Issues In Educational Research, 10(1), 2000, 67-76.

Where to now? Issues in the management of indigenous research in higher education

Jane Melville and Phillip Rankine
Central Queensland University
The focus of this paper is a recent research project conducted by the author and co-researcher, which investigates aspects of the management of Indigenous research in some tertiary institutions. The paper draws from a major theme of the research and the issues it raises. This major theme relates to the relationship between Indigenous education units and the tertiary institutions within which they operate, as reported by the Indigenous education units. The research asks how much impact does the Indigenous education unit have on their umbrella institution, and conversely how much impact does the umbrella institution have on the Indigenous unit, in the context of the management of Indigenous research.

The research has found that most Indigenous education units are satisfied with the relationship they have with their umbrella institutions. They are satisfied that they have appropriate influence in decisions made about the management of Indigenous research, including the ethical assessment of research proposals. At the same time however, the research has demonstrated their influence and participation occurs in a fairly casual and informal mode. Documentation of good practice in the form of policies or procedures is conspicuously lacking. The majority of units feel confident however, that if and when they are ready to expand their influence, they will be widely supported.


The paper firstly overviews the research project from which it draws describing its main focus for investigation. The rationale for such research from both the local and more immediate perspective, as well as from a broader and more philosophical context is then discussed. The process for conducting the research is briefly explained. Most importantly the paper reveals results relating to the roles of the Indigenous education units and their umbrella institutions in the management of Indigenous research. Lastly the issues raised by the results are highlighted, prompting the paper to ask 'where to now?'


The research project from which this paper draws seeks to examine the inclusivity of Indigenous research issues in the official ethical review process of Indigenous research in the higher education sector. It also investigates the inclusivity of Indigenous issues in research documents and through committee representation. The investigations are focused purposefully only on the Indigenous education units.

At a practical level the project investigates the following, as told by the Indigenous education units:

The research also hoped to achieve the following in the short term: The research does not however purport to pinpoint best practice models. It seeks instead to identify some important issues which may, or may not, need to be addressed.

This paper focuses more on the relationship between the Indigenous education unit and their umbrella institution as perceived by the Indigenous unit. This has been determined through an examination of their roles in the ethical assessment of Indigenous research proposals, as well as an examination of their roles in the development of documents and of their participation in decision-making bodies, which set procedures for the conduct of Indigenous research. The paper also makes reference to a unit operating fairly exclusively, as a way of possibly identifying alternative models for the management of Indigenous research.

Interestingly the results demonstrate wide satisfaction with the current mode of operation.

Most units believed they have positive relationships with their umbrella institutions and that if they feel the need to impact more on their institutions, they will be widely supported by individuals and the institution.


For the purpose of this project 'Indigenous research' is defined as any research undertaken which involves Indigenous Australian people, or issues. Indigenous research may be research undertaken by Indigenous or non-Indigenous persons or institutions.

The term Indigenous 'unit' is designed to include Indigenous education centres, institutes or departments within universities. The term is interchangeable with 'centre' in this paper. The term 'umbrella institution' is used to define the higher education institution within which the units operate.

The process

The research included six participating institutions. This included five Indigenous units in higher education institutions, and one which operates largely outside an umbrella institution. The latter being included as a way of possibly identifying different models for the processing of Indigenous research, if operating in a more autonomous context. The institutions within which the units operate, were selected in a way which reflected the older, newer and regional universities and which were representative across states.

Research was only conducted with the Indigenous unit and does not include interviews or document analysis with the umbrella institutions. Research was conducted by way of personal interview with the director of each unit and sometimes other staff members. The interviews were approximately two hours with participants having been briefed beforehand.


Since their first intrusive gaze, colonising cultures have had a preoccupation with observing, analysing, studying, classifying and labeling Aborigines and Aboriginality' (Dodson, 1994, p. 3).
The issue of Indigenous research is sensitive and delicate given the history of exploitation of Indigenous people as research subjects. Indigenous people in Australia have been the subject of much research for over 200 years. Indigenous research today, raises extremely sensitive issues, due to its history and some current practices.
Historically Indigenous people have been subjected to what they consider to be inappropriate, unacceptable, devious and degrading research methodologies (Anderson, et al, 1998, p.71).
This raises concerns at a number of levels. For example data collection, analysis and interpretation may be conducted through ethnocentric perspectives, which are often non-Indigenous and usually European. The Indigenous communities' rights may be overlooked and furthermore, Indigenous knowledges may be appropriated by the researchers. In fact research for Indigenous people is often "inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism" (Smith 1999, p.1).

In addition, for many Indigenous communities the term research is taken to mean the "continued construction of Indigenous people as the problem" (Smith, 1999, p.92).

