College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

8 August 2019

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PhD an achievement for Indigenous peoples

The transformative power of education and research is inspiring a JCU lecturer to make a difference for Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Dr Vincent Backhaus was the first Indigenous Australian to graduate with a PhD in Education and Psychology from the University of Cambridge. A JCU alumni himself, he is now focused on supporting the next generation.

Vincent was awarded a Charlie Perkins Scholarship to pursue his postgraduate studies at Cambridge. His PhD, conferred in 2018, focused on identifying approaches to learning and ways of teaching to build stronger teacher-student relationships, improving curriculum and school climate.

“I came back and realised that my achievement at the University of Cambridge is our achievement for Indigenous peoples,” he says. “At the time it was a relief, it was a momentous change in thinking that we could have an Indigenous student aspire and transform the consciousness in how we think about Indigenous achievements and capacity. The University of Cambridge is one of many areas where Indigenous people’s visibility enhances those spaces and the understanding of Indigenous experience more broadly.”

Vincent’s postgraduate experience is now informing his work at JCU, where he is determined to increase research opportunities on offer to Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and graduates.

“I would like to see more Indigenous students and graduates consider those further research opportunities just as I considered them,” he says. “I’m looking to the next generation and how I can continue to foster and support their capacity to grow by building their aspirations to seek out institutional research opportunities.”

Vincent’s passion encompasses undergraduate and postgraduate education. He has assisted in developing a new suite of subjects (IA2022IA2023IA3030) inclusive of a new undergraduate subject, Indigenous Continuity: Agency, Adaptation and Resistance, which explores Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s history of adaptation to change and resistance to oppressive colonial forces, including legal challenges and political activism.

“The subject aims to increase the focus on more of the challenges and struggles that Indigenous people experience within the region,” he says. “From my experience as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man, it was very empowering to develop an understanding of how cultural knowledge is deployed or employed in institutional spaces, and how they affect change and policy.”

Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islands and Australian flags
Aboriginal dancers

Building connections for further research projects

Vincent plans to develop research projects looking into improving integrated Indigenous knowledge in secondary and tertiary educational spaces across the Pacific. As part of this, he is building connections with fellow academics in the Pacific region.

“From my time at the University of Cambridge, I got a very global perspective of the Indigenous experience and the ways Indigenous knowledge can enhance institutional spaces,” he says. “I have been asking how we can develop Indigenous knowledge within the institutional space. I want to explore how Cairns can respond to the Pacific region and how we could engage with developing the hearts and minds of Pacific researchers who want to see their ideas come through within an institutional framework.”

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Dr Vincent Backhaus

Senior Lecturer

Dr Vincent Backhaus is a Senior Lecturer at JCU working in the Indigenous Education & Research Centre. He completed his doctoral degree at The University of Cambridge in Psychology and Education and was the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to complete a PhD at Cambridge. Vincent’s research informs Indigenous Education, Educational Psychology, and broadly Indigenous Research.

Vincent’s main areas of research relate to narrative, country, traditional knowledges, and the construction of the body within teaching and learning. His work explores the relationship between Indigenous Stories and Learning through a critical lens of Indigenous Epistemology and the psychological literature on Learning theory. Vincent is passionate about using research and education to support students in developing critical thinking and key graduate attributes.