Executive summary

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I’m the first of 32 grandchildren to come to university … Sometimes when I come here [Flinders University] I’m like wow I’m at university and I’m not just at university but I’m going to law school (Jamilla Sekiou, Bachelor of Laws and Legal Practice, Flinders University).

When I left the island I was given a garden basket. I was told by an Elder: education is the garden, it gives you fruit; it gives you food. With that garden basket you fill it up with knowledge and you bring it back to the community and you feed the community with the knowledge you have gained (Adeah Kabai, engineering student, CQUniversity).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people across the country are increasingly aspiring to get an education, go to university and take up professional and leadership positions. In doing so, they want to drive positive outcomes for their communities and for the broader Australian community. This Review examines what can be done across government, universities, business, professions and communities to support not just young people, but all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to participate and succeed in higher education. In turn, benefits will flow to all Australians, as was identified in the 2008 Bradley Review of Higher Education (the Bradley Review).

The Bradley Review concluded that ‘Australia faces a critical moment in the history of higher education’, where ‘the reach, quality and performance of a nation’s higher education system will be key determinants of its economic and social progress’ (Bradley et al. 2008, p. xi).

In commissioning the Bradley Review, the government recognised the important role higher education plays in driving productivity and delivering a strong and steady supply of highly skilled labour—in effect, nation building. But for higher education to truly support nation building, all Australians must be able to contribute to and share in its benefits.

The Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (the Review) builds on the Bradley Review and examines how improving higher education outcomes among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will contribute to nation building and reduce Indigenous disadvantage.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly underrepresented in the higher education system, contributing to the high levels of social and economic disadvantage they often experience. Producing graduates qualified to take up professional, academic and leadership positions across community, government and corporate sectors will help to address this disadvantage.

In conducting the Review, the Review Panel (the Panel) has taken account of existing government policies and other strategies including the Indigenous Economic Development Strategy 2011—2018, 1 the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010—2014.

The Review focuses on the specific barriers that are preventing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from achieving their full potential in higher education, and recommends actions to improve higher education outcomes.

Some of the barriers addressed by this Review are not limited to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and the Panel believes that by resolving them there will likely be flow-on benefits for all Australians.

Terms of reference

The terms of reference of the Review asked the Panel to provide advice and make recommendations in relation to:

  • achieving parity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, researchers, and academic and non-academic staff
  • best practice and opportunities for change inside universities and other higher education providers (spanning both Indigenous-specific units and whole-of-university culture, policies, activities and programs)
  • the effectiveness of existing Commonwealth Government programs that aim to encourage better outcomes for Indigenous Australians in higher education
  • the recognition and equivalence of Indigenous knowledge in the higher education sector.

Parity targets and scope of review

The term ‘parity’, referred to in the Review’s terms of reference, generally means achieving ‘equality’ or ‘equivalence’. In this context, the Panel has taken it to mean ‘equality’ or ‘equivalence’ of participation and outcomes in higher education between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians. In doing so, the Panel considered how best to measure such ‘equivalence’ and then how to set sector-wide targets to achieve it. The Panel has recommended that the parity target for student enrolments and staff/researcher numbers should be based on the proportion of the total population aged between 15 and 64 who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This means that the initial national parity target for student enrolments and staff/researcher numbers would be 2.2%2 and revised in line with new population data following each national census ( ABS 2012a). For retention and completion rates of students, the Panel has recommended that the parity target be set to match retention and completion rates of non-Indigenous students.

The Panel believes that the upcoming mid-term university compact discussions and negotiation of future compacts with universities will provide the most appropriate mechanism for the Australian Government and universities to negotiate the relevant targets for each university. The scope of the Review and its recommendations are focused on universities. If parity targets are to be achieved, the higher education sector must take the lead, with government, business, professional bodies, research agencies, the vocational education and training ( VET) and school sectors, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as active partners.

References to universities throughout the report relate to Table A higher education providers3 unless specified otherwise. The references to students throughout the report relate to undergraduate, postgraduate and higher degree by research ( HDR) students, unless specified otherwise. References to postgraduate students throughout the report relate to students studying any postgraduate course (including coursework masters and doctorates) whereas references to HDR students relate only to students undertaking higher degrees by research (i.e. masters by research and PhDs).

The Panel’s vision

While the ultimate aim of the Review is to achieve parity in higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff, the Panel’s vision is much broader. In the coming years the Panel wants higher education to become a natural pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Success in higher education will lay the foundations for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professional class that can contribute to closing the gap and to Australia’s broader wellbeing and economic prosperity. The Panel also wants to see more high-quality Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers in universities and research agencies contributing to a national research agenda that values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and reflects Indigenous development priorities.

The Panel ultimately hopes to see the higher education sector playing a leading role in building capacity within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and making a meaningful contribution to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Consultation process

To undertake this Review, the Panel conducted extensive consultations, both face to face and through a submission process. The Chair of the Panel visited every Table A higher education provider across the country to gather the views of university management, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff, and representative bodies. The Panel released a context paper and call for submissions, with 77 submissions received from individuals, universities, professional and industry bodies and other organisations.

