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Indigenous higher education: A policy game-changer?

By Joe Lane - posted Thursday, 3 November 2011

In the late 1990s a sizable proportion of Indigenous higher education students, about 30 per cent, were enrolled in Indigenous-focused studies, usually a two-year Diploma course in Aboriginal Studies, Aboriginal Education, or Aboriginal Health, among others. From about 1998, universities started to wind down their diploma courses, significantly affecting enrolments in Indigenous-focused studies. Those diploma courses had been a major pathway for Indigenous students to get a toehold into university degrees, particularly since the students tended overwhelmingly to be enrolled through Special Entry provisions. So the winding-down of those courses affected total commencement numbers, particularly of Special Entry indigenous students.

From 1998 to about 2004, Aboriginal Studies departments pushed their last diploma students through to graduation, and then re-enrolled those students in their degree-level courses, some in advanced diplomas, but many in associate degrees and degrees. So those re-enrolling students would have been commencing in Indigenous-focused degree-level courses between 2001 and 2004, graduating (with two or three more years of study) between 2003 and 2007. What this meant was that graduate numbers for 2006-2007 were distorted. This was especially evidenced by the large cohort of students who finished their degrees at Curtin University in WA.

Aboriginal studies departments and the university senior management had earlier agreed to a switch in policy, from supporting Indigenous students, to running compulsory Indigenous-focused subjects, Aboriginal Culture, Aboriginal Issues, etc., for all students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The necessary key to doing this was to subordinate Indigenous student support units under the Aboriginal Studies departments, so that their DEEWR funds could be used for the more 'important' role of teaching those compulsory Indigenous-focused subjects to non-Indigenous students.


Simultaneously, outside the universities, the Indigenous birth-rate had risen strongly from the mid-eighties onwards, meaning that Year 12 numbers had started to rise very rapidly after about 2000. By 2005, the drop in Special Entry intakes in lower-level Indigenous-focused courses was being balanced by a rapid rise in Standard Entry intakes in mainstream degree-level courses, as more Indigenous students completed Year 12. Commencement numbers have risen strongly since 2005-2006, at about 7 per cent per annum. These commencements will flow through to graduations from 2009-2010 onwards.

One consequence of these changes is that the number of Indigenous students enrolling in Indigenous-focused awards has plummeted, from a quarter to as low as 5 per cent, counting Bachelor Degrees, and 2 per cent for other degrees. The vast majority of Indigenous students, 95 per cent, are enrolled in mainstream courses, and a growing proportion is studying on-campus. But since a growing proportion of students are enrolling as Standard Entry students, on the one hand, fewer students are engaged with the Indigenous student support services, with Indigenous academics, and with fewer Indigenous people from the welfare-dependent population who are in tertiary study.

Indigenous higher education turned a corner in 2006. Every year since then has seen new record commencement and enrolment numbers for indigenous students. According to the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) in 2010, at award-level, Indigenous commencements were 4,197, increased by 9.8 per cent from 2009 levels. Since 2005, Indigenous commencements at award-level have increased by nearly 47 per cent. Indigenous continuations are at 5,815, increased of 7.8 per cent since 2009 and 26.4 per cent higher than in 2005. Just over ten thousand indigenous students enrolled in higher education, an increase of 8.7 per cent since 2009. Since 2005, total Indigenous enrolments have increased by 31.7 per cent.

Currently, one in seven Indigenous adults is currently either a graduate or a tertiary student, and this could rise to one in four to five by 2020 and one in three in the cities. The life-choices involved with becoming a graduate and working in a professional career influence many people who know the graduate. So it is quite likely that by 2020, half of the Indigenous urban adult population will be a graduate, a student, or somebody strongly influenced by them in their own life-choices.

The government’s Background Paper to the Review of Indigenous Higher Education had suggested that Indigenous higher education was in crisis. At current rates, with commencement and enrolment numbers doubling in about eight years, by 2018 about 60 per cent of indigenous students should be commencing tertiary study. This suggests that the crisis in indigenous higher education may have passed. In fact since 2005, university graduations for indigenous students has increased by 19 per cent, representing about 7, 000 indigenous people.

Graduations are, by definition, a lag-factor: the rate of increase in graduate numbers reflects commencement numbers three or four years earlier. Conversely, a rapid rise in commencements is a harbinger of a future rapid rise in graduate numbers. An unusually large number of graduates completed their studies in 2006 and 2007. The total Indigenous population is probably about 2.3 per cent of the total Australian population now, and since half of the Indigenous population is under the age of twenty, only a bit more than half is of university-age, compared with about three-quarters of the non-Indigenous population. So a sensible parity figure would be around 2 per cent.


It is generally accepted that a third or more of the Indigenous population is welfare-dependent and accessing of higher education or professional employment opportunities is declining. This points directly to one of the major tasks for universities’ Indigenous student recruitment, preparation and support services, in conjunction with other educational agents. Universities should also be considering how to engage with more of the welfare-dependent population to consider study.  

Indigenous women are participating at about twice the rate of men: this points directly to another major task for universities - how to engage men in higher education. The proportion of Australian women commencing tertiary study who were Indigenous in 2010 was 1.8 per cent. Currently one in every seven Indigenous women is a university graduate. The tasks ahead – improving indigenous access to higher education are clear: there is a need to publicise opportunities, recruit, adequately prepare and provide sustained support for Indigenous people who are currently embedded in welfare-dependency, particularly in relation to indigenous men. In order to effectively carry out these historic tasks, DEEWR funds for Indigenous student recruitment, preparation and support should be earmarked for nothing else.

There also needs to be realignment in Indigenous Policy. Three-quarters of the Indigenous population now live in urban areas. Another one per cent or so move to urban areas each year, and most of the remaining population spends much of its time in urban centres. Close to half the population now lives in metropolitan areas: a multi-stage migration, from remote settlements to peripheral settlements to small urban centres to large urban centres to metropolitan areas. This has been going on for more than sixty years and it is clear that the flow will not be reversed, despite the implicit assumptions of policy-makers.

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About the Author

Joe Lane is an independent researcher with a long-standing passion for Indigenous involvement at universities and its potential for liberation. Originally from Sydney, he worked in Indigenous tertiary support systems from 1981 until the mid-90s and gained lifelong inspiration from his late wife Maria, a noted leader in SA Indigenous education.

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