Chapter 2 - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student success

Success for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students within universities will mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ‘just as likely to be found in any school or faculty, postgraduate as well as undergraduate … as their non-Indigenous peers’ (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 12). As outlined at the start of the report, it will mean achievement (and beyond) of the targets that the Panel has identified for all universities across enrolments, retention and completion rates.

Success will also ultimately mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have a similar age profile to that of non-Indigenous students. Currently, the profile is skewed to mature-age students with a much lower proportion of younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education. Mature-age students experience impacts on their long-term economic wellbeing as they have a shorter period in which to earn higher rates of professional incomes. This is further exacerbated by the lower life expectancy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, meaning Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men on average expect to live 11.5 years less than non-Indigenous men and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women expect to live 9.7 years less than non-Indigenous women ( ABS 2009).60

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students often face multiple challenges at university, including that they:

  • may find the university environment challenging, often coming through enabling programs rather than straight from school
  • are more likely to come from regional and remote areas and therefore need access to housing and pastoral care
  • have lower completion rates.

The Panel understands that many of the issues confronted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students often also apply to non-Indigenous students, particularly those from low SES backgrounds. Therefore, the Panel has focused its efforts on the additional or different issues confronting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students based on their profile outlined above. The Panel also recognises that in proposing reforms to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, there may be flow-on benefits for all students.

Increasing the enrolments, retention and completion rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will require significant work by universities. They will need the support of government to target current programs to improve student outcomes and tailor assistance to address unmet needs. It will require a whole-of-university approach, with support being integrated across the faculties and support services. Specific issues to be addressed include:

For universities

  • shifting the emphasis of support away from falling solely on the Indigenous Education Units to a framework of shared responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in which support is provided in partnership with Indigenous Education Units and across all faculties and other student services
  • increasing the level of participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students across faculties, focusing initially on priority discipline areas
  • ensuring sufficient and appropriate support for postgraduate students, HDR students and all students from remote and regional areas
  • building culturally appropriate and safe environments within universities
  • building strong partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, professional bodies, business and others to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success within their institutions.

For government

  • reform of financial support, program structures and funding arrangements, to ensure that student-focused outcomes are achieved, accountability of both government and universities is strengthened and administration is simplified.

60 Based on the national level for 2005–2007.