Australia's Aborigines struggle to keep gains

January 11, 2002

Until the re-election of the government of prime minister John Howard in 1998, improving university access for Australian Aborigines was one of the nation's great success stories.

In the 1990s, indigenous student numbers more than doubled to 8,000. With the rise in enrolments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait students, more Aboriginal staff were hired. Today, more than 500 indigenous people work in Australia's universities, compared with fewer than 100 a decade ago. One in three indigenous staff is an academic, and two dozen hold research-only posts.

But in 2000, black student enrolments fell for the first time, to 7,350, following a significant decline in the number of new students taking their place on campus. There are now fewer indigenous Australians in higher education than there were in 1997. First-year enrolments are below those in 1996, when the Howard government was first elected. After he won a second term in 1998, Mr Howard promised to 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 in the 1970s to address the disturbingly low participation of Aborigines in school and university. It offered financial and rental assistance to young indigenous students and travelling allowances for those in remote communities.

In his first term, Mr Howard cut spending on indigenous programmes for education, employment and health. In his second term, Mr Howard announced the abolition of the Abstudy scheme, saying the government wanted to treat indigenous students "the same as others when it comes to education benefits".

Education department figures released last year revealed the impact of these decisions:the number of black students completing their degrees fell by 10 per cent in just one year.

Despite this sudden decline, the growth over the past 25 years in indigenous student enrolments has been remarkable. "In 1976, a group of us tried to count the number of Aboriginal people in Australia who had degrees," said Colin Bourke, an Aboriginal former professor at Monash University. "We got up to 14 - and eight of us were in the same room."

A quarter of a century on, more than 10,000 indigenous Australians hold degrees. Of the 7,350 black students at university, more than 100 study at doctoral level.

Coupled with federal government efforts to create more opportunities for Aboriginal staff and students, indigenous "enclave" programmes were set up within universities to provide academic and personal support for black students. This was particularly helpful to the majority who lacked the usual school qualifications needed for entry.

Colin Bourke was a member of Monash's Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies, headed by his wife, Eleanor, until he retired last year. He argues that instead of expecting Aborigines to subject themselves to a deleterious educational system, the system should be changed to meet their needs. "Australian education has gone from ignoring Aboriginal people, both in the curriculum and as students, for the first 150 years of colonisation to an acceptance of them - but on the institutions' own terms.

"Students go to university and mostly follow a non-indigenous curriculum that is 90 per cent taught by non-Aborigines. No real effort is made to accommodate Aboriginal needs.

"To survive, indigenous people have to be educated for the 21st century, but Aboriginal teaching methods, Aboriginal pedagogy, Aboriginal epistemology are largely non-existent."

As the Bourkes point out, most Aborigines start university much later in life than white Australians and more than a third need a year or more of preparatory studies. That is one reason why only 8.5 per cent of indigenous students are postgraduates - compared with 20 per cent of white students.

And, as with indigenous staff, there is also a strong gender bias. Two out of three Aboriginal students are women, and they are concentrated in a few key faculties - most of them are studying arts and education.

Yet the fact that so many black students are now at university is itself an achievement given the alienation many feel from a culture that destroyed their traditional lifestyle and has long ignored them. As Eleanor Bourke says, an Aboriginal student in Victoria can go through the entire school system and sit a three-year degree yet undertake no Aboriginal studies. "The reason this centre was set up at Monash was because we wanted to ensure Aboriginal people were around for our students," she said.

Even so, she says black academics face problems: "It is very hard to be an Aborigine in a place like this, to be yourself, to do things in ways you think are appropriate but which are unacceptable within the structures required. So you conform.

"We wonder how can you stay Aboriginal when education is such an assimilating process. Most societies in the world 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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