A report released last week revealed the percentage of non-European, non-Anglo-Celtic university vice-chancellors in Australia rose from zero to 2.6 per cent between 2016 and 2018.
But far from signalling significant change, the increase was driven by a single appointment: the University of Canberra's recruitment of Professor Deep Saini to its top job in September 2016.
The Australian Human Rights Commission's Leading for Change report found almost 75 per cent of Australian vice-chancellors were Anglo-Celtic and about 23 per cent of a European background. None were Indigenous.
Professor Saini, born in India's Punjab state, first learnt the signficance of his appointment at a farewell ceremony for former University of Canberra vice-chancellor Stephen Parker, who noted in his speech that his successor would be the first ever non-white Australian university head.
"I said ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t know that’," Professor Saini said.
"My first thought was that the country is embracing change and moving on with the times, and it’s a very positive development in the country."
Professor Saini came to the ACT via Canada, where he was most recently vice-president of the University of Toronto. He had lived in Canada since 1982 and has watched it develop from a place where he experienced overt and covert racism to a country that on 2017 saw turban-wearing Sikh Jagmeet Singh elected leader of a major political party.
Having lived in Australia between 1978 and 1982, when a peer suggested Professor Saini shorten his birth name Hargurdeep to the anglicised Harry ("I said no, I would not be just any Tom, Dick or Harry," he joked), Professor Saini said he could feel positive change in Australia too.
"A lot of change has happened [in Canada], so actually the colour and race and language lines have become very blurred and I think it’s creating a very positive dynamic," he said.
"I can see this coming to Australia to be honest - I think it’s a matter of time."
Professor Saini said neither he nor his wife has experienced racism in Australia though acknowledged he was in a privileged position.
But when he spoke to international students at last week's graduation ceremonies he said they too shared only positive experiences of Australia.
"I don’t see any of the issues on the campus here, but the University of Canberra is a unique place among universities," Professor Saini said.
Indeed, the University of Canberra was the first (and still the only) institution to appoint a male Indigenous chancellor when it welcomed Tom Calma to the role in 2014. The university counts people of Aboriginal, Spanish and Malaysian-Chinese background among its high-level staff and employs more women than men across its workforce. Women also make up half the university's executive.
Professor Saini said the university did not set quotas or targets but practiced active recruitment.
“Initially what you have to do is make deliberate decisions," he said.
"But once you’ve made a few of them, it makes a culture where it becomes second nature.
"Others see people from minority backgrounds can come up and do an amazing job and I think people like Tom Calma, they open doors for others. My appointment here is hopefully serving the same purpose."
International students make up more than one-third of university students in Australia, with most coming from China, India or Nepal.
The most recent Census showed that about 66 per cent of the nation's broader population was born in Australia, while the number of people born in China rose from 1.5 per cent in 2011 to 2.2 per cent and from India 1.4 per cent to 1.9 per cent.
About 3 per cent of the population identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
The broader Leading for Change report, written and researched with the University of Sydney Business School, the Committee for Sydney, and the Asia Society Australia, found Anglo-Celtics continued to dominate the ranks of chief executives, in the federal ministry and among federal and state department heads.
The report noted the White Australia policy had been dismantled about 50 years ago, non-European immigrants had been moving to Australia in significant numbers for about 40 years and that the children of immigrants had outperformed the children of Australian-born parents "for some time now".
"It does not seem right that the leadership of Australian society looks the way it does today," the report said.
"In the highly mobile society we should expect of an egalitarian Australia, we should by now be seeing greater representation of cultural diversity in senior leadership.
"That there are only marginally higher levels of non-European cultural diversity within the C-suite, when compared to chief executive cohorts, underlines the unsatisfactory nature of the status quo."
A relationship banned under traditional law.
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