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A success story is unfolding all across Australia

By Joe Lane - posted Wednesday, 12 August 2009

In 1980, there were fewer than 300 Indigenous graduates in tertiary education. By the end of this year about 25,000 Indigenous people will have graduated from universities around Australia. This is a phenomenal rise in barely a generation. The key mechanism to bringing about this change has been effective support programs for Indigenous students.

1950 - 1980

Generally, Indigenous people could not enrol in secondary education until the 1940s, since state policies prohibited Indigenous people from living in towns and cities where the secondary schools were located. During the World War II, a handful of Indigenous people, usually the only ones in their communities, were encouraged to go to independent boarding schools for the secondary education necessary for training in professional helper-role courses. This was on the assumption they would all go back to their communities and spend their entire careers in remote communities, “serving their people”.

This didn’t quite work out the way it was planned, and the graduates - usually nurses and teachers, with some missionaries and social workers - tended to find work in urban areas. In South Australia, the first nursing and teaching graduates completed their studies from around 1952, and many found work overseas, as well as in country towns.


After the war, with many people leaving missions and settlements for country towns (and eventually metropolitan areas), secondary education became available for the first time for many Indigenous people. A handful of secondary students matriculated from the end of the 50s and enrolled at teachers’ colleges and nursing schools. But graduate numbers rarely rose above one each year between 1952 and 1975 and total number of SA graduates (including hospital-trained qualified nurses) was still fewer than 20 by 1975.

1975 - 1990

In 1973, and again in 1978, interventionist programs were inaugurated to boost Indigenous tertiary numbers. They took two quite different forms:

  • In 1973, a sub-degree program was written up for community workers at the Institute of Technology, called the Aboriginal Task Force. This course was specifically for Indigenous people; it was a two-year course while the existing course for non-Indigenous students covered three years. There was little, if any, interaction between the two groups of students, and Indigenous graduates were expected to go out to Indigenous communities or organisations once they had graduated. This segregated model (some would call it a racist model) later became known as the enclave model.
  • In 1978, a preparation and support program, the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP), was set up at Underdale campus of Torrens College of Advanced Education (CAE), later Adelaide CAE, and later again the SACAE, to orient and prepare Indigenous students for enrolment and success in the standard teaching courses available on-campus. Students were recruited, tested, and prepared in a term-length (later a semester-length) orientation program, and once enrolled, studied alongside non-Indigenous students in standard programs of study, accessing support services from specific ATEP staff. This model later became known as the support program model.

In 1980, the support program concept at the ACAE was broadened to off-campus study centres in (eventually) five SA country towns, with students at first all enrolled substantially in the mainstream course in Early Childhood Education (ECE). Graduates were recognised as gaining standard qualifications. In time, these study centres provided preparation and full study support for Indigenous students in Aboriginal Studies, Business and other courses, as well as ECE.

In 1985, another program on the lines of the Underdale model was inaugurated at Salisbury Campus, called PASS - Programs for Aboriginal Students at Salisbury. In 1990, this program commenced a year-long bridging course, specifically to prepare Indigenous students for enrolment in the standard Conservation Management course at Salisbury. This program has assisted possibly the majority of Conservation Management graduates in the State.

What is striking is the immediate increase in graduate numbers from these interventionist programs: between 1980 and 1990, more than 200 Indigenous people graduated from universities, overwhelmingly (160) were at degree-level and post-graduate courses - and most of these were in mainstream or standard courses. Even without any support effort from Adelaide or Flinders universities up to that time, the support programs in the SACAE and the enclave program in the old SAIT had increased South Australian Indigenous graduate numbers from an annual average of less than one per year to 20 per year - and they were still building up.


Also in the mid-80s, Roseworthy College set up a support program to enrol, support and graduate Indigenous students in standard courses there.


In the late 80s, both Flinders and Adelaide Universities set up small support programs, both based on the Underdale support program model rather than on the enclave model. However, Adelaide University had also taken over the program from the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) and has operated it ever since as an enclave program, alongside the mainstream support program which was helping to enrol students - as Flinders was doing - in a wide range of mainstream programs.

These support programs grew rapidly in the early 90s, totalling some 200 students and graduating 20 Indigenous people annually by 1994. At Flinders, the focus from early on was on health-related courses, but Adelaide also had relatively high numbers studying law. In 1994, Adelaide University set up a one-year bridging course to prepare Indigenous students for science-oriented courses, particularly medicine, with limited success.

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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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