales colony expanded in the first half of the 19th century, with a growing settler population and the rise of commerce and government institutions.

When the colony required an educated workforce to maintain its growing bureaucracy in the 1830s, private colleges were set up. However, after their failure during the 1840s depression, USyd was founded in 1852 by the colonial NSW government — one year after gold was discovered.

Like many other sandstone buildings in NSW, the original buildings of USyd, such as the Oxbridge-style Great Hall and Quadrangle, were built with stolen materials — and technology.

Gadigal people created shell middens that were found all along the Sydney Harbour. These were crushed to form the lime slurry used for the buildings’ foundations.

Walbanga and Wadi Wadi researcher, designer and artist Alison Page explains in Design: Building on Country that: “The knowledge about how to crush the shells and release the lime to bind stone and bricks for building was something that my people practised … The value of this shell resource was not lost on the colonists, who used it to build the very foundations of the colony.”

Other materials were also stolen. The sandstone used in the Great Hall came from the Pyrmont quarries, situated on the Pirrama (now Pyrmont) Peninsula on Gomorrigal and Wangal land; the timber used for the hall’s woodwork is stolen from ancient cedar forests on land belonging to the Bundjalung people in North NSW; the light grey marble of the flooring from is the colony’s first marble quarry at Murulan, on the land of the Gundungurra people.

Stolen wealth, capital and racism

How was this lavish building program funded? With wealth expropriated from First Nations people.

Historian Billy Griffiths explained in his essay "An Aboriginal History of the University of Sydney" how wealthy colonists who bequeathed money for the university made their fortunes from “land appropriated from Aboriginal nations”.

Politician, obstetrician and businessman Sir Charles Nicholson, who was Vice Provost (1851) then Chancellor (1854–1861) of USyd, kick-started his fortune with inherited land at Dyarubbin (Hawkesbury River), stolen from the Darug people.

Nicholson subsequently grew this fortune by pursuing pastoral rail and shipping interests. Ushering in the long tradition of Australian universities’ love affair with the fossil fuel industry, Nicholson was one of the founders of Australia’s first gas company, Australian Gaslight Co in 1836.

When Nicholson’s friend, landowner and politician William Charles Wentworth (another wealthy founder of the university), faced labour shortages with the end to convict transport in 1840, Nicholson helped Wentworth push the colonial government to import “coolie labour” (indentured servants, in reality slaves) from India and China.

Wentworth was a “Bunyip aristocrat” who wanted a system of hereditary titles, akin to the peerage system in England, installed in the colony. Like Nicholson, he had also made his fortune from stolen Aboriginal land, granted to him at Yandhai (Nepean River). His fortune and political power grew after he crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813, leading to a largescale theft of the plains beyond the mountains by white colonists and the dispossession and genocide of the Wiradjuri people.

Wentworth was openly racist, holding the view that “the aborigines [sic] of this country occupy the lowest place in the gradatory scale of the human species”. Wentworth, like other colonial elites, publicly expressed outrage at the guilty verdict handed to seven white stockmen for the massacre up to 30 unarmed Gamilaroi people at Myall Creek.

Wentworth also opposed accepting Aboriginal evidence and testimony as valid in the courts, or giving any legal rights to Aboriginal people for that matter. “[I]t would be quite as defensible to receive as evidence in a court of Justice the chatterings of the ourangoutang [sic] as of this savage race,” Wentworth argued at a debate on Aboriginal evidence in the NSW Legislative Assembly in 1842.

This sentiment had a lasting legacy: the refusal to give legal rights and protections to First Nations people so that colonisers could have impunity for racist violence in the name of “defending their property”, as well as the ongoing collusion between colonial elites, settlers and police in covering up and perpetuating this violence.

Despite Wentworth’s racism and active involvement in slavery and the university’s contemporary claims to welcome First Nations staff and students on campus, a statue in his honour still stands in the Great Hall. This is despite students and activists of the Wentworth Must Fall campaign demanding his statue be removed in 2019.

First Nations people were not considered to have even the minimum of legal rights in the colonial period, so it is not surprising they were completely excluded from Wentworth, Nicholson and other colonial elites’ vision for the university.

This legacy of exclusion lives on today.

Stolen knowledge

Unacknowledged and unpaid First Nations labour and knowledge were used by the university from its beginning. Nineteenth century ethnographers, anthropologists and archaeologists regularly exploited the labour and knowledge of First Nations guides, interpreters, assistants and scientists whose knowledge was ultimately used to advance their own research standing.

Artifacts belonging to First Nations peoples, including sacred items, bones, human remains, tools, weapons and artworks, were collected, used as specimens for research and teaching and even traded with museums overseas. Trading First Nations people’s bones was particularly popular.

Like many academics, Thomas Griffith Taylor, an early Professor of Geography at USyd, believed that First Nations people “represented primitive man preserved in time”. Taylor undertook “fieldwork” in the 1920s, using cephalic calipers, cameras and hair clippers, to do anthropological, ethnographic studies on Aboriginal people in NSW and Queensland.

First Nations people were subject to increased study in the early 20th century. Researchers at the University of Adelaide, for example, performed scientific experiments on First Nations people in the 1920s and '30s. Disturbingly, one of the reasons given was that researchers and anthropologists, under the influence of eugenics and the formalisation of the White Australia Policy in 1901, wanted to filter out Aboriginal blood from the population.