As reported by a recent research project about the inclusivity of Indigenous research interests in universities:

The majority of research carried out and much of the present research is based on definitions by non-Indigenous people, of what are perceived to be Indigenous problems. Coupled with this comes non-Indigenous defined solutions. Thus Indigenous peoples become objects of research in situations where problems and solutions are defined outside Indigenous frames of reference (Anderson, et al 1998, p. 71).
The stimulus for this project came from a desire to deconstruct such practices and identify areas at the grass roots level, which could be used as possible avenues for the empowerment of Indigenous communities, via the Indigenous units, in the research process. One such area identified by the researchers is the process of ethical assessment of research projects in higher education institutions. A small, albeit crucial stage in the determination of whether or not research may proceed, and if approved, how research may proceed. A further area identified by the researchers included the availability of documentation about the conduct of Indigenous research, and the boundaries governing its implementation. Consequently the project seeks to identify the level of involvement of Indigenous education centres in the assessment of Indigenous research and in the dissemination of information regarding Indigenous research issues, in the higher education sector.

The immediate impetus for the research however, was the changing status of Indigenous units on university campuses. Many Indigenous education units, if they have not done so already are building on their original student support role to encompass academic roles within and outside of the university. As such they are seeking to build research profiles within their Indigenous research community, within their umbrella institution and beyond. It seemed timely to investigate what similar Indigenous centres and institutions were attempting in this regard and to document the processes already in place.

It seems important, and a logical progression, that along with this new function the appropriate research infrastructure is developed and implemented by the units and their umbrella institutions early on. This concept is supported by a recent publication investigating the inclusivity of Indigenous research issues in universities. It recommends

That universities make apparent their commitment to facilitating Indigenous research needs by ensuring appropriate, sensitive and beneficial research is conducted in accordance with Indigenous ethics, values and protocols and that this commitment is explicitly expressed within university policies and practices. (Anderson et al, 1998, p.84).

Results of the research

Ethical review of Indigenous research proposals

In all institutions Indigenous research, including research emanating from the Indigenous centre was processed through the university's ethics panels in the same way as any other type of research. In most instances, as an addition to the above however, Indigenous research proposals were also scrutinised by the Indigenous unit on campus.

For example in one, an Indigenous academic sat on the university's ethics panel. This was official policy. In the other three where the Indigenous centre was involved, Indigenous research proposals landed on their doorstep for a variety of reasons. These actions were not enshrined in policy. In one the proposals were sent to the unit via the university's ethics committee and back again. The official ethics panel waited for an assessment from the Indigenous unit. In another two Indigenous centres, proposals made their way to the Indigenous centre directors at various stages. Often applicants would come for advice in the writing of the proposal.

At this stage no disagreements have ever arisen between assessment by the university ethics panel and the Indigenous centre. However if a disagreement did arise none of the participants were sure whose decision would prevail. They thought theirs probably would, but nothing to this effect is documented.

In the unit which does not participate in Indigenous research proposal assessment, Indigenous research is assessed the way any other research is. There is no Indigenous representative on the university's ethics panel. In the more autonomous institution, all research proposals are submitted to an assessment process by their research committee and then their ethics committee. This is also enshrined in policy and documentation. Detailed research application forms are completed and submitted as a part of the process.

Committees within the Indigenous education unit

One unit had an Indigenous research committee up and running. Interestingly this is a unit, which has no Indigenous involvement in the umbrella institution's processing of proposals. All of the other units, at some stage, had engaged an Indigenous research committee, however for various reasons they had been disbanded. The purpose of the now defunct committees and of the Indigenous research committee currently in operation, was never to oversee ethical and protocol assessment but to act more as a general advisory group. The more autonomous Indigenous institution however has an Indigenous research committee and an ethics committee to which research proposals are referred and then assessed.

Documentation within the Indigenous education unit

Three Indigenous units had documents, which outline appropriate ethics and protocol procedures. These documents were for any researchers of Indigenous issues, but in practice only distributed upon request. In all cases they are guidelines and not official policy however. One centre is seeking to have their documents officially endorsed in university policy. The exclusively Indigenous institution has a number of documents relating to the processing of Indigenous research, including a policy. Both incorporate ethical and protocol issues.

Committees outside the Indigenous education unit

In one institution an Indigenous representative was on the university human ethics review panel. In two others centre directors were already members of, or about to be invited to sit on, university research committees. The latter of course are not directly related to ethics review panels but may exert indirect influence. Most directors were confident if they wished to be involved they would be welcomed.

