How universities can level the playing field for Indigenous students

How universities can level the playing field for Indigenous students

Australia’s education sector has long been struggling to improve equity across its schools and universities, particularly as reports show the equity gap is widening.

When it comes to higher education sector, gender has often been at the forefront of this issue. But as the Federal Government tries to improve the outcomes of Indigenous students, it may be time for universities to also increase its Indigenous student population.

2018 data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that the retention rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from Years 7-12 had increased to 62.4% in 2017 – a huge leap from 47.2% in 2008.

Though an improvement, Indigenous students have a long way to go if they want to catch up to non-Indigenous students, who had posted a retention rate of 86% in 2017.

While some Indigenous students end up graduating from college, not all end up pursuing further study after completing their secondary education.

But the numbers are climbing.

In an article published in The Conversation, two academics wrote that that thanks to the demand-driven funding system in universities, which lasted until 2017, more Indigenous students have managed to attain tertiary education.

Michael Luckman, a senior research officer at La Trobe University’s Centre for Higher Education Equity & Diversity Research, and Andrew Harvey, the Centre’s director, noted that between 2009 and 2017 – the years the demand-driven system was active – the number of Indigenous students starting university more than doubled, while the total number of domestic undergraduates starting university increased by only around 50%.

This is despite the Productivity Commission’s report that the system “did not stimulate increase participation rates” for Indigenous students, due to the commission only covering a particular age range. 

“For example, more than one-third of Indigenous university students are aged over 30 years, compared with one quarter of non-Indigenous students,” the report read.

Taking into account what the Productivity Commission report left out, Luckman and Harvey said it was during the implementation of the demand-drive system that Indigenous students who are aged 20-59 outnumber non-Indigenous students in the same age range.

Only non-Indigenous students aged 19 and younger outnumbered Indigenous students of the same age.

Data from the Department of Education Student Statistics Publication also showed that the rate of undergraduate students who started university jumped by 110% from 2,786 students in 2008 to 5,867 in 2017.

However, the system’s influence had only gone so far, as it did not impact the Indigenous students’ access and achievement in the university level. Luckman and Harvey credited this to the persisting racism and discrimination that continue to plague both Indigenous staff and students.

A helping hand

To increase increasing the rate of Indigenous students taking up tertiary-level education, Charles Sturt University is rolling out a free, five-day program to provide easier access to the University’s bachelor’s degrees.

The University’s Indigenous Access Program (IAP) gives Year 12, school leavers and mature-aged Aboriginal and Torres Islanders the chance to enter university through a range of assessments and activities which can further help develop their academic skills.

The IAP will also help these Indigenous students in choosing university courses that suit them.

The first leg of the IAP will take place in Wagga Wagga from 18-22 November, while the second leg will be held at Port Macquarie from 2-6 December. The last round of IAP will be at Bathurst from 3-7 February 2020.

Upon completing the program, these students will have a guaranteed entry into Charles Sturt as well as access to individualised course advice and career guidance.

The IAP is part of the University’s arsenal of support systems available to Indigenous students. Other services offered include the University’s Indigenous Student Centres, with a new facility opening in Orange this month, and the Indigenous Academic Success Program.

“Previous attendees have said that thanks to the program, they felt more prepared for university and more comfortable moving away from home, and in some cases away from country,” Carlie Gemmell, manager of Charles Sturt’s Indigenous Student Centres and the IAP, said.

“The program presents an opportunity to learn about the different types of support offered at Charles Sturt University and within the University’s Indigenous Student Centres.”