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Business Schools Supporting Indigenous Students

Business Schools Supporting Indigenous Students: Examples From Canada, New Zealand, and Australia


Posted June 08, 2016 by Giselle Weybrecht - Author, Advisor, and Speaker - Sustainability and Business

Business schools in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia are aiming to attract and support a growing number of indigenous students looking to pursue a business degree. Business degrees can open up the same types of opportunities for indigenous students as they do for non-indigenous students—career opportunities, increase in salary, access to lifelong networks, and entrepreneurial and leadership training. Businesses are increasingly looking to both hire and engage with indigenous business leaders. In Australia, over 85 percent of companies surveyed in 2014 stated that they were pursuing indigenous engagement activities. Furthermore, increasing the number of indigenous students, as well as relevant content, provides important opportunities for non-indigenous students by creating a richer, more multicultural environment, learning different ways of approaching business. The fact is that indigenous people are a major stakeholder for many companies around the world who do business with indigenous communities, so this knowledge is important within the mainstream business curriculum, as well.


Indigenous students often do not see their own culture valued at universities and are therefore less likely to feel included.


The challenge, however, is that very few indigenous students are attending business schools. In 2010, indigenous students made up 1.4 percent of all enrollments at universities in Australia, despite indigenous Australians making up over 2.4 percent of the general population. The reasons for this significant under-representation are numerous. Indigenous students often do not see their own culture valued at universities and are therefore less likely to feel included. They also often do not have the same backgrounds that would enable them to successfully enter, and complete, a business degree or even feel that the degree is relevant to them. “I recently spoke to leaders at an institution that made a special effort to recruit indigenous people into their business programs, and then watched helplessly as few of the indigenous people succeeded. That’s not the way to do it.” suggests Mark Selman, director of the Executive Aboriginal MBA program at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada. “Institutions need to cultivate relations with aboriginal leaders who can help them adjust to the needs of Aboriginal students.”

Reaching Students Early

In response to this disparity, business schools are looking not just at the types of programs that they put in place but how to support the students before, during and after their program so that they can succeed. This outreach begins before they even start their program, while they are still high school students. At the University of Technology Sydney, students are invited to an Open Day, where aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders students and staff host a lunch and tour for aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander students. They also have an opportunity to enroll in two different lecture/workshops in their faculty of choice and meet current students.

For students who are interested but who may not have the prerequisites to attend the traditional business degree, business schools have a range of alternatives ways to gain admission. The University of New South Wales (UNSW) offers a Pre-Business program, an intensive preparatory program for indigenous students covering a range of business disciplines, industry visits, and study and learning skills. The program also enables a range of criteria to be assessed for admission to university in addition to traditional entry criteria. The University of Western Australia has a 12-month Aboriginal Orientation Course that prepares students for entry into commerce undergraduate degrees. The University of Technology Sydney’s Unistart is a free one-year program that provides ongoing support to enable indigenous students to succeed in college, such as counseling, tutoring, and mentoring, and provides entry into undergraduate courses on successful completion. The university also has a series of events aimed specifically at career advisors and teachers working with indigenous students at the secondary level, as these individuals are key influences for students when it comes to aspiring to go to college.

Providing Financial Support

Once indigenous students are interested and prepared to begin a program within the university, the next challenge, as is the case for many other students, is financial. A growing number of scholarships are offered specifically for indigenous students looking to enter a business program. In Canada, the government maintains a database of all the scholarships available for indigenous students looking to study business at Canadian business schools, which includes numerous government-sponsored scholarships. Also in Canada, as in New Zealand and Australia, many of these scholarships are sponsored by private individuals (for example the Don Argent Indigenous Business Scholarship, which supports an indigenous student to undertake business at the University of Queensland in Australia with a value of over 10,000 AUD) or by companies (such as the Birch Hill Equity Partners Achievement Award of 9,000 CDN annually for an indigenous youth starting at Queens University Smith Business School). As of 2016, University of South Australia Business School also provides an MBA scholarship for aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are nominated and partially sponsored by their employer.

Ensuring Student Success

In order to ensure the success of indigenous students who begin their programs, business schools are providing a range of addition support for students. Many times this is coordinated through special offices, for example, Nura Gili, the Centre for Indigenous Programs at the University of New South Wales in Australia. The staff at the office support community outreach programs, promote indigenous culture and history on campus and throughout the community, and, most important, provide support for potential and existing indigenous Australian and Torres Straight Islander students. The University of Wellington in New Zealand has a number of support groups, counseling, and medical and financial assistance to help Maori students succeed.

In Australia, indigenous students have access to various tutoring and mentorship programs, including the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme and the Aboriginal Indigenous Mentoring Experience, where indigenous students are paired with a student mentor. Schools such as the University of New South Wales and Otago Business School have created special reference guides specifically for indigenous Australian and Maori students.

In Canada, indigenous students can gain entrance into the Ch’nook program started in 2002 after deans from business schools in British Columbia, Canada, agreed on the importance of developing indigenous students’ leadership capabilities and management skills. Students who become Ch’nook scholars have access to scholarship money, expense-paid attendance to two provincial gatherings to meet other scholars, and a paid internship program, as well as the opportunity to interact with local business leaders and host events in their communities.

It is also important to educate non-indigenous students and staff about indigenous culture and students. Monash Business School in Australia offers students a 20-minute online program to learn more about the indigenous Australian and Torres Straight Islander people and culture, as a means to increase understanding on campus. The University of New England Business School in Australia offers staff a two-day cultural immersion program designed to provide a greater cultural awareness and insight into indigenous values and beliefs. The University of Wellington offers Maori language classes to all students.

Offering Post-Graduation Assistance

Also important is the creation of a strong alumni network after the program so that indigenous students have role models and contacts moving forward in their careers. The University of Western Australia paired up with BHP Billiton to support internships for indigenous students, while Deakin Faculty of Business and Law partnered up with CPA Australia and the Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand to support and encourage more Australian indigenous youth to choose accounting as a profession (currently than 30 of about 200,000 Australian accountants self-identify as indigenous).

Several schools recognize indigenous business leaders with awards, such as the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business in Canada, which holds the Excellence in Aboriginal Business Leadership Awards honoring indigenous business leaders in Manitoba. The stories behind their success inspire students to pursue work in a wide variety of sectors. Many more alumni come back to help support the school’s efforts to weave indigenous narratives into their business school’s strategy, including Kia Marama: Maori@Massey 2020, a strategy at Massey Business School looking at embedding Maori culture, business, and learnings into the organizational culture and practices of Massey.

So how can business schools attract more indigenous students? “Institutions need to look at everything,” suggests Mark Selman, “from whether the look and feel of their physical spaces shows respect for aboriginal cultures to whether they have appropriate resources that focus on aboriginal topics to whether they know enough to be able to show respect to the different aboriginal cultures of potential students.”

To read more on this subject, visit the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) blog during the month of June.


Giselle WeybrechtGiselle Weybrecht is an author, advisor, and speaker in the areas of sustainability and business. Her bestselling book, The Sustainable MBA: A Business Guide to Sustainability, brings together all the pieces of the business and sustainability puzzle in an easy-to-understand format. Weybrecht presented a TEDx Talk, "How to Make Anything More Sustainable." She is on Twitter @gweybrecht.

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