Culturally Competent Service-Learning Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations

The aim of this project was to:

  • to support university engagement, collaboration, coordination, teaching and student service-learning with Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs).
  • to enhance graduates' employability skills by appropriately preparing students and monitoring and assessing cultural competence outcomes of their service-learning in ACCOs.

  • The service-learning program on which this project was based came to be called Service-Learning in Indigenous Communities (SLIC).It focused on collaboration betweenThe University of Sydney (the University) and Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs).

    This site records the impact and outcomes of these projects with two ACCOs. They are the Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly (MPRA) which is a peak representative structure that represents the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in 16 communities across western New South Wales and the Tiwi Islands Regional Council (TIRC).

    The SLIC program was run by the Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services, (DVC ISS) at the University. The partnerships were established to facilitate the development of service-learning opportunities thatprovide intercultural and interdisciplinary placements for university students in Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations while working towards community-identified goals.

    In taking such a collaborative approach, the project confirmed the essential requirement for teaching and learning frameworks that necessarily include localised and contextualised Indigenous knowledges. The service-learning model aimed to not only provide transformative learning experiences for students but to also contribute to the delivery of community-driven solutions to real-world problems within Aboriginal contexts in Australia.

    The proposed service-learning model sought to bring about a paradigm shift in the way ACCOs and universities develop and conduct partnerships. It was responsive to community needs and aspirations and centred on localised Aboriginal knowledges. It recognised the diversity of Aboriginal contexts and utilised the expertise of ACCOs members. The service-learning model prioritised ethical engagement and, importantly, aimed to provide tangible outcomes for ACCOs when working in service-learning partnerships with universities.

    What was apparent in this project was that the relationship between ACCOs and the university, which is core to the program's success, was vitally important.

    For ACCOs, the relationship is valued because it offers support and increases capacity to deliver their aspirations through high-level input and expertise that they might not otherwise have available to them. However, recognising the expertise and knowledge that ACCOs hold is also vital to the relationship. Service-learning projects must be driven by community needs and priorities.

    For universities, there are clear benefits in providing these opportunities to students. There are also some challenges that need to be overcome if universities can genuinely and effectively balance ACCO priorities with institutional educational policies and operational structures

    One obvious challenge is how to provide an interdisciplinary unit available to students across a range of degree programs. Some degrees do not have room for more electives and the timing of placements in semester can be an issue. However, even though the unit is interdisciplinary, there must be a faculty home with academic and organisational responsibility for the unit.

    In addition to ensuring the most effective academic structure is in place, appropriate cultural protocols and practices must be embedded within the model and practice. This requires the right team to implement and nurture the vision, as well as the right academic staff to provide appropriate disciplinary knowledge and support.

    The cultural competence of staff must be given weight when putting together the team. Students need to be supported through the experience and the cultural knowledge and competence of academic and professional staff must be well-developed.


  • Service-learning projects must deliver real and tangible benefits to the community, as identified by the ACCO.
  • Students must receive clear academic benefits as well as real-worldexperiences. Service-learning must encourage mutual benefits for students' learning and community outcomes. Embedding the program in an effective academic program to both support and increase the students' experience and learning is essential.
  • The interdisciplinary aspect of the program is recommended as it gives students cross-cultural experience as they learn to work with diverse knowledge systems, including disciplinary and Aboriginal knowledges. It also reflects the interdisciplinary nature of ACCOs' work.
  • The reporting process must include an ability for ACCOs to co-develop reports and appropriate outputs whichensure that they have been heard and which are useful for them to use, for example, whenseeking external funding.
  • University funding commitments must be long-term and transparent. The cost of providing service-learning experiences can be expensive depending on location. Therefore, it is necessary to have clearly defined funding models with long-term timeframes thatcan provide ACCOs with certainty and tangible evidence of a university's commitment.
  • Pre-placement cultural competence training is essential, but equally important to both students and community is the necessity of ACCOs to educate students in community.
  • The Project

    Between 2016 and 2017, 90 students from The University of Sydney took part in four service-learning placements in three Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) - Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly in western NSW, and the Tiwi Islands Regional Council and the Gundjheimi Aboriginal Corporation in the Northern Territory. Students came from a range of disciplines.

    This service-learning was a combination of community driven projects undertaken by interdisciplinary student teams with substantial cultural competence training.

    Students undertook projects the communities wanted - for example, in the Murdi Paaki region communities wanted to reduce energy costs, and students worked with them to identify possible solutions, which included converting the whole community of Weilmoringle to solar energy.

    Students had academic outcomes, real life experiences and gained cultural competence. They drew on multiple knowledge systems including Indigenous knowledges, that of their own discipline and that of the disciplines of other students.

    This project highlighted that service-learning projects must deliver tangible results based on community identified needs. There are benefits in interdisciplinary learnings and that embedding the program in an effective academic program is essential. The importance of ethical engagement with ACCOs based on shared goals, ongoing organisational commitment and transparent communication cannot be understated.

    In November 2018, community members, students and academics were interviewed about their experiences of participating in the program. These videos are what they had to say about the experience.