Indigenous students up in Australia but concerns remain

Completion rates are main worry despite better figures on admissions

March 7, 2016
Aboriginal man plays didgeridoo, Sydney Opera House, Australia
Source: Reuters
Cash call: Indigenous students from rural areas may hit money problems in cities

A rise in Indigenous student enrolments in Australia should not obscure the need for “culturally appropriate and continuous support” to improve low completion rates, one academic has cautioned.

Recent federal government figures showed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolments grew 7.6 per cent in the first half of 2015.

Universities Australia said that this, along with a rise in enrolments for disadvantaged students, showed that the removal of student number caps coupled with ongoing support programmes “continue to drive an expansion of access…for traditionally under-represented groups”.

Yet there remain calls for universities and the government to address low graduation rates among Indigenous students. A 2015 paper for the Australian Council for Educational Research found that among students who began courses in 2005, completion rates were 47 per cent for Indigenous students against 74 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

Indigenous students are seen as more likely to experience financial pressures, particularly if they have travelled long distances from rural homes to study in cities.

Critics argue that payments from Abstudy, the federal government financial support programme for Indigenous students, have failed to keep pace with cost of living increases and claim that other support has been cut back.

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, explained to Times Higher Education that in 2011 the organisation produced a best practice framework for “Indigenous cultural competency in Australian universities”, which “was developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and has been an invaluable resource” in sharing successful strategies.

There have been a number of appointments of Indigenous senior staff, including Shane Houston at the University of Sydney, the first Indigenous person to be appointed to a deputy vice-chancellor post.

Peter Buckskin, a Narungga man from the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, is dean of Indigenous scholarship, engagement and research at the University of South Australia and chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium.

He said that the work of universities includes “university familiarisation programmes for Indigenous high school students, lifting the numbers of Indigenous academics…including promoting Indigenous leadership to senior executive positions, building Indigenous content into the curriculum and campus life, offering cultural awareness professional development for academics and creating culturally appropriate spaces on campus where Indigenous students can go for support”.

Despite the rise in enrolments, Indigenous students comprise just 1.1 per cent of all students.

Professor Buckskin highlighted the rising number of Indigenous students completing high school. He said that there was “obviously still some way to go” before university enrolments are “on par with the fact that our people make up 3 per cent of the Australian population – but these recent trends of strong growth are heading in the right direction”.

A 2011 government-commissioned review looked at higher education access and outcomes for Indigenous students.

Nina Burridge, associate professor in the teacher education programme at the University of Technology Sydney and a researcher on Indigenous education, highlighted the completion rates problem.

She argued that universities are “now so dependent on student numbers for financial gain that they are more interested in initial enrolments than in substantive follow-up to ensure that students actually succeed through the three- or four-year degree process”.  

Dr Burridge said: “What must follow is adequate and culturally appropriate and continuous support so that [Indigenous] students complete their degrees and gain employment.”

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