The discrepancy between the number of established Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers in the higher education sector continues to grow. The low numbers of Indigenous postgraduate enrolments and completions and the paucity of Indigenous research capacity building programs are highly influential factors in shaping these outcomes. In 2012, closing this gap would have required Indigenous postgraduate numbers and completions to increase by 600% to attain parity with population proportions. In 2010, for example, only 0.7% of PhD enrolments nationwide were Indigenous and only 0.4% of PhD completions were Indigenous (DEEWR Statistics 2010).
The Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (2012), commonly known the Behrendt Review, identified an urgent need to build research capability relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges and perspectives in Australian universities. Universities Australia’s A Smarter Australia policy statement noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute only 1.1 per cent of all higher degree by research enrolments, and often withdraw from studies due to ‘financial pressures, social or cultural alienation caused by the academic demands of study, and insufficient academic support’ (Universities Australia 2013:18). These two reports confirm that important factors in retaining and attracting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into higher degrees by research are the provision of sufficient academic support and social and cultural inclusion. The 2008 Bradley Report identified other pressing issues, including the relative lack of Indigenous research role models, methodologies, and mentors available to students within their respective disciplines and institutions
NIRAKN’s research and capacity building activities are designed to address these factors, and in so doing contribute to attracting and retaining a new generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers.
In 2003, the Australian Research Council, under its Network funding scheme, called for applications to establish research networks from the higher education sector. A small number of applications were made by Indigenous researchers, many of whom were members of the then National Indigenous Higher Education Network (NIHEN), now formally incorporated as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium (NATSIHEC). Applications were submitted in March 2004 but were not successful. In 2004 and 2005 the Director of NIRAKN, Professor Moreton-Robinson, had discussions about the need for an Indigenous research network with the then Chair of the Australian Research Council, Professor Graeme Turner, and the then Chief Executive Officer, Professor Mandy Thomas. As an outcome of these discussions and upon her appointment to Professor of Indigenous Studies at QUT in 2006, she began building an online Indigenous Studies Research Network (ISRN) consisting of international and national Indigenous scholars while delivering a postgraduate research capacity building program. The ISRN website went live in 2009.
The prospect of a national Indigenous researchers’ network had been the subject of discussion since the late 1970s and it continued to gather momentum. The second council of the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC) instigated a scoping study in 2008, which was conducted by Professor Boni Robertson and Professor Maggie Walter. In the scoping study’s final report in 2009 it highlighted and outlined the research capacity building program of the Indigenous Studies Research Network stating that
The Indigenous Studies Research Network is the Australian Indigenous research entity most closely aligned with the vision for an ICRD. Collaboration rather than competition is the key here. The national focus, sector profile and links of the ICRD would enable existing strengths of the ISRN to be developed and broadened in their impact and coverage. A consultative site visit to the ISRN Director in October 2008 suggested that there would be strong synergies and that a collaborative arrangement would be possible and welcomed (Walter & Robertson 2009:25).
Unfortunately the scoping study’s recommendation to establish a Centre of Researcher Development was rejected by the Australian Research Council. However, the third Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council remained committed to the concept of an Indigenous research network. The Chair of IHEAC, Professor Steve Larkin met several times with the then Chief Executive Officer, Professor Margret Shields, who finally agreed to explore the idea of a network. Professor Moreton-Robinson (as Deputy Chair of the Council) chaired a meeting with ARC representatives and a small number of invited Indigenous scholars in Canberra. The aim of the meeting was to discuss the concept and need for an Indigenous researchers network. As a result of this meeting and efforts by the third IHEAC in 2011 the ARC called for Expressions of Interest (EOI) for a Special Research Initiative for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Researchers Network on the 29th of December 2012.
Professor Moreton-Robinson began drafting the 10 page EOI on 29 December 2012. She was well placed to develop the Expression of Interest (EOI) given her longstanding Indigenous postgraduate research capacity building efforts, her international and national academic standing within the field of Indigenous studies and her extensive community and professional networks. The QUT led EOI drew upon the Indigenous Studies Research Network’s research capacity building program, which had been identified as the top Australian model in the IHEAC scoping study and it would later be praised by the Behrendt-led Review into Indigenous Higher Education (2012) as a model of best practice. The network that was assembled was led by a group of distinguished senior Indigenous scholars with strong track records, who brought international and national networks, along with documented experience in collaborative research and capacity training. The EOI was further strengthened by strategic partnerships with international, national and community organisations.
The EOI was successful and the ARC requested the development of a full application. Professor Moreton-Robinson and Professor Maggie Walter co-wrote the 19 page C Section using the EOI as the basis of the application. The administrative staff of the Indigenous Studies Research Network collated, collected and worked on retrieving information for the F Sections of the 40 members as well as developing the budget. The ISRN received additional support and resources from QUT’s Office of Research and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at QUT, Professor Arun Sharma. Together their combined efforts produced a 733 page application, which was successful and received funding from the ARC for a four year program of Capacity Building and Collaborative Research. The National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN) was launched by the Chief Executive Officer of the ARC at AIATSIS in Canberra in July 2013. With 44 Network Participants from 22 eligible institutions across all states and territories, 5 Indigenous Partner Organisations, and an Advisory Committee of 10 eminent Indigenous elders and leaders, the scale of NIRAKN’s ambition is clear. Find out more about NIRAKN and our activities.