Submission to: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

15 December 2011

Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

This is a targeted submission to the department's Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In responding to this review, the academy has focused on the second of five 'Key questions' as provided in Attachment B of the review's call for submissions: 'How can we ensure that more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students stay at university, complete their studies and graduate?

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Submission in full

This submission is broken up into three parts:

  1. Student Retention: Current Success Areas
  2. Student Retention: Areas Needing Improvement
  3. Recommendations to this Review

As for the role of ASSA in providing this submission, the academy comes to this task as a neutral but informed observer. This is because of the somewhat unique combination of responsibilities that are brought together within the organisation. First and foremost, the academy is a multi-disciplinary representative of the entire spectrum of the social sciences. As one of the four Learned Academies in this country, it has an interest in successful research and student participation across a wide variety subjects available for study at a tertiary level. It is also free from allegiance to any single university.

Moreover, the expertise of the Fellows of this academy, including within the specialist Working Committee contributing to this submission, sits on both sides of what is sometimes termed 'the policymaking divide'.1 By collating insights gained from leaders within both academia and the public service, ASSA brings to this important public issue of Indigenous participation in tertiary education an important balance of perspectives from across the policy divide.

1. Student Retention: Current Success Areas

From the outset, this submission acknowledges that in the tertiary education sector, there have been significant achievements within a generation on the access and retention of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander (TSI) students. This is not to detract from the tangible threats to student retention that exist and need to be acted on. In recognition of the importance of this review, and optimistic that further public policy achievements can be realised, this submission has spent two of its three main sections recommending improvements and how we can get there.

Nevertheless, ASSA also seeks to highlight several current areas of success, so that they might be fostered and encouraged anew. As researcher Joe Lane put it to ASSA's Working Committee on this review, it is important to "own" achievements when they occur in Indigenous education access and retention.

There are now some 28 000 Indigenous graduates of an Australian university. These graduations have occurred exclusively since the mid-twentieth century. In 2010 alone there were more than 11 000 Indigenous students enrolled at university and the majority are in mainstream courses. Between 2006 and 2010 there have been more than 7 000 Indigenous student graduations. When addressing the question of retention, graduation is obviously the ultimate indicator of having completed an entire degree program.

Only 1% of all students currently enrolled in an Australian university are Indigenous. However, given that approximately 27% of all current enrolments are by international students, it can be more accurately considered that 1.3% of all domestic students are Indigenous or TSI. Indigenous people are some 2.5% of the overall Australian population, so there is still a gap that needs to be closed. In recent decades this gap has been substantially improved. Joe Lane, for example, has calculated that in 2010 there was a parity participation rate of 59% for Indigenous people, compared with 5% participation thirty years ago. This indicates that the substantial majority of access and retention improvements have taken place within the working lifetime of many current faculty members and other researchers. There has been a good deal of success in recent years and we should celebrate it, instead of emphasising that we have not yet 'closed the gap'. The statement in the context paper that "Indigenous attendance in higher education has remained static" is not correct. Parity may well be an undesirable and unachievable goal. This issue is discussed with greater detail later in this submission.

More specifically on retention, ASSA notes a recent proliferation of support networks for Indigenous students, including in the form of student mentoring. The strong view of members of this working committee is that Indigenous student mentoring is at its most effective when a relationship between the adviser and the student is maintained over as long a time period as practicable. The long-term nature of a mentoring relationship is important to the extent that this submission posits that mentoring is of primary importance even when compared with the technical specificities of teaching advice. Given the recent first generation of Indigenous university graduates, there is strong scope for support extending to subsequent generations of scholars.

For example, some ten years ago ASSA was instrumental, through the personal involvement of several of its Fellows, in the establishment of a post-graduate student support workshop. Now continuing at the University of Melbourne, this Indigenous Summer School was an important step against many of the learning pitfalls that can get in the way of student retention. The probable explanation for the continuing success of this mentoring program is that it directly addresses the mentoring relationship between a PhD candidate and their supervisor, as both are expected to attend the workshop activities.

