1.4 Access to information

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The Panel believes that providing potential students, their families and communities with better and more comprehensive information on the university experience and available support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students will help to increase the numbers of students who aspire to and enrol in higher education.

Current situation

Family and community views about higher education are important factors in the decision to enrol in university

Family and friends are the most frequently consulted sources for career advice for both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students (Craven et al. 2005, p. 17). If family and friends do not have knowledge of or a positive perception of higher education and the opportunities it offers, it is difficult to present higher education as an option or pathway. On the other hand, family and friends with a positive perception of higher education can be the influencing factor in a person’s decision to attend university.

Research shows that regardless of a parent’s educational background, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identify their parent’s desire for and support of a better life for them as a driver to attend and succeed at university (Santoro 2010).

When I was in high school I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to drop out halfway through Year 11 but my family forced me to stay in school and I never imagined being at university studying, let alone studying to become a doctor (Bianca Howard, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

On the other hand, a lack of support from parents and communities can act as a barrier to higher education. During consultations, the Panel found that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students felt actively discouraged from participating in higher education by their communities due to suspicion about higher education. Some students reported family and community members questioning why they chose to participate in higher education; others said that their decision to go to university led to others bringing into question their Aboriginality and some were asked questions about the relevance of higher education to them and their culture. These attitudes can be attributed to a lack of understanding of the benefits of higher education and to the negative perceptions of the system.

Peers are also a major influence on students’ choices. Research in the United States indicates that students are four times more likely to enrol in university if a majority of their friends also plan to, than if their friends do not (Choy 2002, p. 16).

What needs to change?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need to feel that universities are a place ‘in which we belong’

Like all families, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families want their children to succeed and prosper. However, many parents have not benefited from secondary education or tertiary education and so their horizons of success may not extend beyond lower-paid employment. Having not experienced the benefits of higher education themselves, parents may not associate it with positive outcomes for their children.

Of those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who do choose to enter higher education, the majority are the first in their family to ever do so. The Panel believes that we need to get to a point where university study is unexceptional for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to make the choice to go into higher education, the Panel believes it is vital that universities are a place where they feel they belong. The government and higher education providers need to work closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to promote higher education as a natural pathway, one that is consistent with and supports Aboriginal culture and values rather than at odds with it. Promoting the links between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community heroes and their engagement with higher education is just one way of doing this.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are important role models to others in their communities, motivating them to aspire to success at school or university. As more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students participate in the higher education system and have a good student experience based on a sense of belonging, the more likely they are to encourage participation in higher education by their families and friends.

Each successful first generation student can be the catalyst for more members of their family and community to take the leap into higher education. The Panel came across many examples of family members following each other into university study—a parent may follow a child into study, a sister inspire her siblings, or an uncle may provide an example for a nephew on the sort of careers a degree can support.

Better and more readily accessible information on financial and other support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students needs to be made available

For higher education to be considered as a viable option by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, potential students and their families and friends need to have a good understanding of what the university experience involves, what the benefits are, and what support, financial or otherwise, will be available once they enrol.

The Panel found that it is critical for universities to engage with local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to help build knowledge, show university as a safe place for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, foster a better understanding of the needs of communities and how they can be met by existing support programs, and build strong working relationships.

While there are a range of programs available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to provide them with financial, social and cultural support (addressed in Chapter 2), it is often difficult to know which program a person is eligible for and how to access it. The complexity of programs means that some people will not be aware that if they choose to enrol in university they will be eligible for support. While some career advisers may offer this information, it is often limited to students who are at school.

There is a need to improve the quality of information and communication to ensure that prospective Aboriginal students are better informed and comfortably familiar with the range of services and courses available in higher education setting (submission no. 71, New South Wales Government, p. 7).

One submission suggested that the higher education sector should:

[d]evelop a national marketing strategy that builds the awareness amongst parents and communities as well as school students of the value of a university education, what is required for entry, and the financial aid that is available to achieve success (submission no. 42, University of Queensland, p. 4).

By improving information flows to key influencers such as parents, a new cohort will grow who can provide advice and encouragement to potential students in their families or communities. The Panel agrees it would be beneficial for government to work with universities to develop a campaign that promotes the importance and relevance of higher education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To do this effectively, the Panel suggests that market research should be undertaken to identify strategies that will attract interest and best appeal to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Panel found that some universities59 have taken steps to demystify the university experience for potential students, their families and communities by introducing them to the advantages of higher education, ensuring a strong understanding of what would be expected of them, and helping them to understand the types of financial and other support available to them, such as Indigenous Education Units or scholarships.

Building on existing efforts

Curtin University of Technology’s Indigenous Australian Engineering Summer School provides a challenging environment that demonstrates to students what it means to be an engineering student and how engineering can help them and their communities.

Each year 20 students with an aptitude for science and engineering are selected from across Australia to participate in the program. The students participate in engineering laboratory activities, university visits and lectures alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student mentors and role models, providing them with an insight into the university experience and various disciplines of engineering and related sciences. Students receive advice on study skills, scholarships, cadetships and alternative pathways into engineering at the tertiary level.

Recommendation

Recommendation 9

That universities and the Australian Government improve the access to and effectiveness of the information they provide for potential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including through:

  • dedicated contact points and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education advisers located within universities
  • a campaign in Indigenous media to promote the importance and relevance of higher education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • developing capacity within the MyUniversity website through which potential Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can access information on scholarships, financial and other supports available to students undertaking higher education, and requirements for entry to and success in higher education.

59 For example, the Queensland consortium of universities collaborating in the statewide effort to stimulate interest and widen participation in tertiary study by people from low-income and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds; Curtin University; the University of South Australia; the University of Western Australia; the University of Adelaide; the University of New South Wales; Deakin University; the University of Western Sydney; the University of Newcastle.