Guidelines to boosting indigenous research unveiled

Although completion rates remain low, Aboriginal Australians are enrolling in universities and graduating in greater numbers than ever before. New guidelines launched on Friday are aimed at assisting indigenous graduates who want to pursue research degrees and research careers.

Developed by the Australian Council of Graduate Research and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium, the guidelines were produced for research students, supervisors and their universities.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the guidelines would help “deliver the next generation of Australia’s indigenous researchers and academic leaders”.

“It’s terrific to see these guidelines build on good practice already underway at individual universities and complement our own strategy,” Jackson said.

Although long excluded from higher education, more and more indigenous students are graduating, but the number is still well below their ratio in the population.

Aborigines comprise 2.7% of Australia’s 25 million people, yet indigenous students make up only 1.5% of all domestic enrolments in the nation’s 39 universities, up from 1.2% in 2006.

Universities themselves now admit that they “have historically underperformed against their obligations to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

In fact, it was not until 115 years after the establishment of the first Australian university in 1851 that the first Aboriginal bachelor degree student graduated, in 1966.

More than 50 years on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students remain under-represented both in enrolments and graduations, while indigenous staff – particularly academic and research staff – are even fewer on campus.

Universities Australia has set targets to lift indigenous enrolments by 50% above the growth rate of non-indigenous students in an effort to close the wide gap that exists.

“Australia’s indigenous knowledge spans more than 60,000 years and predates the establishment of our oldest universities by millennia,” Jackson said.

“Indigenous researchers have a key role in advancing Australia’s knowledge – and in Australia's research agenda.”

In a 40-page document setting out its indigenous strategy, Universities Australia says indigenous people have long regarded university “as beyond reach or an unwelcoming and alien place into which indigenous people are merely invited”.

“In this, universities have been part of a wider pattern of disadvantage and discrimination in Australia,” the document states.

Jackson said some 600 indigenous research students were enrolled at Australia’s universities: “So we want to grow that number and build on the strong gains of the past decade.”

Under this strategy, the organisation’s 39 members were committed to maintaining institutional growth rates for indigenous enrolments at least 50% above the growth rate of non-indigenous students and, “ideally”, 100% above, she said.

The universities would also aim to achieve retention and success rates for indigenous students equal to those of non-indigenous students in the same fields of study by 2025, while also achieving equal completion rates by field of study by 2028.

Indigenous higher education, research and employment would be listed as priority areas in core policy documents, including institutional strategic and business plans.

Significant advances have certainly occurred in indigenous involvement in higher education. Since the introduction of Australia’s ‘demand-driven funding system’ – full uncapping of university places took place in 2012 – indigenous enrolments have increased year-on-year by up to 10%.

Today, 70% more indigenous students are attending university than were on campus in 2008. That compares with an overall domestic student population increase of 37% over the same period.

In addition, since 2010, the number of indigenous students graduating each year has jumped 54% compared with a 21% rise in non-indigenous student graduations.

But while retention rates for indigenous students have increased, these still remain well below those of other domestic students and completion rates are also relatively low.

Fewer than 50% of indigenous students enrolled in bachelor degree courses in 2006 had completed their degrees eight years later, compared with 74% of non-indigenous students.