Previously, researchers had considered First Nations people to be a dying race. But when it was realised that they were not in fact “dying out”, concerted efforts were made to establish why. This included invasive blood sampling and testing, removal of children, attempts to “breed out” First Nations people and an obsession with categorising as “full-blood” or “half-caste”.

At the same time, there was a bizarre belief that if white people spent too long in hot climates, they would turn brown or black. In light of this, USyd Professor TW Edgeworth David declared in 1911 that the colonists must be prepared to make sacrifices “to keep all of Australia as white as possible”.

From this racist educational environment came the infamous Cecil Cook, Chief Protector of Aboriginals and Quarantine Officer in the Northern Territory and proponent of breeding out First Nations peoples, a USyd medical student who graduated in 1930.

University for whites only?

Given this history, it is unconscionable that systemic and structural racism continues in higher education.

For too long universities have not only failed to consider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as deserving of education, but they have also failed to consider how to ensure that the education provided no longer reflects a white, colonisers’ education. Universities have not engaged with First Nations people as the first educators in this country, with important language, knowledge and cultural systems developed over tens of thousands of years.

Although USyd is located between important First Nations communities at Glebe and Redfern, their interaction with the university has been minimal. Even after the (official) colonial period ended, the institution remained a hostile, unwelcoming place for First Nations people.

As Cleverley and Mooney  put it: “[I]n the 19th century, the university largely ignored the existence of Indigenous communities insofar as they were specimens of curiosity driven study or charitable food works … any possibility that an Indigenous person would enrol at their own teaching institution appeared a fancy.”

It wasn’t until 1963, that the first two self-identified Aboriginal students began attending the USyd: Charles Perkins and Peter Williams. Perkins helped found and lead the activist group Student Action for Aborigines and the Freedom Ride of 1965.

Later, in 1975, a group of 25 First Nations students enrolled as non-degree students in the training course for Aboriginal Teachers Aides in 1975. In 1980, two Aboriginal staff — a secretary and a lecturer — were employed in the teacher’s aide program. In 1988 there were still only six First Nations employees and only six First Nations students were enrolled in a degree.

Only 1734 First Nations students have graduated since 1971, according to USyd records (records on cultural background began in 1971). Compare this to the total number of students who have graduated — 400,000 since the records began.

Currently, USyd has only 0.9% First Nations students enrolled compared to the national average of 1.72 % — still a dismal number. According to USyd’s 2021 annual report, only 443 students identified as First Nations out of a total student body of 74,862.

Moreover, only 80 staff identified as First Nations, out of 8145 total staff. This is below parity with the First Nations population nationally, which is roughly 3%. Shamefully, just 15% of staff in First Nations identified positions have secure contracts. Pathways to promotion are also scarce for First Nations staff.

Although most universities have centres for First Nations staff and students, these are often marginalised. Centres like USyd’s former Koori Centre — an autonomous, supportive and safe environment that was led by First Nations staff — are often first to be cut during restructures.

The Koori Centre was abandoned in 2012 and its replacement, the smaller Gadigal Centre, was not opened until 2021, as part of USyd’s so-called One Sydney, Many People strategy.

One Sydney, Many People says it aims to create “a sense of belonging” and demonstrate “visible leadership and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and culture”, but given the statistics cited above, this is tokenistic.

USyd has a dismal record on First Nations employment, with no enforceable employment targets set and few opportunities for self-determination or leadership. Only a very small number of First Nations staff are in senior academic positions, management positions or on decision-making committees.

This tokenism extends to the classroom. According to one nursing student in Honi Soit: “Healthcare students continually express that issues relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health are often taught tokenistically — that although they are aware of what cultural competency is ... students feel confused and discouraged to implement it.”

Researchers David Hollinsworth, Maria Raciti and Jennifer Carter argue that universities must decolonise curriculum and pedagogy, as well as the “governmental, administrative, and funding legacies from entrenched racisms that continue to reproduce lower representation and poorer retention and graduation rates for Indigenous students”.

Decolonisation and industrial action

Industrial action may go some way to dismantle the legacies of colonialism and racism. Awabakal man Jeremy Heathcote, USyd Indigenous Community Engagement Officer and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Branch Committee member, said better working conditions and a truly inclusive environment for First Nations people will improve cultural safety.

In a Twitter video Heathcote said: “We have lost too many staff due to cultural safety issues … we need to make sure that people feel safe to come here and be themselves — to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.”

Heathcote said that fighting for cultural safety on campus was one of the reasons for USyd’s strike on May 24 — the first industrial action taken at an Australian university that put First Nations workers front and centre.

The USyd branch of the NTEU is currently engaged in enterprise bargaining and has put forward a log of claims that include important clauses for First Nations justice at work.

First Nations unionists, including Heathcote, developed the claims that include: an enforceable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment target of no less than 3% by December 31, 2024; the development of a substantive policy to ensure that the university is a welcoming and culturally safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff; and the setting up of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Joint Consultative Committee within three months to ensure the targets are met.

The university can certainly afford to do this — and more. Its annual report last year revealed an operating surplus of $1.04 billion — the same year the staff-to-student ratio was up from 14.9 to 20.3 and 223 staff were sacked.

But for change to happen, unionists and community allies in the community must intensify their fight for First Nations justice and cultural safety. As many students and staff and community members recognise, systemic racism is inseparable from management’s anti-working class attitudes. This is an intersectional struggle for an inclusive and truly democratic university. There can be no justice in the workplace without First Nations justice in the workplace.