Indigenous Education and Research Centre Our News More must be done so Indigenous students are ready to succeed at university

More must be done so Indigenous students are ready to succeed at university

Tue, 1 Aug 2023
Categories: Students.

Courageous steps were signalled last month in the interim report from the Australian Universities Accord panel with a recommendation to grant Commonwealth Student Place support for all Indigenous Australians and not just to those from regional and remote regions. The challenge now is to make sure these opportunities to access university study come with a plan to ensure that our Indigenous students are ready to succeed.

Longitudinal data extending back two decades shows that the rate of degree completions has flatlined. Less than 30 per cent of Indigenous students complete in 4 years, less than 43 per cent complete in six, and less than 50 per cent complete in nine. More than 50 per cent of the 24,000 Indigenous enrolments today will go home without degrees.

Sending over 12,000 Indigenous students back to their families with an accrued debt, and with no recognised qualifications to gain employment and pay off that debt is a cruel blow to an already disenfranchised people, a highly immoral act for a modern society. This need not be our future.

Education Minister Jason Clare announced that the Accord panel is also looking at establishing an Indigenous higher education advisory council to help drive the measures needed for Australia’s future workforce. For the many of us who submitted proposals to the Accord process, we see the opportunity this gives to drive the qualities, capacities, and volume of graduates needed for Indigenous communities to determine their own futures. The challenge, however, is for the minister to ensure the advisory council is well briefed on the importance of these two important delivery points: the future workforce and Indigenous self-determination.

To achieve this, he will need to include members who have expert knowledge on the three key elements known to affect the progression and completion rates of Indigenous students: student capacity, student support and student finance.

The student capacity issue is a complex one and is largely contingent on the performance of the school sector. We see from NAPLAN data how early in the Indigenous students’ journey academic performance becomes a problem, from school results data how students who are failing by Year 7 will not recover, from PISA data how their levels of math and science are not at optimum levels, and from school sector data how two-thirds of students in regional and remote schools drop out by Year 10. We know investing in academic preparation at these stages is needed to realise aspirations and capabilities of Indigenous students and their communities.

It is not surprising then to see the low volume of Indigenous students continuing their education at university level. For instance, in one of the regional and remote regions in the north there are 12,500 Indigenous school students. In 2021, only 33 of these students enrolled in university studies. Members of the proposed council would need to have deep knowledge of program interventions such as the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program, and the Napthine Review Report of regional and remote Australia, to help guide the minister beyond the more common programs to align the aspiration of students and their communities with programs that can more directly help the preparation of students for university studies.

The student support issue is also complex issue as this requires expert knowledge of the education needs for students with low preparedness for university studies. The complexity lies in the layers of bridging, enabling and transition programs, which have not worked well for Indigenous students, as well as the additional levels of services provided by the Indigenous support staff in universities.

Council members would need to have deep knowledge on why these programs and services have so far failed to deliver the progression and completion rates needed, particularly the hold that US-based first-year transition programs have on our current approaches in Australia. They would need to guide the minister towards more recent Australian studies that have shown empirically to improve both the progression and completion rates of Indigenous students in university level studies.

The student finance issue has become a complex one since ABSTUDY introduced the income test threshold for Indigenous families. ABSTUDY, once the shining knight to increase the rate of participation and progress of graduate numbers is now an inhibiting force in our quest for higher graduate numbers. As a consequence, our universities have had to divert staff and resources to fundraising activities in order to make up for the shortfalls in ABSTUDY allowances when they should have been focused on getting the students through their studies. For educators, time on (educational) task is key to higher completion rates. But when we are now fundraisers and students are working more and more hours to pay the rent, time on task becomes highly compromised.

Thankfully, the minister has now flagged a sector-wide review of Indigenous education. This will be critical to a future framework in the sector that can deliver the right results for the country as well as for the first nations people.

The first challenge ahead is ensuring the proposed advisory council has the right knowledge and skills around the table.

Professor Martin Nakata and Associate Professor Sana Nakata are from James Cook University’s Indigenous Education and Research Centre. Professor Simon Biggs is vice-chancellor of James Cook University.

Professor Martin Nakata, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Education & Strategy, Associate Professor Sana Nakata and Professor Simon Biggs, Vice-Chancellor, James Cook University via The Australian