Federal government cuts in financial aid for Aboriginal students are believed to be responsible for a decline in the number of blacks enrolling in higher education.
Figures released last month showed that the number of indigenous students beginning university courses fell by 15 per cent between 1999 and 2000, while total enrolments dropped by 8 per cent.
Fewer indigenous Australians are now in higher education than in 1997, while commencing enrolments are below those of 1996 when the government was first elected.
Prime minister John Howard promised, after he won a second term of office in 1998, that he would pursue reconciliation with the nation's indigenous people as a priority. Yet one of his cabinet's first acts was to scrap a support scheme for black students, intended to encourage them to complete school and go on to higher education.
The Abstudy programme was set up 30 years ago to redress the low participation of Aborigines in schools and universities. It offered financial assistance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander students, as well as travelling allowances for those living in remote communities.
As a result of these efforts, more than 8,000 were enrolled in universities by 1999. This represented a doubling in numbers over the decade. In its first term, however, the government slashed spending on indigenous programmes for employment, education and health.
After his second election victory, Mr Howard agreed a proposal to abolish the Abstudy scheme, claiming the government wanted to treat indigenous students "the same as others when it comes to education benefits".
The government had also increased the parental means test, which led to 2,500 black students having their benefits reduced or removed.
The latest figures show the impact these changes have had, with the number of black students who completed their degrees down by 10 per cent in one year.
The Australian Vice-Chanc-ellors Committee hopes to arrange a meeting with education minister David Kemp and indigenous education representatives.
AVCC president Ian Chubb said the government must act quickly to reverse the decline.
"If these figures can be turned around within a year or two, the social dislocation that might potentially flow from such a fall-off in opportunity might yet prove temporary," Professor Chubb said. "But if this is to be the case, government action will need to be decisive."
The National Union of Students said the latest data represented a shocking indictment of the government's indigenous policies.
While the government was saving A$19.5 million a year (£6.9 million) with its funding changes, it had "decimated" the participation rates of indigenous students.
NUS president David Henderson said a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody ten years ago had found a significant link between education disadvantage and high rates of incarceration for indigenous people.
A federal education department report in 1999 noted that indigenous students enrolling at university for the first time comprised 1.5 per cent of all commencing students. This was only slightly less than 1.7 per cent of Aborigines in the population as a whole. But, because so many black students dropped out before completing their courses, overall participation by indigenous people was only 65 per cent of what would be expected.
Nearly a third of indigenous commencing students were in preliminary courses designed to prepare them for university, compared with 1 per cent of non-indigenous students.
Aboriginal males in particular were disadvantaged, as they comprised just 39 per cent of all indigenous enrolments and were more likely to drop out.
Caroline Allport, president of the National Tertiary Education Union, called on the government to respond immediately by restoring Abstudy funding to 1999 levels.
"University is a very white place, especially for indigenous students from country areas and rural communities. It is also a very alien place, so support funding has to go to helping students cope," she said.