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Working together can solve everyone’s problem

Feng Daimei | 2014-04-01 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today



Professor Shane Houston

Founded in 1850, the University of Sydney is the first university in Australia and among its most prestigious institutions. At the end of October, 2013, the University of Sydney hosted an international symposium themed by “Australia and China: Working Together to Realize the China Dream” in Beijing. CSST interviewed Professor Houston at the symposium.


CSST: Before taking your current role at the University of Sydney, you held various positions in the government and at the community level. How did you become involved in government and then in academics?


Houston: I started my university career in law, but I found it was quite challenging because I didn’t like it at all. So I asked myself what could make me think differently from the theories I already knew. I decided to leave university and went to work in aboriginal communities on health services in several different places. Eventually I came back to work with the government, where I spent nearly 20 years.


My master’s and PhD both focused on health economics. As a minority, I’m well aware that our values and priorities often get overlooked. So it’s important for us to find new ways to help policymakers understand and seek arrangements that will reflect minorities’ demands.


By the time I finished my PhD, I was already past 40. I was able to take a number of academic appointments with Curtin University and other universities, then resumed my role as an adviser to the Australian Government. In 2011, I accepted my current appointment at the University of Sydney.


CSST: What do you focus on as deputy vice-chancellor?


Houston: The position has two elements: one is to think about how we make better contributions to Australia’s Aboriginal people; the other is to think about how we make contributions to higher education research and its relevance to our priorities and needs of the country.


One of our tasks is to make sure Aboriginal people are well represented at Australian universities, not just at the undergraduate level but at the post-graduate level as well. Also, we need to make sure our instruction is appropriate, and that we properly understand the cultural distinctiveness between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders.


CSST: One of your objectives is to improve Aboriginal people’s education level. How do they fair in the job market? Are there any areas of employment that they gravitate to or where they are under-represented?


Houston: The first Aboriginal person to graduate from university received his diploma from the University of Sydney in 1966. Since then, about 17, 000 Aboriginal people have attained university degrees. The employment rate for Aboriginal graduates is better than other Australians because we are so small in number. In the University of Sydney, there are currently only 340 Aboriginal students, 40% of whom are undergraduates. Country-wide, there are only about 4,000 Aboriginal people currently enrolled in university. So once they graduate, everyone wants them and they find jobs very quickly. These Aboriginal people are often trained as health economists, teachers and government officials.


Employment is never a problem for Aboriginal people, but it is challenging for them to become academics. One of the reasons we are struggling to attract more Aboriginal people into academia is that as soon as they complete their degrees, Aboriginals have to find jobs to pay their bills. They find it difficult to give up an income and go back to university. So we are looking for new ways of encouraging them, for instance by offering jobs within universities as soon as they graduate. This way, they can do their master’s or PhD as a part of their job at the university. We plan to offer between 50 and 60 scholarships and provide part-time job opportunities to support them while they pursue postgraduate degrees. I hope more and more aboriginal people join programs like this and we see more become employed within industry, government and civil services in the future.


CSST: From your point of view, in which fields do Aboriginal graduates make great contributions?


Houston: Aboriginal people contribute to the society in a couple of different ways. They take senior positions in government in order to shape government policy concerning island affairs. They engage in enterprise in local communities when they finish studying at university. Some own tourist resorts and doing tourist business.


CSST: Are there any special favorable minority policies for Aboriginal people in Australia?


Houston: Before 1967, Australian history is not good, and the general assumption of the government is that Aboriginal people will eventually die out. However, they soon discovered that Australia’s Aboriginal population was not dying out but in fact increasing! Since 1972, the Australian government has enacted special policies in education, housing, employment, cultural heritage, communication, business and arts. Those policies have focused on bridging gaps between Australian people. Universities have special programs for helping talented young Aboriginal attend school. State health services are among the programs that specially support the Aboriginal people. Since Australians’ attitude and polices have changed over time, we have started to appreciate the richness of a multi-cultural and of culture differences. In our policies, there is a respect for culture variety, diversity and plurality to ensure Aboriginal people can enjoy their culture freely and proudly.


CSST: As a university administrator, what do you think about the role of education in globalization?


Houston: Someone once said that education unlocks a country’s treasures. From my personal experience, I have learned that only when we receive better education will we be stronger and more cohesive. I’ve found that different countries will always face similar challenges. We may have different solutions to those difficulties, but if we work together, we can find out a better solution. This can solve not just one country’s problem, but everyone’s problem.


I am very excited that Australia is cooperating with Chinese universities. Through their cooperation, China and Australia have much to teach each other, much help each other with and extensive knowledge to share with one another.


This century is Asia’s century. Educational institutions should provide solutions to the social, cultural and economic development issues we face in order to solve the problems in our region. 20 years ago and even only 10 years ago, everyone looked at America and the EU. That’s history. Now we look to our own region. We want to develop relations with the countries in our region and look at the problems we jointly face. That’s really exciting.


I think China should keep going, engaging more and sharing more. After all, there are a lot of puzzles, and we might be able to solve them together.