and this is the end of our aboriginal education interlude

July 3, 2007 at 10:17 pm (education, essays)

hm. i think i’ve done some pretty interesting things in my mad degree. i hope somebody gets something out of this stuff. if not, at least i have, and here it is so i don’t lose it next time the world decides i can have as much junk as i want, but i’m not allowed files.

i hope all these amazing programs have withstood the last few years, and will be able to continue beyond whatever comes of the shocking abuse howard is currently dealing out to indigenous communities.

i think i stand by what i said – it looks good, as much as i can stand to read my own work again. what i skimmed showed evidence of my very carefully turned phrasing; i hope the content is as good!

that’s it for the moment. the sum total writings left from seven years of university study. maybe i have some hard copies of early work somewhere…

Account for the trends of Indigenous participation in tertiary education. How can the issues surrounding Indigenous participation in tertiary education be resolved?

Indigenous participation in tertiary education is an important element in the fight for both equity and self-determination. There is a need for more Indigenous teachers to perpetuate the cycle of good education. However, the community must encompass a full spectrum of professionals if it is to function autonomously, or intervene in the wider society to advocate for rights and changes, educate non-Indigenous people and negotiate reconciliation, or simply move freely in the world. Tertiary students and graduates supply these functions for their community, as well as individually moving away from statistical disadvantage and being general role models for the process (Schwab, 1996).

Tertiary education, defined as any post-secondary level formal education, in Australia currently consists of Universities, and TAFEs and other colleges, which comprise Vocational Education and Training (VET). In a pattern that is repeated through many varieties of statistics, Indigenous students are overrepresented in VET, the lower end of tertiary education, but underrepresented at university, the higher end.

Indigenous people make up 2.5% of the national population aged between 15 and 64, yet only 1.2% of university students, excluding international students. This is after enrolment figures enjoyed a 171% increase between 1988 and 1996, though they have recently slightly decreased (Schwab, 1996). Furthermore, only 9.5% of Indigenous university students study higher degrees and other postgraduate awards, and 36.0% are enrolled in non-award, enabling or other undergraduate courses, compared to 19.4% and 3.3% respectively of non-Indigenous university students (DEST, 2004).

In VET, too, where a high 3.3% of students were Indigenous in 2001, 22.6% were enrolled in enabling courses and only 13.3% in Australian Qualification Framework Certificate IV level or above, compared to 11.3% and 21.3% respectively for all VET students (Nelson, 2004). At every level, the pattern of Indigenous enrolment is skewed to the lowest end.

Another related factor is the subject areas studied. In 2000, 34% of Indigenous University students were enrolled in the faculties of arts, humanities and social sciences. This is followed by 21.8% studying education and 20.4% studying health, with the percentages for all domestic students at roughly two thirds of each of these categories. On the other hand, Indigenous students conspicuously are absent from engineering, science, architecture and veterinary science (DEST, 2004). One explanation for this is that Indigenous units are located in arts, humanities and social sciences departments, and education and health are two of the most pressing needs for a disadvantaged community. True as this may be, it must also be noticed that the faculties with high Indigenous enrolments are also those with least status, prestige and expected income.

Enrolment however is not the only aspect of participation in tertiary education. Nearly two thirds of all students commencing undergraduate award courses in 1992 had completed an award course at the same institution by 1998, and one third had not. The figures for Indigenous students however are reversed, with only 32.9% having completed their course. Progress and apparent retention rates are also both roughly three quarters of their non-Indigenous counterparts. As the number of Indigenous University students quadrupled between 1987 and 1999, commencing students account for barely half of that, and award course completions register at around one eighth (DEST, 2004). To sum up:

Typically, an Indigenous Australian higher education student is likely to be older than a non-Indigenous Australian student, more likely to be female, and less likely to have previous qualifications but more likely to be admitted to higher education through a special entry scheme. Indigenous students are more likely to come from rural and isolated areas and more likely to relocate in order to attend a higher education institution. They are less likely than other Australian students to enrol as internal (on-campus) students and more likely to enrol as external students or in a ‘multi-modal’ form of attendance (partly internal and partly external). They are less likely to be enrolled in postgraduate courses and much more likely to be enrolled in enabling courses. They are also much more likely to be enrolled in teacher education courses but less likely to be enrolled in most science and science-related fields or in fields such as business and economics. Indigenous students as a group, on average, make slower academic progress than do other Australian students, but Indigenous graduates have results in the employment market similar to those of other Australian graduates. In the year following graduation they are marginally more likely to find full-time work. However, they are much more likely than non-Indigenous graduates to be employed by Federal or State governments or in public education and much less likely to be in the private sector (including self-employment).(DEST, 2004)

Many reasons have been noted which can explain the low participation of Indigenous students in tertiary education, whether raw numbers of enrolments, progress, completions, or the subjects and levels undertaken. One is undoubtedly the racism, prejudice and alienation experienced by many in what are still overwhelmingly non-Indigenous institutions.

