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The urban/mainstream turn in Indigenous higher education growth

By Joe Lane - posted Friday, 3 June 2016


In Indigenous higher education across Australia, degree-level and post-graduate commencement numbers doubled between 2005 and 2014, from 2790 to 5600. This followed a mere 57 % rise over the previous ten years.


In 2014, more than two thousand Indigenous students graduated from universities across the country, raising the total number of graduates to more than thirty six thousand.

These rises were accompanied by a halving of sub-degree commencements between 1994 and 2004, and again between 2004 and 2014 – from a total of 485 back in 1994 to only 126 in 2014.

So total award-level commencements rose from 2263 in 1004, to 3000 in 2005, and to 5,726 in 2014. A detailed Database can be found on: .

The median age of commencing Indigenous students has fallen from nearly 30 to around 24, and in that age-group, there would currently be about 11,000 people, so commencements in 2014 represented the equivalent of around half of the entire median age-group, and graduations represented about a fifth of the median age-group. Indigenous university participation and graduation is roughly equivalent to that of Europe as a whole.

However, there are many strands to this story: until the late 1990s, universities hosted sub-degree courses, often in Indigenous-oriented courses specifically for Indigenous Special Entry students, courses which provided a major pathway for outer suburban, rural and remote students, usually mature-aged and female, to gain any tertiary qualification at all. Often specific Study Centres were set up in key country towns, some as far back as the late seventies, for what were mainly Special Entry students.


From the late nineties, universities started to phase out sub-degree courses. Students completing those courses, usually Associate Diplomas, were guided into degree-level courses in Indigenous-oriented fields. But once these students had either dropped out or graduated, there were very few Indigenous students across the country enrolled in Indigenous-oriented awards of any kind: few Indigenous students have ever enrolled in degree-level Indigenous courses, contrary perhaps to popular myth.

In any case, the great majority of Indigenous commencements have always been in mainstream courses and therefore, Indigenous student support has, against some resistance from Indigenous Studies departments, included mainstream students. But Indigenous enrolments in Indigenous-oriented courses of any kind have rarely ever exceeded 15 % of commencements (including post-graduate commencements). They currently make up barely 2 % of all Indigenous under-graduate commencements. At many universities, Indigenous-oriented courses have now been phased out entirely.

Phasing out lower-level Indigenous-oriented courses should have had the effect of reducing Indigenous commencement (and eventually enrolment) numbers. But (not quite fortuitously), at roughly the same time, the number of Indigenous school students completing Year 12 or matriculating, began to rise rapidly, and since 1999, has more than quadrupled. So Indigenous commencements in degree-level courses more or less kept pace between 1998 and 2005 – but from 2006 to 2014, almost doubled. It's not coincidental, by the way, that a marked increase in the Indigenous birth-rate can be traced back to about 1981.

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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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