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: Comfort with Discomfort: Exploring Wadjella educators’ engagement with Indigenous students

Jonathan Bullen, Lynne Roberts, Cheryl Davis, Braden Hill, Tamara Lipscombe and Djandunmarra Cox

Executive summary

Indigenous people are underrepresented in the Australian higher education system. While Indigenous people comprise 3.3 per cent of the Australian population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 20181), in 2018 Indigenous students comprised only 1.5 per cent of commencing students and 1.3 per cent of all students in higher education (Department of Education, 2018b). Further, their degree completion rates (~47%) are substantially lower than other students (~74%), with the drop-out rate after the first year more than double that of non-Indigenous (Wadjella[1]) students (Department of Education, 2018a). These retention figures indicate the ongoing need to develop effective strategies for retaining Indigenous students in higher education through to degree completion.

National imperatives to close the gap between Indigenous and Wadjella Australians across a range of markers has led to a broad range of interventions within the tertiary education sector. However, while there has been a national push for the development and integration of Indigenous knowledge/perspectives into tertiary curriculum, and growing numbers of Indigenous students within higher education (an increase from 8,411 students in 2008 to 16,750 students in 2018), there remains limited training and staff development around ways of engaging with Indigenous Australians, and a noted discomfort of Wadjella educators in both the teaching of Indigenous content and Indigenous students (Wolfe, Sheppard, Le Rossignol, & Somerset, 2018). This research project expands on this literature on educator discomfort, moving toward deeper exploration of the experiential, psychological, and contextual factors associated with Wadjella educators’ engagement with Indigenous students in both Indigenous-focused and ‘mainstream’ learning environments.

To undertake this exploration, we adopted a qualitative methodology, conducting interviews across four key groups (Wadjella educators in faculty, Wadjella educators in Indigenous centres, Indigenous educators in Indigenous centres, and Indigenous students), guided by the central question of this research, “What are the ways in which Wadjella educators engage and interact with Indigenous Australian tertiary education students?”. Comparative analysis was conducted to explicate findings across each of the four groups, to determine similarities, differences and gaps in approaches to engagement, and the psychological, experiential and contextual factors associated with this. Our research found that there are specific interrelated factors associated with, and impeding or facilitating, educator engagement in this Indigenous tertiary education context, including:

  • the educator mindset — fixed or growth
  • the educators’ tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty
  • the lived experience of educators within Indigenous contexts
  • the educators’ understanding of the Indigenous student context
  • the educators’ capacity for, and understanding of, relationships.

From these findings, a range of recommendations have been made, at both the institutional and individual level, with a clear focus on ways forward to develop staff capacity to engage effectively and appropriately with Indigenous students. In this way, these recommendations acknowledge the role both institutions and individuals play in improving educators’ capacity to engage with Indigenous students across both Indigenous- and non-Indigenous-specific curriculum contexts, and the necessity of each to take responsibility if we are to improve rates of tertiary education retention of Indigenous students.


Based on the findings from this research, we make the following recommendations:

  1. Institutions should reinforce that student equity is—now more than ever—everyone’s responsibility, given the growing body of Indigenous students in mainstream courses. Similarly, identifying and managing racism within classrooms is the educators’ responsibility.
  2. Staff development opportunities should extend beyond simple cultural awareness to cover these interrelated factors:
    • understanding of the Indigenous student context
    • educator engagement, the teacher-student relationship and support for Indigenous students
    • educator growth mindset and tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
  3. Institutions should, in conjunction with community, facilitate meaningful opportunities for staff and Indigenous community to interact more generally, so as to ensure authentic immersion and relationships over time, supporting the capacity for relationship development with students. Such transformative approaches acknowledge the fraught transactional nature of ‘ticking the box’ with regards to staff personal development opportunities.
  4. Further research explicitly examining and exploring this educator uncertainty and mindset in the Indigenous context is vital to understanding what is likely to combat these psychological impediments to engaging effectively with Indigenous students.
  5. Further research should focus on exploring the influence of lived experience and cultural immersion on the quality of learner-centred relationships, uncertainty and educator mindset, and its impact on Indigenous student retention.
  6. Further research should focus on the development of quantitative measures of educator capacity to engage effectively with Indigenous students, based on key findings within the current research.
  7. The student voice is imperative in all further research in this area.

Read the full report here.

[1] Wadjella is a Nyoongar word for a non-Aboriginal person