Decolonising higher education: First Nations student perspectives in Australia

Decolonising higher education: First Nations student perspectives in Australia

First Nations students at RMIT shared their perspectives on how universities can promote inclusion and Indigenous perspectives at the recent UNESCO World Higher Education Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Higher education in Australia started as a colonial construct and traditionally access was limited for First Nations students. 

It wasn’t until 1956 – 100 years after the first universities were established in Australia – when a First Nations student graduated from university. 

In this video, Dr Al Fricker, a proud Dja Dja Wurrung man from RMIT’s School of Education, talks to First Nations students Chelsea Brennan (Palawa), Shylicia McKiernan (Kulkalaig) and Hayden Ryan (Yuin) to get their thoughts on how to create more inclusive structures and bring Indigenous teachings into higher education in Australia.

Decolonising Higher Education: First Nations student perspectives in Australia

Higher education in Australia started as a colonial construct and traditionally access was limited for First Nations students. It wasn’t until 1956 –100 years after the first universities were established in Australia – when a First Nations student graduated from university. 

What has your journey to university been like? 

Chelsea: I always wanted to be a teacher but during high school I didn't think that I’d be able to go to uni. In the end, I actually studied year 12 at RMIT and thought university could be a possibility after all. I’m now studying the Bachelor of Education. 

Shylicia: I always knew I wanted to go to university but I didn’t actually finish high school. It wasn't a comfortable learning environment for me and I went straight into the world of work. When I was 20, I discovered my passion for urban planning and a few years later started a Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning at RMIT. 

Hayden: I always wanted to do sound production so I opted for a Bachelor of Arts and Music Industry at RMIT. I took a gap year to prepare for this experience and I was fortunate enough to get some scholarships to live on campus. I found it was very different for me growing up in a regional town and coming to the city.  

What has your experience as a university student been like? Has university matched your expectations? 

Chelsea: Well, I didn't really have too many expectations but I have really enjoyed it so far.

Shylicia: I didn't have huge expectations but hoped that it’d feel like a safer space than high school. I don't know if that’s because I was surrounded by older people, but university felt more inviting. 

Hayden: I didn't have any expectations and learned as I went along, particularly with music, to just let things happen. I think university has really benefited me as an artist and scholar. I now want to use this experience and the skills that I've developed to contribute to linking First Nations culture to sound and sound production. 

What is it like navigating university as a First Nations student? 

Chelsea: So far, everyone has been really accepting and understanding and I’ve had a lot of support. 

Shylicia: In my course we cover a lot of policy and city design, and I think there’s a lot that’s missed in terms of First Nations Peoples knowledge and perspectives in the planning system. This is even demonstrated in the university set up. I didn't think that as a student I would now be working in the Student Union and helping to decolonise the university.  

Hayden: I think this differs by discipline. Coming from an arts background, it was extremely inclusive and we took the time to learn about culture and identity. In terms of navigation it's not only up to those high-up in the university, but also our teachers. 

UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 Video screening at the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022

Do you think the higher education sector is a force for continuing colonisation? 

Chelsea: I’ve noticed a lot of the teaching and learning is focused on reading and writing and not so much on traditional First Nations ways of learning, such as Dreamtime stories, yarning, dancing and art. The same goes for primary and high school. 

Shylicia: I want to understand how I can create a bridge between the planning industry and First Nations Peoples – literally and theoretically, because there currently isn't one. Yes, university is an institute that continues colonisation but for First Nations Peoples to survive in this Western world, there are parts of the system I feel I need to learn about.

Hayden: If we’re talking about the institution as an entity, then absolutely. But there are people within the institution that are trying their best to steer away from that Western perspective. As First Nations scholars or students, being in a colonial system doesn't mean that we’re being colonised – we’re extending our ways of knowing. 

What are three critical areas that need to be changed within higher education in Australia?

Chelsea: The inclusion of First Nations traditional ways of learning and teaching would be beneficial not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but for students more broadly, regardless of cultural context. That would mean moving away from teacher-focused lecture styles to more interactive and immersive learning. 

Shylicia: Funding is very important for the participation of First Nations Peoples in higher education. We travel and relocate to study, and often have to work full-time to support ourselves, but also want to do really well in our studies. I know many First Nations students who wanted to continue with university but couldn’t because of other life circumstances.  

Hayden: Creating opportunities for First Nations scholars and reforming curriculum is one critical step towards more inclusion. I remember when I took a class focused on Indigenous philosophy how proud I felt accessing readings not only by First Nations scholars but by people who were challenging Western ways of knowing which claimed to be superior to others. 

Which positive steps could be undertaken to improve and create a more inclusive higher education system in Australia? 

Chelsea: An Acknowledgement of Country at the start of every subject would be a positive step. Together with this, including Indigenous culture and ways of learning into each subject would be important. 

Shylicia: Making a mandatory Acknowledgement of Country short course for students to learn about the land they are on and the traditional owners. I know many people that want to do an Acknowledgement of Country but may not know how to go about it or offend anyone.  

Hayden: Support to have more First Nations Peoples in academia and additional funding towards research for our own culture. One of the reasons I want to do my master’s degree and PhD is to explore an area that hasn't been explored yet in our culture.

This video was created for the UNESCO World Higher Education Conference 2022 and can be accessed via their knowledge digital library


Story: Inés Crosas


  • RMIT Europe
  • Student experience
  • Society
  • Education
  • Indigenous
  • Indigenous Australia

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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.