Another potentially positive outlook that this submission suggests to the review is to carefully consider how benchmarks for success are to be determined. The number of students that complete their degree can be readily quantified. However, it would be difficult to ascertain with any certainty what benefits might be accrued by a student who has partially completed a university study program. It might well be the case that partial completion of a degree confers benefits to the student that are greater than a total absence of tertiary participation. Such a redefinition of success on retention would require looking carefully at the ultimate aim of students on entering university, including their employment and travel prospects before or after a partially- completed degree or research program.

The 'Closing the Gap' rhetoric obviously has an important, historically grounded raison d' être. Yet the improving trend for retention rates over the past three decades is an argument for Government deploying this phrase with greater nuance, at least when thinking about the tertiary education sector. Sometimes a more accurate description would involve distinguishing between the situation of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people from differing geographic and demographic backgrounds. More nuanced language would also help policymakers better understand the differing rates of improvement and stagnation in education access across the various sections of the Indigenous community.

The measure of success of Indigenous education needs serious consideration with the active involvement of the Indigenous community. For example, a Canadian study concluded that the measure of success is the "extent to which educational achievement facilitated community change. Participants believed academic success was meaningless if it did not allow them to use their skills in service of families and communities." 2 In particular, we question the goal of parity. Universities are quite different to the traditional knowledge systems of Indigenous people. It could be argued that parity implies assimilation. Clearly this is no longer the goal of the Australian Government.

Student Retention: Areas Needing Improvement

This submission covers five areas needing improvement.

  1. (a) Indigenous student (or support) centres.
  2. (b) The need to treat rural and remote students differently from urban Indigenous students
  3. (c) The importance of pathways, especially the role of schooling
  4. (d) Mentoring
  5. (e) Research

(a) Indigenous Student (or Support) Centres

Within the working committee that ASSA convened in response to this review, the continuing role and identity for Indigenous Student Centres, replicated in a similar structure within universities across the country, was raised in several contexts and with differing views on what their role should continue to be. One concern was that the centres presently combine several important and consuming responsibilities within a single entity. The student care, as opposed to academic teaching and support, functions of the centres are perhaps contradictory and could be better defined. It was observed that funding for centres has stagnated over the last five years, failing to keep pace with inflationary price rises in the economy and therefore cutting into the funding, in real terms, received by centres from the Federal Government. In this context, it seems that a re-examination of their purpose and operation could be a worthwhile focus for the attention of this review. Given that the views and best interests of students needs to be the guiding principle for any review of the tertiary education sector, it is important to note a prevailing opinion among Indigenous students as observed in a report by the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE). It is positive. For example, "the centre is the best engagement I have received. I receive ongoing support and encouragement from staff every day." 3

Nevertheless, and given the distinction between the experience of urban as opposed to rural and remote area Indigenous and TSI students, the continuing and unique dual purpose of centres raises questions of equity across the entire student community. A student support centre might be better advised to focus on socio- economic needs more broadly. There does seem to be something of an identity crisis at present which needs to be clarified. Given that Indigenous Student Centres have stagnated somewhat, and the important role they have played in the past and potentially in the future, we suggest that there be a review of their future role. Whilst the responsibility for their operation should remain with universities, it would be a proper role for the Government to fund a review and ensure that the findings of the review, and potentially guidelines on good practice, be disseminated to all stakeholders.

(b) Different treatment of rural and remote Indigenous students

The rural and remote Indigenous students seem to have quite different challenges to those coming from urban areas. Among other things, they face greater financial difficulties, higher caring and community responsibilities (noting the high number of female students) and less family support. The Block mode has increased participation but it is not clear that it has improved retention. It seems like a good initiative but may warrant review to see how it might be improved. Another way of increasing participation and retention by rural and remote Indigenous students mat to put more emphasis on work integrated learning.

(c) Pathways

The question of retention is closely related to the attention given to the continuum of schooling and other pathways into university education. Put simply, increased retention as a policy aim is unattainable at the tertiary level if not also supported by increased retention at secondary school. This again goes to the experiential difference between urban and remote area students. While in some remote communities attendance rates are comparable to urban schools, there is a wide variation. Indigenous and TSI student attendance rates, in remote-area schools, vary between 30%-80% at any given school. School attendance rates are already an area of significant policy intervention so will add no further comment except to note the link with university retention rates.

