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Indigenous university student success, 1980-2013

By Joe Lane - posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Why the upturn ?

Indigenous participation at universities is booming now, but it stagnated between 1995 and 2005. This was a period in which the number of Indigenous people of university age, those born between, say, 1965 and 1981, was also stagnating, and even declining. And at some universities, there was even an insistence – even by Indigenous staff – on tacitly channelling Indigenous students into Indigenous-focussed courses and away from mainstream courses. But this push stalled.

Similarly, the effort to keep Indigenous students off-campus by offering courses externally or on-line, at study centres and to isolated individuals, seems to have withered away as people in rural and remote locations found welfare and bogus TAFE courses more attractive than university study. Indigenous people have many options, and resist being 'channelled', even by their 'own'.


Since 2000, universities' Indigenous Studies schools have wound down sub-degree courses such as Associate Diplomas. So the numbers of Indigenous students in Indigenous-focussed awards have been cut to pieces from two sides.

The decline of support programs

As well, some universities have allowed the transfer of federally-provided student support funds across to the Indigenous Studies area, in order to cater for the teaching of Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Health, etc., to non-Indigenous students, for whom such a courses may now be compulsory. As a consequence, Indigenous student support staff numbers at some universities have been cut and services wound back while Indigenous Studies schools have significantly expanded their numbers, thanks to a 'new' source of funding, and a new captive clientele.

So how to explain this situation, since after all, in 2013, there are now many, many more Indigenous students, the great majority studying on-campus, in mainstream awards, at degree-level and above ?

The remarkable upturn in school completions …. and in birth rates

Increases in commencements have followed the rapid rise in the number of Indigenous students completing Year 12, from 1999-2000. In some states, this increase has been ten-fold since 2000. When such students enrol at universities, overwhelmingly they choose to enrol in on-campus, mainstream and degree-level courses.


So, in turn, how to explain this sudden rise in Year 12 completions and hence university commencements, enrolments and graduations ? We need to go back a couple of steps.

The sudden increase in the numbers of Indigenous students completing Year 12 coincided with a rise in birth-groups born after 1981. The birth-rate had been constant through the seventies, and coupled with a relatively mature-age of 28-30 at commencement, this meant that university commencement numbers tended to stay low through the nineties and into the next decade.

But from about 1981, Indigenous birth-rates started to rise slowly, starting in the big cities, and accelerating through the eighties by around 35-40 %: Indigenous birth-groups born in the seventies numbered (adjusting for different Census totals) around eight thousand nation-wide, while the numbers in birth-groups in 1990-1991 were more like eleven thouand. The size of birth-groups continued to increase through the nineties to around thirteen thousand. So larger age-groups contributed to rapid growth in Year 12 numbers after 2000. Ergo, growing numbers of Indigenous university students, nowadays commencing studies at a much younger median age of 24-26.

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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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