Number of Aborigines in university doubles in a decade

The number of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders attending university or other tertiary institutions in Australia has more than doubled over the past 10 years.

But their enrolments are still only a fraction of those in the white population and they remain a small proportion of the overall indigenous population.

Across Australia, however, more young Aboriginal people are completing the final year of school, with numbers jumping by 15% in the past decade.

And more of those secondary school graduates are going on to higher education.

Results from the last census in 2016 show that the highest school completion rates among Aboriginal students were in the Australian Capital Territory, where Canberra, the seat of government is located. Fifty-seven per cent of the territory’s Aboriginal students completed their secondary schooling.

Queensland had a 42% school completion rate among its indigenous students, whereas in the Northern Territory, which has the highest proportion of indigenous people in its population, only 22% of black students finished their secondary schooling.

But increases have occurred among Aborigines across the different levels of education attainment: The number holding a post-school technical certificate, for example, has rocketed by more than 150% to 75,000 over the past 10 years.

Redressing past wrongs

Only in recent times, though, have state- and federal-funded programmes been established to redress some of the manifold wrongs perpetuated on the world’s oldest race of humans.

Aborigines were the first people to arrive on this continent, possibly 65,000 years ago.

This immensely long occupation of a huge, uninhabited country of 7.7 million square kilometres is unlike anything that has occurred elsewhere on Earth.

The first human explorers slowly spread out across the entire land and several hundred thousand of those original ‘owners’ were here when an invasion by Europeans started.

That occurred when the British decided the Great Southern Land was there for the taking and sent the first boatloads of convicts to Botany Bay.

The first fleet of 11 ships arrived on 24 January 1778, with nearly 1,500 men, women and children onboard. Their arrival, and the millions that were to follow, was to result in the ultimate dispossession and destruction of Aboriginal society across most of the country.

So it has taken more than 230 years for white Australians to start redressing the wrongs their forebears visited on the original black owners.

Numbers of postgraduates rise

Still, in some areas the advancements have been considerable. The number of Aborigines with postgraduate degrees, for example, has jumped by 85% to nearly 4,000, and those with a graduate diploma or certificate by 75% to 4,000.

But poverty and poor health continue to affect large numbers of indigenous people and now a research project aimed at tackling the latter issue may have found the solution.

“If we are to close the gap in health outcomes for Aboriginal people, we need to develop and staff culturally competent health-care services,” says Kylie Gwynne, an associate professor and research director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at the University of Sydney.

Gwynne says a customised scholarship scheme developed for Aboriginal students has led to a 96% completion rate – more than 60% above the average completion rate for Aboriginal students undertaking technical education courses in New South Wales.

A report on the programme, published in the Australian Health Review, describes how a seven-step approach can dramatically improve vocational education outcomes for Aboriginal students.

A key element includes ensuring that students are supported at every step, starting with picking them up from the airport, and that Aboriginal staff are involved in each step along the way.

“The completion rate for vocational education students across all cultures, locations and programmes of study in New South Wales was 37% in 2013,” Gwynne says,

“For Aboriginal students, who make up 6.6% of all technical and further education students, the completion rate was 29.6%.”

What the programme does

Gwynne says previous research suggested that a model comprising five components – respect, communication, safety and quality, reflection and advocacy – could improve the completion rates of Aboriginal nursing students.

“We adapted this model and enrolled 31 students in the first cohort. One group studied certificate III or IV in dental assisting, while a second group studied certificate IV in allied health assisting.

“Of our cohort who followed the five steps, 96% of students completed their course.”

But Gwynne says interviews with the first group of students who finished the programme, as well as their teaching and support staff, revealed an opportunity to add two more steps.

These included obtaining the support of the students’ employers, and ensuring the students themselves received feedback from the comments they had made about the course.

To be able to participate in the face-to-face aspects of the programme, students relied on the support of their employers, although this might only apply to educational programmes requiring time away from a student’s work place, Gwynne says.

Employers, however, do play a key role because they need to approve leave for students to attend the study blocks and they provide paid study leave, she adds.

Opportunities for feedback

The seventh enabling factor was providing opportunities for the students to provide feedback, to be listened to, and for their comments to be noted.

According to the teachers, support staff and students, however, there were aspects of the scholarship programme that needed improving.

Students raised various issues in the interviews, including the amount and intensity of work, timing, preparation for and length of work placements, and communications between staff and the students.

“Listening to feedback is an enabling factor, and although the feedback could not necessarily be acted upon at the time, the students felt listened to and heard,” Gwynne says.

“And so, the seven-step approach was born: The model has been implemented... with Aboriginal support staff involved in all aspects, and all staff engaged in ongoing cultural competence awareness and skill development.”

She says the course was run in mixed-mode with intensive face-to-face blocks of three to five days.

This was supplemented by work experience undertaken close to the students’ homes and some assignments, also completed at home to minimise time away from family and employment.

By the end of last year, 380 qualifications had been awarded to Aboriginal students and the completion rate of 96% had been maintained.

“One of the first graduates of the seven-step approach, Rachel Williams, has gone on to complete a bachelor of oral health and she is now the registered oral health therapist at her local Aboriginal Health Service where she started as a trainee.”

Gwynne says programmes like the Sydney project are important because TAFE (the technical and further education system) can be a pathway for Aboriginal people to secure local skilled work or study at university – and because they can help improve the cultural competence of health-care services.

To read more about closing the gap in indigenous education, see this article on The Conversation.