Psychology as a discipline does not attract many Indigenous students, so promoting psychology as a serious option of study for young Indigenous people to consider may increase enrolments. This means promoting psychology for those considering a university education as well as those who are in their first years or considering postgraduate study. Currently Indigenous people who do enrol in undergraduate psychology courses generally do not proceed to postgraduate training. Ensuring courses are academically relevant and that the learning environment is supportive for Indigenous students is a priority for the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland (UQ), which is now four years into its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), the first to be embarked on specifically within a school of psychology. UQ’s 2012 postgraduate clinical psychology intake includes three Indigenous students, the most ever in one cohort. In this interview with InPsych, UQ’s Dr Paul Harnett MAPS shares his insights into how his school of psychology has attracted, supported and retained more Indigenous students in psychology courses.

What do you see as the key issues in attracting Indigenous students to psychology studies?

Increasing Indigenous student numbers is only appropriate if the courses will be relevant and the learning experience is safe, and many measures need to be in place to ensure this is the case. At the undergraduate level, classes are very large. We can offer mentoring programs, but students need to know this will be available before they enrol, which really means targeting high school students with this information.

Most Australian universities teach almost exclusively mainstream (Western) models of psychology. We would like to see a greater Indigenous perspective, taught by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers. It seems logical that Indigenous students sitting in lecture theatres learning that an Indigenous perspective is valid and valued will help increase the perceived relevance of courses. The reality is that our Indigenous students aren’t presently being provided with a sufficient Indigenous perspective. While we would like to fix that, the dilemma we have is that Indigenous academics are few and far between, and we want to train them, but until they are trained, we don’t have the teachers. More realistic, and a necessary first step we are trying to take, is to acknowledge that Indigenous issues are important. Adding content into courses ‘about’ Indigenous people and their issues at least ensures that our non-Indigenous students have a much better knowledge of Australia’s Black history as well as an understanding of contemporary issues.

A greater focus on Indigenous issues isn’t simply a matter of non-Indigenous staff acquiring knowledge of Indigenous issues. It’s about forming relationships through engagement with the Indigenous community. Central to this is developing partnerships with Indigenous community organisations and schools, which can provide research opportunities and clinical placements for applied courses as well as starting a dialogue on what we can be doing better to attract and retain Indigenous students.

What are some of the barriers that your school has had to overcome along the way?

Many staff don’t feel confident about Indigenous issues. In 2011 we introduced a cultural competency workshop for staff run by the Kummara Association, an Indigenous Family Support service in Brisbane. This was well received and allowed some staff to follow up on contacts and form partnerships that might otherwise not have happened. An important lesson was that there are Indigenous people out there in the community who are, importantly, willing to provide input into our courses. I think a barrier to teaching about Indigenous issues has been the belief amongst non-Indigenous staff that there is some level of ‘cultural awareness’ or ‘cultural competency’ that they must attain (but isn’t defined) in order to be qualified to embark on this area of teaching. If the emphasis shifts towards developing partnerships with those people who have the Indigenous knowledge and working together in partnership, the barriers will diminish.

What differences have you noticed in the school itself as a result of having increased numbers of Indigenous students?

An obvious change has been an increase, albeit small, in the number of research projects carried out in Indigenous agencies. But to be honest I still feel concerned that the content of our courses is not sufficiently informed by Indigenous knowledge – for example Indigenous perspectives of mental health and wellbeing. The aim shouldn’t be for non-Indigenous students to acquire an Indigenous world view, but to know that there is one and that it is different, and worthy of respect. With more students, at least at postgraduate level, our non-Indigenous students have started asking questions of their Indigenous peers, such as whether mainstream assessments are culturally appropriate, and it’s encouraging to see discussion on these issues happening more. However it shouldn’t be up to Indigenous students to carry the burden of educating their peers (and lecturers).

What policy shifts would you like to see in the broader system to facilitate the retention of Indigenous students in psychology?

There needs to be creativity and flexibility in the way education is delivered. There are Indigenous people working in mental health, education, justice and welfare-related agencies in Indigenous communities who could be provided with more opportunities to transition into university, including psychology degrees. First, they need to be given more recognition for existing skills. Second, I’m aware of in-service training being provided in Indigenous communities aimed at skilling up the workforce. But this is not formally recognised toward a qualification. There are instances of such training counting towards Certificate 3 or 4 TAFE courses, but much in-service training isn’t counting towards anything.