Documents outside the Indigenous education unit

In one institution a section of the university's research code is devoted to Indigenous research. This was developed by the Indigenous unit. In another, a similar code written by the Indigenous centre, is about to be included in the official university documents. In all other institutions no other specific Indigenous research policy or documentation has been contributed to by the Indigenous unit on campus. Most centres, expressed that if and when they wanted to contribute they would be welcomed however.

Monitoring of Indigenous research in university

None of the units operating in umbrella institutions currently monitored Indigenous research in the university in which they operated. Most centres felt no need for this. This was attributed to many reasons including the overwhelming number of researchers, or because they had informal or formal links with other faculties, which meant they were regularly updated. The Indigenous institution monitored its research through its ethics committee through which all research must be officially cleared.

Participants' assessment of current situation

The units that played a role in the assessment of Indigenous research, were generally satisfied with the current situation. They felt they exerted appropriate influence and that they operated within environments supportive of Indigenous education and their participation in the research assessment processes. Most of those who are not yet members of university committees or who have not yet contributed to university documents felt that they have an opportunity to do so when they are ready.

Issues raised by the results

The results imply that the relationships between the Indigenous education units and their umbrella institutions are perceived by the units to be fair and equitable. The majority of units are either involved in decisions made about the management of Indigenous research or feel when they are ready to become more involved, they will be welcomed.

However as the results demonstrate, most documentation of good practice is either lacking or is informal and implemented very casually. In addition, of those centres that do sit on committees, most do so informally and any research referred to the centre is done so on an ad hoc basis.

Procedures for researchers of Indigenous issues, documented by Indigenous units, may in fact be intended for all potential researchers. However, it appears that it is up to the researchers firstly to want to approach the unit for any guidance. Secondly, it is up to the whim of the individual researcher to determine whether or not the procedures are actually followed. Nothing exists as policy to compel, or even to actively encourage, all researchers' compliance.

In relation to the ethical review process, it seems that another quite ad hoc situation exists. For example, in some cases Indigenous education centres do not know when their university's ethics review panels meet. It seems those units who are included in the ethical assessment phase are generally included as an adjunct to the university panel. The proposals going to and from the official panel and the Indigenous unit. At this stage no-one is sure whose decision would prevail if a discrepancy did arise. It appears that nothing to this affect has been actually documented nor has the possibility of disagreement been acknowledged and openly discussed.

In addition the results have revealed some dichotomies. Firstly on the one hand are the units who do not lobby to implement and enshrine in policy their good practice procedures for the entire university research community, but at the same feel fully supported in their good practice. On the other hand exists the centre which has attempted to impact on their umbrella community and yet feels dissatisfied.

Secondly on the one hand is the institution working largely outside an umbrella organisation which has strictly coded procedures for the ethical conduct of research, implemented through documentation in policy, committees and community involvement. While on the other hand, are the Indigenous education units operating within umbrella institutions, which lack formal documentation for the implementation of research procedures for their entire research community.

Where to now?

The implications of the results raise the following questions.


As is often the case, this research has actually raised more issues than it originally sought to investigate. These issues, however, do not warrant immediate thorough investigation. Merely an awareness of the issues raised will assist those concerned to analyse their positions and their relationships with their umbrella institutions in real terms, and to determine Where to Now? if and when the need arises.


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Dodson, Michael (1994). The Wentworth Lecture 'The End in the Beginning: Redefining Aboriginality'. In Australian Aboriginal Studies. Canberra: AIATSIS Press. no. 1 pp2-14.

Melville, J. & Rankine, P. (2000). Ethics Matters: The Processing of Indigenous Research in Higher Education. Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton.

Melville, J. & Rankine, P. (1998). To what degree indigenous realities? Redefining Australian indigenous studies. Paper presented at CSAA Conference, Adelaide December 4-6, 1998.

Miller, James (1985). Koori: A will to win. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.

Neville, Jennifer (1995). Ethics, Research and the University (New College Institute for Values Research Bibliographic Series). UNSW, Sydney.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai (1999). Decolonising Methodologies, Research and Indigenous Peoples. Zed Books, London.

Authors: Jane Melville is currently employed as the Research Cooordinator with Nulloo Yumbah, Place of Indigenous Learning and Research, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton. She is presently researching how Indigenous research is controlled in higher education institutions and teaches research to Indigenous students.

Phillip Rankine at the time of this research was employed as the Indigenous Studies Coordinator with Nulloo Yumbah, Central Queensland University. His research interests relate to notions of leadership in Indigenous and western contexts, and the educational history of Wagaya people in the Northern Territory.

Please cite as: Melville, J. and Rankine, P. (2000). Where to now? Issues in the management of indigenous research in higher education. Issues in Educational Research, 10(1), 67-76.

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