Australia's indigenous students, already underrepresented in the nation's universities, are falling further behind white Australians.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island students comprise less than 1 per cent of the 950,000 people enrolled at university, although they make up more than 2 per cent of the population.
Between 2003 and 2004, Aboriginal commencing student numbers fell by 6 per cent compared with a total drop of 2.2 per cent in numbers of new students.
The federal Government came under fire in 1998 after it "mainstreamed" Aboriginal student financial support. Critics said the change would reduce the ability of indigenous Australians to undertake tertiary education.
The Government said changing the Abstudy scheme would "bring payments to indigenous students into alignment with amounts paid to non-indigenous students".
Although it said the alignment meant indigenous students would have access to rent assistance, pharmaceutical and remote-area funding not previously available to them, critics insisted that enrolment would be affected.
The impact was almost immediate: the number of indigenous students enrolled in higher education fell from a record high of 8,000 in 1999, before the changes came into effect, to 7,350 in 2000 and fewer still in 2001.
Although enrolment slowly recovered to 9,000 by 2004, the drop in the number of new students means this total will again start to fall.
In a submission aimed at influencing this year's federal budget, the National Tertiary Education Union said indigenous students were seriously underrepresented in the public university system and the gap between black and white participation was growing.
Joel Wright, NTEU indigenous officer, said the current support scheme did not take account of the social and economic disadvantage faced by Aborigines. He said that changes to the scheme had caused a decline in the number of students able to access the scheme and in overall participation rates.
"The union recommends a new, more streamlined scheme that is culturally and economically relevant [and] a base level of income support available to all indigenous students attending university, tied to a percentage of average male weekly earnings rather than to welfare provisions."