UniSA pursues lead for First Nations enrolments


    Q&A with UniSA RAP co-chairs Uncle David Rathman AM PSM and Vanessa Matthews.

    What inspired your organisation to initiate a Reconciliation Action Plan and how has this commitment evolved? Can you describe your organisation's journey in the RAP process so far?

    Uncle David: The University of South Australia (UniSA) has a proud and celebrated history in Aboriginal education. The university’s founding legislative function is to provide education opportunities for Aboriginal Peoples and its mission is built on the work of pivotal antecedent organisations, including the Aboriginal Studies and Teacher Education Centre (Western Teachers College), Aboriginal Task Force, Anangu Tertiary Education Program, and the School of Aboriginal and Islander Administration (SA Institute of Technology).

    Vanessa Matthews: UniSA was also the first Australian university to make a public commitment to reconciliation and the first university in South Australia to launch a RAP. These collective commitments underpin our aspiration to be a University of Choice for Aboriginal Peoples.

    Since launching our first RAP in 2014, our journey has been incremental and considered. The first sought to build greater respect, awareness and engagement with Aboriginal Peoples. The second provided commitments to ensure Aboriginal Peoples and their knowledges were valued. The third — our second Stretch RAP — commits to the delivery of the Aboriginal Knowledges Centre and helping to centre and enable Aboriginal ways of knowing across the university.

    How has implementing the RAP impacted your organisation internally? What changes have you seen in employee engagement and corporate culture?

    Vanessa Matthews: Our RAPs have been galvanising. As co-chair of our current RAP, there is no doubt it has been received with great enthusiasm and engagement — and there is a genuine shared ownership. RAPs have influenced and improved our corporate culture by helping to educate our community and embed tangible, meaningful actions into our everyday business.

    What are some of the key strategies your organisation has implemented through your RAP that have had the most significant impact?

    Uncle David: UniSA’s RAPs have spurred the creation of several bespoke resources. For example, the Aboriginal Research Strategy 2019–25 ensures that the University’s research ambitions and outcomes reflect Aboriginal self-determination and benefit Aboriginal Peoples and communities. Yurirka: Proppa Engagement with Aboriginal Peoples ensures that staff and students, including those who are engaged in research, are educated on proper protocols to ensure safe and respectful community consultation.

    What challenges has your organisation faced in the RAP process and what have been some of the most important learnings from these challenges?

    Vanessa Matthews: The RAP summarises UniSA’s journey and, in particular, some of the challenges we endured due to organisational changes and the pandemic.

    A key learning is the importance of taking a collective, team approach. This plan’s creation was championed by the Vice Chancellor and Pro Vice Chancellor: Aboriginal Leadership and Strategy, and supported by us, as co-chairs, and a small project team. The RAPs had input and engagement from all areas and levels of the university, and reflect the contributions of our staff, students and broader community.

    Another key learning from previous plans is the importance of active tracking, monitoring, evaluation and public reporting of our progress and its impact.

    Can you discuss a key transformation within your organisation that resulted from implementing your RAP? How has this changed the way your employees interact or the organisation operates?

    Uncle David: The university has established an Aboriginal governance and engagement model to ensure Aboriginal voices are embedded and empowered in UniSA’s decision-making structures. The Purkarninthi in Residence and Yaitya Warra-itya are senior Aboriginal Elder and corporate advisory bodies in this model. Collectively, they advise UniSA leadership and the community on Aboriginal matters at the university. Unsurprisingly, the remit and breadth of business undertaken by these bodies has grown as the UniSA community has benefited from this input and deepened its understanding and commitment to Aboriginal Peoples and reconciliation.

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