Australia's only Aboriginal college is set to become the nation's first indigenous university.
The former Batchelor College in the Northern Territory was renamed the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education at the beginning of this month. Under legislation passed by the territory government last month, the institute now has the power to accredit its own courses and offer degrees to doctorate level.
Previously, the college only provided vocational education courses and its academic standards were monitored by the territory's education department. On July 1, ownership was formally handed to a predominantly Aboriginal council and its first indigenous director, Veronica Arbon, took up her post.
Gatjil Djerrkura, chair of the institute council, said creation of the independent Batchelor Institute was an acknowledgement that indigenous Australians could govern a nationally important higher education institution.
The latest development signified a major step forward in the furthering and maturing of relationships among Australia's various cultures on the eve of a new century and a new millennium, Mr Djerrkura said.
The institute began as a small residential college on the outskirts of Darwin in the mid-1960s. It offered courses for Aboriginal students intending to become teaching aides in remote schools. In 1974, the college moved to Batchelor, while a second campus was established at Alice Springs in 1990 and further annexes were built in Darwin and at three other territory locations. From an enrolment of only 100 in 1985, the institute has grown to accommodate nearly 2,000 students plus a further 300 who undertake short courses. The majority are from the territory with other enrolments from Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia.
More than half the students are undertaking teaching courses, with the remainder in the arts and humanities, health, and agriculture. Most study part-time and are aged between 30 and 45. About three out of four are women - reflecting the tendency for Aboriginal women across Australia to enrol in further education after leaving school.
The federal Labor government recognised Batchelor College as a higher education institution for funding purposes in 1989. It now receives about 70 per cent of its income from the federal government and the remainder from the territory's government.
Ms Arbon said she hoped the institute would become a member of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Ccommittee within three years.
"It will be important for us over the years ahead to look at extending our work more into first degree and postgraduate programmes without in any way sacrificing our strength in the more basic courses," she said.
"Through this and other activities, the opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to become involved in higher education - as students, lecturers, researchers and administrators - will be increased."