Indigenous students protested at the University of New England (UNE) in Armidale on September 12 after UNE management failed to adequately address their concerns and made decisions without consulting them.
Chanting “About us without us — Tell us why do you doubt us”, Indigenous students delivered their demands to UNE’s senior management at the Oorala Aboriginal Centre.
Several Indigenous students spoke. A statement by Dawn Lewis, President of the Indigenous Student Association and Callum Clayton-Dixon, Indigenous Student Representative of the UNE Student Association, was read. It said in part: “Incidents of bullying, intimidation, racism, and abject failure by Oorala Aboriginal Centre management to properly support Indigenous students have created a highly toxic and culturally unsafe environment for Indigenous students at UNE.”
Several Indigenous students said they followed the procedures specified by UNE to resolve the problems, some of which have been ongoing for months, but to no avail. They said they feel UNE management has dismissed their concerns and failed to provide adequate solutions.
The Oorala Aboriginal Centre was established 31 years ago “to provide cultural and educational support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at UNE and to improve the participation, completion and retention of Indigenous students”.
Aboriginal Elders present were appalled to hear that Oorala management had banned two Indigenous students from the grounds of the Centre. One of the women who had been involved in the struggle to establish Oorala in the first place said: “I don’t know if I have a word to describe how dehumanising this is. I never thought I’d see this again in my lifetime.”
Changes to UNE’s requirements regarding confirmation of Aboriginality are another concern. One Indigenous student reported he had missed out on a scholarship because UNE suddenly refused to accept that he was Aboriginal, even though he had represented Oorala as an Aboriginal student in the past.
Instead of advocating for and supporting Indigenous students, Oorala management decided to cut Targeted Tutorial Assistance by 88% earlier this year. After organising a petition, Indigenous students managed to limit the cut to 25%.
Clayton-Dixon said: “They just want to make decisions behind closed doors and meet us at the end of the river. Once they’ve made up their minds, they ask us what we think, only to ignore it.”
Indigenous students believe that UNE’s handling of the situation is an example of institutional racism, which has detrimental effects on students’ studies, personal lives and well-being.
They demand to be involved in the creation and implementation of an Indigenous governance committee for Oorala, including an Elder-in-Residence as well as elected representatives of the Indigenous students, Aboriginal academic staff and the local Aboriginal community.
This was supported by all those present and Elders from the local Aboriginal community vowed to mobilise the community for the next protest.
[Trevor Smith is a UNE student and a National Tertiary Education Union branch organiser.]