(d) Mentoring

Emphasis on mentoring could be given to tertiary students from before they enter university, which is also in accordance with the aforementioned importance of considering schooling as a systemic continuum. The view of this Submission is that at a personal level, the more comfortable a student feels upon from beginning university, the more likely that they will continue their degree through to its completion. This could be solved with a program whereby an increased number of Indigenous and TSI high school students experience some version of campus life. Visiting and spending time on a university campus is veryn effective preparation for tertiary study.

(e) Research

Another area needing improvement is the collection of data on retention rates. An important contribution that social scientists could bring to this question is on why it is that students do not continue their degree. This submission notes that on the basis of briefing material as provided by the department's context paper for this review, it is possible to quantify when students are dropping out of university, but the reason for doing so is less clear. More qualitative research data into this specific question could be a role that ASSA Fellows are well-qualified to work on. The social science methodology (in its many varied incarnations) is able to get to the heart of why these movements are occurring, beyond the brief and unreliable answers that respondents are prone to give in response to a market-style survey. An anthropological style study seems most appropriate to this type of research.

Recommendations to this review

This submission from ASSA recommends that:

  • The review make a clear distinction between the experiences of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students from rural or remote backgrounds as opposed to urban backgrounds.
  • A review be undertaken with the objective of providing greater strategic direction for the ongoing role of Indigenous study centres across Australian universities.
  • Mentoring arrangements should be encouraged and facilitated with an emphasis on one on one relationships, to take advantage of continuity.
  • Universities maintain regular and high-quality contact with students from remote communities during times when they return home throughout the semester. More frequent and higher quality communication helps to resolve the competing time demands on students between coursework and family and community needs, including the use of digital communication.
  • Given the present policy agenda of the Federal Government, a strong argument can be advanced for specifically incorporating the needs of remote communities into the geographically targeted rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE).
  • Further social science research attention be directed to the question of why students drop out of university. Such a focus would be well-advised to adopt an anthropological methodology. This is because qualitative research on this question would, in the view of this submission, be more informative than market-style surveys of students asking why they dropped out of tertiary education before completing their degree.
  • Research funding, or other directives from government, be committed to increasing academic knowledge of the experiential difference for students between block-mode and non-block mode coursework.
  • In contrast with suggestions in the context papers provided by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) this submission recommends against placing an explicit policy expectation upon Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students that the most ideal outcome on graduation is that they should necessarily return to live in their original remote-area communities. This is one of several ideal outcomes, but placing such a unique burden on one section of the tertiary student population is unfair, and might also have a negative influence on improving retention rates.
  • The measures of success for Indigenous tertiary education be reassessed to ensure they are desirable (from the point of view of Indigenous people) and realistic. For reasons explained in the submission, parity may not be the appropriate objective for Indigenous student participation and retention as it implies assimilation.
  • That increasing retention rates in the tertiary sector requires attention to the continuum of schooling, with health and literacy improvements for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander students beginning with ante-natal nutrition and onwards. Other pathways are also important and should be evaluated before implementation.

ASSA thanks the Department for the opportunity to provide this input on Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander access to tertiary education. We would be happy to assist the department further by assembling Fellows and other social scientists to discuss issues around Indigenous tertiary education.

This submission was supported by:

  • Dennis Trewin FASSA (Chair, Academy's Policy and Advocacy Committee, former Australian Statistician)
  • Professor Meredith Edwards FASSA (ANZSOG Institute for Governance at University of Canberra, former Deputy Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet)
  • Professor Peter Sutton FASSA (School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide)
  • Professor Tim Rowse FASSA (Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy, University of Western Sydney)

With assistance from the ASSA Secretariat.


  1. Dr Peter Shergold, Interview on ABC Radio National 'Late Night Live' with Phillip Adams, 23 May 2011
  2. S. Hunt, C. Lalonde & Y. Rondeau (2010), 'Supporting Aboriginal Student Access: Report of the LE,NONET Research Project' (University of Victoria).
  3. AUSSE Research Briefing, Vol. 10 April 2011, p. 9.

For more information, please contact:
Mr Murray Radcliffe
Deputy Director
murray.radcliffe [at]
+61 .2 62491788