The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Charles Darwin University – Whole of Community Engagement


The Whole of Community Engagement (WCE) initiative commenced in July 2014, led by the Office of the Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership at Charles Darwin University (CDU). WCE aimed to find ways that strengthen pathways into higher education to support the aspiration and expectation of six remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. Using a place-based, Indigenous-led community development approach, the program developed a model which could be applied by agencies engaging with Indigenous communities. Strategy and action was informed by participatory action research and developmental evaluation approaches. Campus-based and remote Indigenous community-based staff worked together to identify needs, priorities and activities from the ground up. A strategic project on Indigenous adult English language literacy and numeracy was put in place in response to emerging Indigenous concerns.

Formalised partnerships included:

  • Yirrkala, Galiwin’ku, Maningrida, Gunbalanya, Tennant Creek and Yuendumu organisations and communities
  • Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education
  • Northern Territory Department of Education
  • Northern Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance
  • Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education
  • Service Level Agreements with:
    • Aboriginal Research Practitioners’ Network (ARPNet), West Arnhem
    • Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods
    • CDU Research Centre for Health and Wellbeing.


For Indigenous people living remotely, who often speak English as a second, third or fourth language, the road to higher education is over the horizon, potholed and obstacle strewn, with minimal roadside assistance. The objectives of the WCE were to: explore and engage Indigenous perspectives around higher education, including facilitators of, and barriers to, entry and participation; identify ways to make higher education more culturally relevant and accessible; link Indigenous perspectives and aspiration to action and strategy to catalyse positive systems change; and co-create opportunities for Indigenous communities, researchers and leaders to engage with each other, public policymakers and other stakeholders in mutually beneficial interactions.

CDU WCE student quote

Activities and Progress

The WCE team comprised more Indigenous than non-Indigenous staff, and local teams planned and implemented activities together in each community. Although the six implementation sites were remote and geographically dispersed, common attitudes, beliefs and themes around higher education emerged over time. Local teams responded uniquely in each place supporting and delivering a diverse range of locally-driven research, strategies and activities. Activity focus areas included: youth leadership; addressing school bullying; promotion of and entry into higher education; student mentoring and mediation; cultural mentoring for teachers; Indigenous teacher support; strengthening Indigenous leadership in school councils; catalysing community-wide engagement on education; local research capacity building; documenting Indigenous metaphors around higher education; facilitating Honorary appointments; filming Indigenous perspectives and experiences; and research on local educational history.

Progress was informed by an internal evaluator who fed into the team’s reflective cycle. The systems component of the WCE focused primarily on a strategic project on Indigenous adult English language literacy and numeracy. All WCE activities ceased at the end of September 2017.


The WCE model recalibrated power relations, amplified the Indigenous voice, enhanced Indigenous leadership and governance capacity and led to unique outcomes at each site. It contributed to increased: cross-sectoral communication and coordination; interest in schooling and understanding of pathways into higher education; Indigenous researcher capacity and organisation; confidence and capacity of youth leaders; Indigenous role modelling and mentoring within school and community; introduction of cultural content and supporting resources in schools; and contribution to the literature about remote Indigenous perspective and ideas on higher education. Emerging perspectives were shared with each community, at team meetings, conferences, and in publications, including that: Indigenous leadership and governance in remote education is essential; education and higher education are a priority for many Indigenous people; Indigenous cultural knowledge is foundational to other learning; education should be ‘both-ways’; education is viewed holistically by Indigenous participants and includes wellbeing, spirituality and livelihood; and English language, literacy and numeracy is central to progress.

Sustainable Impacts

Funded initially for two and a half years (and extended in part to three), WCE developed a substantial number of strategic relationships and laid a solid foundation for future partnerships between CDU, the six Indigenous communities and other organisations. The WCE also contributed to the furthering of long-term community aspirations and goals.

WCE operated in logistically complex, unpredictable and challenging settings across the Northern Territory. Travel requirements were significant, and the environment and communications were unpredictable. Indigenous people speak multiple languages (54 per cent do not speak English as their primary language), and have diverse cultural identities and strong cultural and community obligations. Establishing trusting relationships, meeting with all stakeholders, communicating the aims of the project and getting people interested and engaged took time. Sustainability was directly impacted by the short timeframe. Sustainable impacts relate strongly to:

  • establishing stronger relationships between and within education institutions and remote Indigenous communities
  • enabling the generation of a knowledge base about how to make education culturally and physically relevant and accessible as told through the Indigenous lived experience.

This case study was one of 35 featured in the NCSEHE’s 2017 publication Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program: Seven Years On.