A class half full: Australia's missing indigenous scholars

Simon Baker reports on a high-profile review of low levels of Aboriginal entry to university study

July 7, 2011

Credit: Reuters

The issue of Aboriginal rights has long been a divisive one in Australia, but in recent months higher education's role in the debate has been thrust into the spotlight.

In April, the Labor-led federal government launched a major review of university participation by indigenous Australians. But even before its announcement, it ran into controversy.

A few days earlier the Aboriginal academic chairing the review, Larissa Behrendt, professor of law and indigenous studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, used a reference to bestiality in a Twitter post to criticise an indigenous community leader.

The ensuing outcry led to the cancellation of a press conference to launch the review, an apology from Professor Behrendt and a heated debate about the differing views of urban-based Aboriginal academics and people living in rural indigenous communities.

Despite calls for Professor Behrendt to be removed from the review and a barrage of negative media coverage, particularly in the Rupert Murdoch-owned press, she has kept her post.

But the row has managed to sidetrack the central issue of low levels of Aboriginal participation in higher education - a level that at best has stalled and at worst could be widening.

According to a report for Universities Australia by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, published in 2008, indigenous people participate in higher education at less than half the national average rate.

By 2006, indigenous people made up 2.4 per cent of the Australian population.

However, only 1.25 per cent of Australians commencing university study were Aboriginal.

More worrying was that Aboriginal university participation remained static between 2001 and 2006 when various factors might have improved access, including a rise in the proportion of young people in the Aboriginal population as a whole.

Shane Houston, deputy vice-chancellor for indigenous strategy and services at the University of Sydney, said that for many Aboriginal people higher education was simply seen as beyond their reach.

However, he insisted that "real progress" was being made.

Pioneers face challenges

"It must be remembered that the first Aboriginal university graduates completed their studies in the 1960s.

"A very large proportion of current Aboriginal graduates and students are the first in their family to attend university," said Professor Houston, the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to a deputy vice-chancellor post in Australia.

"But we still have much work to do. For example, in 2008 alone we needed an extra 1,200 aboriginal students entering university if we were to strike the same level of access to achieve parity in that year."

One of the major factors in preventing indigenous people from attending university is common to many under-represented groups - their performance at school.

The Universities Australia report points to the tendency for Aboriginal children to leave school early and find work, the relatively low academic achievement by those who do complete their schooling and their lack of aspiration to attend university.

Peter Lee, vice-chancellor of Southern Cross University and Universities Australia's lead on indigenous higher education, said: "This is a deep systemic issue that starts in schooling from a very early age, often as early as seven.

"Many universities now adopt flexible entry methods for indigenous students that do not rely solely on grades, such as a portfolio of evidence and school principals' recommendations.

"But even then, the number of indigenous students available for entry is not sufficient to reach parity participation."

Frank Gafa, indigenous officer at Australia's National Union of Students, said figures from 2008 showed that only 10 per cent of indigenous school leavers were eligible for university, in contrast to 47 per cent of the non-indigenous population.

"When looking at the figures it is quite obvious that education at primary and high-school level needs to be improved," he said.

However, he also pointed to a challenge that does directly concern universities - how to retain Aboriginal students once they have fought past this first barrier to access.

In the period from 2001 to 2006, around 4,000 indigenous students began higher education studies but only between 1,000 and 1,200 completed their studies during the same period, according to the Melbourne report.

The dropout rate among indigenous students is particularly high in the first year of degree study, and this reflects the fact that many Aboriginal students must travel long distances to attend classes, are more likely to have childcare commitments and financial disadvantages, and may experience racism on campus. Professor Houston said Aboriginal students face challenges in reaching university over and above those from other low socio-economic groups.

He said that for some indigenous people English is their fourth language; their life expectancy is far lower than for other poor Australians; and the "collective memory" of serious racial prejudice is still fresh in the community's mind.

"So much of institutional life in Australia is intolerant of difference," he added, recalling that indigenous people at a cultural centre on the doorstep of his university were afraid to enter the campus because they remembered being chased away by security guards in the past.

Professor Houston said that if Australia's institutions, including universities, started to understand the different cultural, social, familial and community realities for indigenous people, then barriers could be broken.

Call for support units

Mr Gafa called for greater investment in "indigenous support units", where Aboriginal students could access academic and pastoral help, allowing them to acclimatise to university life, and assistance towards the deferred cost of tuition.

Professor Lee said progress had been made over the past 10 years and momentum would be created as the Aboriginal student population increased.

"As more indigenous students enrol at university, they provide role models and support for others," he said.

He added that some universities - especially those in rural areas - had seen levels of enrolment by Aboriginal students reach parity with the average for the population as a whole, and the range of subjects being studied by indigenous students had increased.

"Previously, they tended to be confined to indigenous study programmes, but now they are undertaking subjects such as law, medicine, nursing, midwifery, teaching and business," Professor Lee said.

Increasing access to university and academic careers would be a catalyst for change in Australian society generally, said Professor Houston.

"To see Aboriginal people get into academic jobs has an incredible impact on kids' confidence and aspirations," he said, adding that growing involvement in research by indigenous people would also bene-fit those communities.

However, although policies seem to be moving in the right direction, the disadvantage for the Aboriginal population is deep-rooted.

Mr Gafa said the recent row involving Professor Behrendt highlighted the complexity of the problem because it was a reminder that "indigenous Australia is not one homogenous society but an amalgamation of many different cultures and people".

Professor Houston said universities and academics must play a central role in finding solutions rather than focusing on a storm whipped up by elements of the media "not particularly recognised" for their balance on Aboriginal issues.

He added that elements of Australian society still believed that Aboriginal people should "give up trying to be different".

"That is not an option," he said. "There have been people trying those arguments for 200 years and they have got to understand that we are not going to give up and we are not going to go away."

Professor Behrendt will hope that by the time her review is published, the controversy over what she accepts was a badly judged comment will have died down, and the media will be focusing on the real issues at hand.


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Reader's comments (3)

Denying an individual's ethnicity and insisting on assimilation is outrageous. The invaders of this country and I am a direct descendant of the first fleet, need to truly understand Aboriginality and cultural differences. Respect and acknowledgement of differences should be embraced and acted upon instinctively. All levels of education need to realise that we are all individuals and all require modification of how and what is offered when learning. We need to expect to see Indigenous Australians in all areas of academia and encourage them to succeed from an early age.
How can we expect Indigenous students who have grown up with an Indigenous culture, mindset, and way of thinking to perform as well as European-descended students who have grown up surrounded by western society and knowledge, the same society and knowledge they will find at university? Rather than grade Indigenous students based upon their attendance to western universities, should we not encourage higher learning institutions based around Aboriginal ideals, beliefs, and systems? On the other hand, if Indigenous culture and way of living does not prioritize the idea of a formal university education, should we not accept that although they may be disadvantaged by our western standards, they could be prospering by their own? How can we say that their standards are lesser than ours?
Australia prides itself on being an egalitarian and this is shown in the way the governments of this nation have accepted disadvantaged refugees from war torn countries in recent history. But how does this egalitarian ideal stand up when people from other countries and their cultures have been accepted into Australian society, including higher education, yet their has been no true attempts to account for the needs of indigenous culture in the Australian education system. Should a country's government not look after it's own countrymen first without neglecting the needs of the world wide community which are within their ability to address, it is commonly referred to as prioritizing.

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