Flexible delivery of courses from a distance might allow more Indigenous people to pursue university courses, particularly those from remote communities. This will need to be resource intensive if it is to be effective. More personal contact between university educators and students living in rural/remote areas would make for a better distance learning experience, but this means funding to allow the meetings to take place. 
To make the courses more relevant I would like to see a consultation process where the content of courses is critically examined by Indigenous advisors.

What advice would you give to other schools of psychology who would like to increase their Indigenous student enrolments?

For me the most important issue is respecting Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous knowledge as valid and valuable. For example, Western psychology has started to pay a great deal of attention to Eastern approaches to emotional wellbeing, as evidenced by, for instance, the exponential growth in interest in mindfulness and the cultivation of compassion. While I am very interested in the concept of mindfulness, it’s a shame that the ancient local wisdom, which evolved over 40-50,000 years isn’t equally valued by mainstream. Miriam Rose Ungenmerr, has described the Indigenous concept of Dadirri, which, like the concept of mindfulness, is a unique way of viewing the world. Another example is cultural differences in approaches to child rearing. It would be interesting, as well as important for students who end up working in the child and family field, to have an awareness and some understanding of Indigenous approaches to child rearing. I’d love to see Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and staff focusing on these sorts of issues, in both teaching and research.

In essence, my vision is to cultivate a two-way flow of knowledge and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We need to get beyond the view that promoting the ‘cultural competence’ of non-Indigenous staff and students is an end point, and start seeing increased cultural awareness and cultural competence as a step towards starting a true dialogue.

How would you like to see Australian psychologists contribute to promoting meaningful reconciliation?

In the process of reporting on and updating the UQ School of Psychology RAP, we recently surveyed staff and students. Some of the feedback was that the emphasis on Indigenous issues is unwarranted, as there are other cultural groups that deserve equal attention, such as the refugee community. It is a sad fact that a small minority of academics and postgraduate students hold to this view, and have expressed unwillingness, for example, to ‘Acknowledge Country’ at the beginning of a course or tutorial group lecture on the grounds that it is making Indigenous issues a more important issue than other equally deserving issues. I find this disturbing, as reconciliation can take place in parallel with efforts to support other disadvantaged groups. But it does indicate a continuing need for the psychology profession and those involved in it at all levels to consider what ‘reconciliation’ is and why it is important.

Reflections from postgraduate Indigenous student Katherine Williams, APS Student Subscriber

What are some of the challenges for Indigenous students themselves in hanging in there with their psychology studies?

I think every student is going to have a different experience. What has been challenging for me though is retaining some kind of identity while trying to conform to a discipline that can at times be quite rigid and exclusive. As an Aboriginal student who – at first glance – may not appear to be Aboriginal, I think that people forget that I do have a distinct cultural background that is very different to mainstream. This in itself represents a challenge, as while I want to retain my identity, I think that by choosing to identify as Aboriginal, I run the risk of being stereotyped and pigeonholed as an ‘Aboriginal psychologist’, not a psychologist who is also Aboriginal. It would be helpful for me if more academic staff and clinical supervisors had an appreciation of the conflict I experience between being an Aboriginal person and a psychology student.

Is there anything UQ has done that has helped your journey?

This is a difficult question to answer, and I would like to be able to say yes but unfortunately my experience hasn’t entirely been a positive or pleasant one. I am however hopeful that the University, and in particular the School of Psychology, will be responsive to the RAP and I look forward to seeing positive changes. I think the school has the capacity to implement change and I think that there are a few staff members who will help see this happen.

What advice would you give to prospective Indigenous students to encourage them to study psychology?

I don’t know whether I have advice for prospective students, but reflecting on my choice to undertake postgraduate psychology studies, I am pleased I did so. I feel that I am well positioned to make a positive difference and improve the inadequate delivery of psychology services to Indigenous Australians – and that’s important to me. I think it is important to have good reasons for choosing to study in any discipline and this is what helps you to persevere through the more challenging times.

Thanks to Heather Gridley for arranging these interviews.

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InPsych April 2012