Indigenous champions the key to progressing education and research 

l-r: CDU Community and Access researcher Matt Campbell and Associate Professor Michael Christie

Indigenous ‘champions’ must be identified and nurtured in remote communities if Australia is serious about closing the education gap, said a Northern Territory based researcher.

Speaking at an Indigenous community engagement project seminar in Alice Springs, Charles Darwin University Community and Access researcher Matt Campbell said investing in Indigenous ‘community champions’ will provide extensive benefits to the wider community.

"People from the community have an intricate knowledge of their community and can help influence learning in ways no outside agency can," Mr Campbell said. "Working through traditional governance arrangements at the family and group level brings elders into the decision making process”.

Indigenous ‘community champions’ could be chosen by CDU and community elders to facilitate the development of strategic CDU actions in communities, assist in the distribution and clarification of VET assessment results, and to broker research and resources. The position could be paid, and selection would be on the basis of their reputation as negotiators in their community.

The project, coordinated by Mr Campbell and Associate Professor Michael Christie from CDU's School of Education is aimed to better understand what engagement means in practice. It was developed in consultation with CDU staff, Indigenous community members and representatives of other organisations who work with the university.

It identified key threads of community engagement that underpin successful projects with Indigenous people, including the importance of respect for Indigenous knowledge, language and governance and the need for a greater emphasis on communication.

It found that while Indigenous students were happy with the quality of teaching, they struggled to understand the systems surrounding educational delivery.

Professor Christie said the failure of communication could be addressed with greater ownership of the education process by communities and the need for providers listening “acutely” to the needs of each community.

"We found most communities want to do this, and we need to put the support systems in place to make it happen," he said.

The delivery of vocational training as the cornerstone of bush education was also scrutinised.

Both researchers advocated a model that would encourage trainers to invest in particular regions and diversify their skills base so that they could provide a greater range of courses across broader geographic areas.

Mr Campbell said the trainers would work with and augment the work of other CDU staff who specialise in specific subject areas.

"An example would be teaching hybrid courses in construction and mechanics or child care and health," he said.

The theory that engagement should be a discrete two-way relationship between education provider and student was also questioned, with research showing collaboration with multiple agencies provided optimum community engagement.

"This includes outsourcing delivery of associated services to specialists to create networks of organisations committed to engagement in practice,” he said.

“Importantly it means that we should not try to be all things to all people.”

Feedback from seminar guests is to be tabled into a final report and released later this year.