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.
At a practical level the project investigates the following, as told by the Indigenous education units:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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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.
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|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. http://www.iier.org.au/iier10/melville.html
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