Another broad category pertains to the problems of early childhood, primary and secondary education, with proportionately few Indigenous people obtaining prerequisite skills and qualifications usually required for entrance or success, and many bad experiences having been had, which discourage further involvement either by the individuals or their family and friends.

With about 30% of Indigenous university students from rural areas and another 15% from isolated areas in 2001, (DEST, 2004) having to leave one’s community is a common problem, as is, on the other hand, family and communal commitments; particularly as a high proportion of Indigenous tertiary students are mature age. There is a lack of subject matter and methodology relevant to common needs of Indigenous communities and people, and of course there are many financial barriers to both enrolling and continuing a course.

“Abstudy and HECS (the Higher Education Contributions Scheme) have been cited as the 2 most common factors in Indigenous people withdrawing from their tertiary studies or not enrolling at all” (La Trobe, 2002). The Abstudy payment rate is low with no security, and every time it is reduced students must re-evaluate whether it is possible to survive another year and still be able to afford the expenses of a student on an even lower income.16% of students receiving Abstudy in 2001 took up the Abstudy Supplement Loan Scheme, accruing a combined debt of $6 million (Schwab, 1996). Accepting either HECS or loans debts require the confidence that study will be personally and financially rewarded, which is neither generally warranted, nor the primary consideration in Indigenous students deciding to study. Enabling courses are HECS exempt which will partially account for the high proportion of Indigenous students in such programs.

This is but a brief survey of commonly identified issues. Just as so many issues can be found, there are even more ways tendered to solve or contribute to the situation. The wealth of recommendations submitted to government reviews indicates that the problems are not mysterious or intractable. Some solutions include continuing to expand alternative entry programs to overcome the lack of previous qualifications, and hiring more Indigenous staff. Indigenous academics are critical to both teaching Indigenous students and making appropriate policy at the University level, not to mention contributing to the government level of policy decisions, yet all Indigenous staff make up only 0.7% of total staff (Nelson, 2004). Indigenous Units are calling not only for more Indigenous staff in general, but for the ‘credentialing’ of Indigenous co-supervisors, and the establishment of Indigenous advisory groups as a formalised part of university structure, including a Pro Vice Chancellor (Indigenous). Such measures are suggested as a mandatory requirement for funding (La Trobe, 2002).

More flexibility in entrance procedures, study and research methods all contribute to enrolments; subject matter of interest is vital. Opportunities for research on Indigenous matters encourage higher study by making it both community-relevant and more familiar. To combat racism and prejudice, intentional or not, not just Indigenous students but all staff and students need to be educated in Indigenous issues. The awareness of all staff outside of Indigenous units to Indigenous policy will also help students undertake and complete study in non traditionally Indigenous subject areas (LaTrobe,2002).

In retaining students to completion, however, the importance of support services cannot be overstated. From assistance with time and money management skills that students are expected to have, but which are far from universal, to mentoring and counselling to help with the pressures of being far from home, or something as simple as exit interviews which ensure a student is not alone in making a final decision to withdraw, Indigenous Units already do invaluable work, but need more resources to be able to continue and expand services. Multiple certificated exit points is another simple way to increase numbers of students coming away with success and a qualification, rather than dropping out (La Trobe, 2002)

Many of these recommendations would be easily accommodated with a change in the funding arrangements. As with individual financial support, funding for Indigenous programs is subject to the will of parliament and insecure. Furthermore it is allocated to the university, often contingent on completion and progress rates, which means that a unit can only access the means of success if it is already successful. Direct allocation of Indigenous Support Funding to each Indigenous Unit, in effect places means and authority with Indigenous educators and structures which are responsible to Indigenous students and communities.

Reference List

DEST. (2004, January 20). Indigenous Participation in Higher Education. Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

LaTrobe. (2002, September 13.) Ngarn-gi Bagora Indigenous Centre and La Trobe University Postgraduate Association Submission Achieving Equitable and Appropriate Outcomes: Indigenous Australians in higher education. Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

Nelson, B. (2004, March 24). Higher Education Review Process Achieving Equitable and Appropriate Outcomes: Indigenous Australians in Higher Education. Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

Schwab, R. G. (1996). Indigenous participation in higher education: culture, choice and human capital theory. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, 122.


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