AUSTRALIA: Low education achievement for First People

Although both traditional and urban Aboriginal parents rate education highly, many remain alienated from a system that has failed to accept their cultural heritage as the basis of their social life and individual identity. Accordingly, education is often irrelevant to the needs of Aboriginal people and, in some cases, has been actually harmful.

The majority of Australia’s indigenous students start university well behind their white counterparts and this has its origins in primary school where, on average, fewer than half finish the first six or seven years. Of these, only one in four will then complete six years of secondary school – compared with nearly 80% of other Australians.

Aborigines mostly enrol in university much later in life and about a third must first undertake a year or more of special preparatory studies. Barely one in 10 indigenous students are postgraduates compared with 25% of white students undertaking masters and PhD degrees.

More Aborigines also drop out in their first year than non-indigenous students. In fact, nearly 40% of those from indigenous families fail to continue their studies compared with less than 20% of other students. Today, most universities in Australia run special preparatory and ongoing support programmes for their indigenous students while trying to boost the number of Aboriginal academics and support staff.

So far, though, only one indigenous tertiary institution has been established to cater specifically to the needs of black students. What is now the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education grew out of a small college set up in the mid 1960s on the outskirts of Darwin as an annexe of a government boarding school for Aborigines. The annexe provided short courses for Aboriginal teacher aides and assistants in community schools but from 1974 these were conducted at Batchelor, a tiny township 100 kilometres south of Darwin.

In 1982, the annexe was re-named Batchelor College, and in 1988 the federal government gave it approval to run higher education programmes. A second campus was set up in Alice Springs in 1990 to meet the educational needs of Aboriginal people in Central Australia while in the same year other annexes were opened in Darwin, Nhulunbuy, Katherine and Tennant Creek across the Northern Territory.

An independent evaluation by the University of Western Sydney in 1994 recommended the college move to independent university status and five years later, it became an institute of tertiary education. From a few dozen students 30 years ago, the institute now enrols nearly 3000, most from across the top of northern Australia.

“The Batchelor Institute serves the interests of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in education and training and, in so doing, contributes to the cultural, social and economic development of Australia,” says institute director Dr Jeannie Herbert. “We offer courses in the areas of education and humanities, health and sciences, business and community studies, and community education and training. And we also have a significant apprenticeship programme.”

Herbert says the majority of students come from the Northern Territory although there are also several hundred from other Australian states: “But it is special for other reasons too: perhaps the most important of these is that our courses draw on the traditions of knowledge and education from both indigenous cultures and from so-called ‘western’ scientific or academic traditions. Our programmes are about both ways education.”

A central task is providing tertiary education and training that “engage students in the development of appropriate responses to issues of cultural survival, maintenance, renewal and transformation, within the context of the national and international social, political and economic order”.

Close links between the institute and indigenous communities have led to the development of a ‘mixed mode’ form in most courses. This combines community-based study and research, field study and supervised work experience with short, intensive residential workshops at a number of sites, including Batchelor and other regional locations.

Last year, the institute decided to boost its research profile with the establishment of a new division of research. Deputy director Tom Evison says the institute has a strong tradition of research from an indigenous perspective and the new division will assist staff and students with their research projects by providing more specialised training and support to position the institute “as a leader in the field of indigenous knowledge both nationally and internationally”.

The division will also support a new PhD programme that begins this year as well as an increasing number of masters students. The first masters began in 2006 and last year there were 10 students enrolled from around Australia.