Plans by a Sydney university to crack down on students and staff self-identifying as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are a ‘disgrace’, a prominent First Nations psychologist says.

The University of Sydney presented a new draft policy to students earlier this month which would no longer allow applicants for identity-dependent scholarships or staff positions to present a statutory declaration to confirm they are Indigenous.

Instead they must produce a confirmation of identity letter from a Local Aboriginal Land Council or other Indigenous community-controlled organisation, showing they meet the Commonwealth three-part identity test.

The move comes following lobbying by the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council in Sydney. CEO Nathan Moran told the Sydney Morning Herald self-identification of Aboriginality was a “nightmare that’s got out of control’ and that the university should never have allowed it.

Nyamal woman Dr Tracy Westerman is the founder of the Westerman Jilya Institute for Indigenous Mental Health, which was founded in response to the deaths of 13 Aboriginal young people in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The institute’s vision is to train Indigenous people to become psychologists in order to improve access to culturally appropriate mental health services across the country.

Dr Westerman said the proposed change is an “absolute disgrace.”

“As a psychologist most of my Aboriginal clients, are dealing with identity as a direct result of forced removal. It has irrefutable links with suicides and impacts directly on mental health.

As a Centre of technology and innovation you would expect much more from the University of Sydney. They have chosen to use their power and influence to essentially stigmatise a discreet group of people and perpetuate this notion that people are ubiquitously “falsely’ claiming Aboriginality for perceived benefit that other people in the community don’t have.”

“Here’s the thing in life: there are always going to be people that are going to take advantage, but when you place in policy the need for a statutory declaration of cultural identity it reinforces this idea that’s it endemic; the knock on effect being that it emboldens people to openly questions every Aboriginal person’s identity.

I have many clients who are fearful of exploring their lost connections. Or have been raised to deny their Aboriginality by their families as a result. Around 50 per cent of my clients are like this. It’s heart-breaking the damage it has had.

“We have situations all over Australia where people are rightly employed on the basis of their cultural background and their heritage, but Aboriginal people are the only group who not only have a history of having to demonstrate that they have severed ties with their families but we are also the only cultural group that now requires that we prove cultural connections in order to have basic access to services.

So, in effect, we are the only culture in Australia who have had to demonstrate we have severed ties with our family to have our human rights restored as my mum had to; and we are also the only culture in Australia who now have to prove cultural connections at a level that no other culture has to in order to have basic access to services:”

There are lots and lots of other solutions to this that are much better than going off and getting a formal stat-dec [statutory declaration] from someone that you don’t know.”

Dr Westerman personally funds a scholarship for the Westerman Jilya Institute and said the recruitment process includes a half-hour discussion about cultural connection and identity.

“If organizations can’t figure this our as part of a standard recruitment process, there is something seriously gone awry with common sense here. I personally fund a scholarship program and we don’t require a formal stat-dec [statutory declaration] from someone that you don’t know. What we do require is that people can speak to their cultural connections and background extensively at interview. That they have a cultural reference attesting to their passion and commitment and track record of the same in Aboriginal communities and finally; a committed desire to work in a high risk Aboriginal community and they are mentored to do this through their degree.

This is a common-sense approach that does not traumatize or stigmatise.”