Boom in aborigines at college

November 17, 1995

The number of Australian abor-igines enrolled at university has more than doubled over the past five years.

In the biggest education break-through by the nation's indigenous people in 200 years, nearly 8,000 aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are now undertaking university courses.

There has been a 25 per cent rise in enrolments in the last 12 months alone and more than 500 blacks are seeking postgraduate qualifications, including 65 doctoral candidates.

This year, 4,500 aborigines began new courses at university - more than the total number in higher education in 1990. Just 20 years ago there were only 78 aboriginal people in the entire country with degrees.

Although indigenous students still enrol at university at only half the proportion of the white population, the numbers are remarkable given the alienation many blacks feel from a white culture that destroyed their traditional lifestyle and has long either ignored or despised them.

"We still face considerable challenges but the growth in student numbers has been amazing," says Professor Bourke, dean of the faculty of aboriginal and islander studies at the University of South Australia and one of half a dozen blacks now holding a full professorship. He also chairs the Indigenous Australian Higher Education Association, set up a year ago to try to return control of education to aborigines.

"How can you expect your culture and identity to survive if you give all the responsibility for education to another group of people?" he says. "It is absolutely essential, if we are to know what it is to be aboriginal, to take charge of the education system, to develop our culture in a way that contributes to Australia in the 21st century."

Most if not all universities have special centres to help indigenous students cope with university life but the high drop-out rates suggest the centres are not as successful as they could be. Graduation rates for aborigines are about 60 per cent those of other students and only 8 per cent are enrolled in postgraduate courses compared with 20 per cent for the total student body.

Professor Bourke was among aboriginal educators who welcomed an announcement last month that the government would spend an additional Aus$25 million (Pounds 12.5 million) over the next four years on improving black education and academic support services for students.

Education minister Simon Crean told a meeting of the Indigenous Higher Education Association that more had to be done than just increasing the numbers of black students gaining entry to university. "They must get a quality education while they are there."

The provision of additional funds would be linked closely to the universities' capacity to achieve successful education outcomes for indigenous students, Mr Crean said. "The first and most fundamental, yet most challenging, objective is to define and develop the indigenous Australian dimensions of higher education in this country. Not just teaching and research about indigenous Australia but also harnessing indigenous perspectives and understanding across the spectrum of higher education."

Professor Bourke agrees. Like most aborigines, he knows the value of education as an instrument for social and economic mobility. Two of his children are graduates and the other two are studying for degrees while his wife Eleanor is director of the Aboriginal Research Institute at his own university.

"If you look at aboriginal families you find that once one member starts going to university others will follow - but someone has to be the first," he says.

Professor Bourke looks forward to the day when he will no longer be one of a tiny minority of welleducated blacks. "Most of the time we spend talking to non-aboriginal people arguing for indigenous education! We don't often get the chance to talk to each other."

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