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New research network aims to boost Indigenous PhD completion rates

A new research network launched today aims to increase PhD completion rates among Indigenous people, paving the way for greater numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts shaping policy in Australia, the director of the new network said today.

The new network aims to mentor and connect Indigenous PhD students, said network director Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson. Adam Robinson

The new National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network comprises 44 Indigenous academics from 22 universities, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and five Indigenous partner organisations who will provide mentors and workshops for Indigenous people undertaking a PhD.

Only 0.4% of completed PhDs in Australia were undertaken by Indigenous students in 2010, according to government statistics.

Closing this gap from 2012 would mean increasing postgraduate completion by 600%, said Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Professor of Indigenous studies at the Queensland University of Technology and Director of the new network.

“Many Indigenous people undertaking their PhDs are first in their families to go to university. The Network’s main aim is knowledge and skills transfer for undertaking research and disseminating the findings,” Professor Moreton-Robinson said, adding that many Indigenous PhD candidates were mature age students juggling study with other responsibilities.

Currently 164 Indigenous people nationwide hold a PhD, Professor Moreton-Robinson said, noting that those who attended universities with good support mechanisms for Indigenous researchers were the most likely to have the best retention rates.

“The postgraduate experience is quite isolating for everyone. The network will bring people together, connect mentors with postgraduate students and hopefully set up virtual networks as well so they will stay in contact with one another,” she said.

Money troubles

Money remains a problem for some Indigenous PhD students, said Professor Moreton-Robinson, and those who receive scholarships may be culturally obliged to share the funds with their extended family.

“It is commendable that individual universities have allocated scholarships specifically for Indigenous postgraduate students. However, obtaining a scholarship is one thing but that money often then has to be shared more broadly than the nuclear family, which creates a problem in terms of a postgraduate’s ability to purchase items that are necessary to complete your studies,” she said.

“The lack of access to resources is one of the reasons why there is a need for designated Indigenous postgraduate support and research capacity building programs within universities.”

Professor Moreton-Robinson said it was not her place to discourage Indigenous cultural practices and “in fact, I am culturally obliged to support them.”

“The majority of Indigenous postgraduate students have a strong sense of who they are, but the context in which they are working is new and what are required are resources, support as well as the knowledge and skills to effectively negotiate and function within academic spaces,” she said.

Growth areas

The network, which is funded by the Australian Research Council and several partner organisations, aims to grow the number of Indigenous graduates with PhDs through its research capacity building program.

“Most of our PhD graduates are in health and education. We need people to enrol and graduate in fields and disciplines as diverse as economics, engineering, science, information technology, business and the social sciences,” said Professor Moreton-Robinson.

The network will have four nodes or areas of research speciality: Indigenous Sociology; Indigenous Health; Indigenous Law and Indigenous History, Politics and Culture.

Indigenous policy led by Indigenous experts

Professor Steven Larkin, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership and a node leader of the network, said something had to be done to boost Indigenous postgraduate completion rates.

“At a much broader level, the data is showing us the level of disadvantage among Indigenous people over all and clearly a significant part of the policy response is not achieving the gains envisaged. This requires that in policy areas like health, education and employment, we need new knowledge produced about what approaches might work,” he said.

“It makes, to me, good sense to have Indigenous people leading that; asking the right questions, answering them in ways that give us new findings and that we can then use in an innovative way that might close the gap.”

Professor Larkin said a high proportion of Indigenous people working in the higher education sector now were in general staffing and administrative roles, rather than academia.

“We need more Aboriginal people to go through the postgraduate system so they become the future workforce in academia. Those graduates, after a while, become principal or chief investigators in research projects,” he said.

“So they are generating new knowledge from an Indigenous perspective that might give us new insights on how to deal with Indigenous disadvantage.”

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