Alienation is the price of education

July 27, 2001

Geoff Maslen reports on the black academics who are determined to give Australia's Aborigines an education without destroying their cultural identity.

"I have a couple of grandsons who say they hate school, they hate their life and I think, my God, what can we do?" Eleanor Bourke says. Bourke, the director of the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies at Monash University, has a personal and a professional interest in issues affecting young Aborigines. She and her husband, Colin, are two of a growing number of black academics.

Bourke has fought for years for her people, with much success. Indigenous student enrolments at university have risen greatly, but recent budget cuts are taking a toll.

The challenges confronting Aborigines are daunting. They range from the seemingly impossible political goals of achieving land rights and self-determination to problems of poverty, unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse and low educational outcomes.

Most indigenous students start university well behind their white counterparts. This has its origins in primary school where, on average, fewer than half of Aborigines finish the first six years. Of these, only one in four will complete secondary school - compared with 75 per cent of other Australians.

Aborigines mostly begin university much later in life, and more than a third need a year or more of special preparatory studies. That is why only 8.5 per cent of indigenous students are postgraduates while 20 per cent of white students seek masters or PhD degrees. There is also a strong gender bias: two out of three Aboriginal students are women, and they are concentrated in a few key faculties, mostly arts and education.

Still, that some 8,000 Aborigines are at university is remarkable given the inevitable alienation many feel from a white culture that destroyed their traditional lifestyle and has long ignored them. As Bourke says, an Aboriginal student can go through the entire school system and sit a three-year degree yet undertake no indigenous studies at all.

"We're here at Monash because we want to ensure Aboriginal people are around for our students," she says. "Our courses in indigenous studies attract many more non-Aboriginal than indigenous students. That is a concern: we need a balance between meeting the needs of our own students and teaching others about indigenous issues."

Colin Bourke, a research fellow at the Monash centre, recalls an attempt in 1976 to count the number of indigenous people in Australia who had degrees. "We got up to 14 - and eight of us were in the same room."

Now, more than 10,000 indigenous Australians have graduated from university and 8,000 are in higher education - double the number ten years ago. Of these, 100 are pursuing doctorates. There are more than 200 black academics and a dozen or so Aborigines who are full professors.

For the past 15 years, a succession of federal governments have spent tens of millions of dollars encouraging universities to create more places for Aborigines. But the current government's decision to restrict the allocation of living allowances for black students has led to an alarming drop in enrolments.

Tracey Bunda, director of indigenous education at the University of Canberra and chair of the National Indigenous Higher Education Association, says the cuts betray a general government disregard for indigenous people. "I feel I am operating on a level that's a step back in time. I'm having to reiterate many of the arguments for indigenous education to be an integral component of the university system."

Surveys show that Aboriginal parents rate education highly. However, many have been alienated from a system that did not accept their cultural heritage. Formal, white education remains irrelevant to them and, in some cases, has actually been harmful.

Colin Bourke says: "Australian education has gone from ignoring Aboriginal people, in the curriculum and as students, for the first 150 years of colonisation to an acceptance of them - but on the institutions' terms.

"Students go to university and mostly follow a non-indigenous curriculum that is 90 per cent taught by non-Aborigines. Aboriginal teaching methods, pedagogy and epistemology, are largely non-existent."

If the situation persists, the Aboriginal culture will not survive, he says. "At some time, we'll be assimilated. There will be a whole lot of indigenous people who do not know what it means to be an Aborigine because education failed to maintain the culture."

But Aborigine academics have their own problems. Eleanor Bourke says: "It is hard to be an Aborigine in a place like this - to be yourself, to do things in ways you think are appropriate but that are not acceptable in the structures required. So you conform.

"We are a minority always, and we wonder how you can stay Aboriginal when education is such an assimilating process. Most societies educate their own in their own cultural frameworks. We are not able to do that - that is our reality, part of our history."

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