The report makes references to existing programs and best practice identified during consultations and also includes a section on case studies highlighting success factors and challenges regarding key issues. The Review aims to build on existing efforts by learning from what is working and making changes targeted at improving what is not working.

Unlocking capacity and empowering choices

Schools are the primary avenue through which most people enter higher education, and the sector must work more closely with schools to make this true for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Panel understands the pipeline of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students coming through the school system will not be sufficient on its own to meet the Panel’s proposed targets for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in higher education, even as Year 12 completion rates continue to improve.

Notwithstanding this observation, the Panel supports the efforts of government, schools, business and non-government organisations to improve the education outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students, and supports the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010—2014. The Panel believes that universities can play a greater role in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students, starting in primary school, through outreach programs that support aspiration building and provide mentoring and academic support in key areas like mathematics and science.

At the same time, more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will need to be supported to enter the higher education system through other pathways, particularly the workforce and VET system. Universities and employers could further build on existing partnerships and explore new ones to provide financial and other support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the workforce to take up university studies. To improve pathways from the VET sector to university, VET students need to be encouraged and supported to enrol in higher-level VET courses (Certificate IV and above) as they can act as a pathway to higher education. The Panel suggests that special entry arrangements and credit transfer for courses completed need to be further developed.

Supporting student success

To succeed at university Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students need access to a range of social, financial and academic support. The Panel proposes a fundamental shift from often marginalised Indigenous Education Units bearing responsibility for supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, to a whole-of-university effort. Indigenous Education Units are currently the main source of cultural, and often academic, support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Students have said Indigenous Education Units are important to them as supportive environments that enhance their university experience and the Panel believes that they should continue to play this supportive role for students. However, they cannot be expected to drive whole-of-university strategies because they simply do not have the reach, resources or discipline-specific knowledge to do so.

Therefore, the Panel believes that faculties should be primarily responsible for supporting the academic success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, given the discipline-based knowledge and staff available to them. Faculties can provide discipline-specific tutoring, mentoring, and connections to the professional world and employment. Faculties are where academics and teachers and older students can be partnered with students as mentors or role models, where discipline-associated professions connect with the university, and where students learn to be leaders in their future professional field.

Success for students will also mean more students choosing to study across a broader field of disciplines. Initially, the Panel believes that universities should focus on those disciplines that will contribute to closing the gap or where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have been underrepresented.

The Panel proposes that Indigenous-specific funding support provided by government to universities should be reformed in line with a set of principles aimed at delivering flexible, simplified, student-focused support within a strong accountability and reporting framework. The Australian Government should review individual programs in accordance with these principles and develop new program guidelines in close consultation with universities.

With regard to specific programs, the Panel found that the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme — Tertiary Tuition ( ITAS-TT) program provided tutoring support that was highly valued by students in helping them to succeed in their studies. It could be further strengthened through changes to the eligibility criteria and possible development of a national tutor database to support the program. The Commonwealth Scholarships Program was shown to have significant levels of under-spending. The Panel proposes that the various categories of scholarships be amalgamated into one simplified payment program which may help to improve take-up rates.

A number of submissions raised issues regarding financial support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The Panel also considered Professor Lee Dow’s comment in the Review of Student Income Support Reforms that:

The relationship between the residual Indigenous scholarships elements of the Commonwealth Scholarships Program and the new Student Start-up Scholarships and Relocation Scholarships, which are available for ABSTUDY higher education students, warrants further consideration (Dow 2011, p. 52).

The Student Start-up Scholarships and Relocation Scholarships are paid close to the commencement of studies. There is no need to apply separately for the scholarships—they are an automatic entitlement for qualifying higher education students in receipt of ABSTUDY Living Allowance, Youth Allowance or Austudy. The scholarships are tax-free and do not impact on the student’s income support entitlement. The Panel also considered the increase in ABSTUDY scholarship debt as a result of the operation of two separate schemes.

The Panel notes that reforms following the Bradley Review and the Review of Student Income Support Reforms in 2011 are starting to flow through to provide additional income support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The Panel suggests that the government monitor carefully how the recent income support reforms support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students over the next few years. Access to adequate and affordable housing remains a problem, particularly for regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who move to the cities to study. The Panel was encouraged to see innovative approaches to delivering on-campus accommodation and would like to see universities make further efforts in this area.

Employers, universities and professional bodies may be able to do more to provide financial and other support to students through cadetships, scholarships and bursaries, beyond their existing efforts that, the Panel acknowledges, are already making important contributions.

Building professional pathways and responding to community need

Building a class of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals who can respond to the needs of their own communities will be vital to meeting Closing the Gap targets. It is also central to the Panel’s vision for the future of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success in higher education. The Panel believes that faculties can play a leading role in supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students graduating as professionals in their chosen field by forming close partnerships with professional bodies. Professional bodies can drive demand for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals and, together with employers, can support students to excel through scholarships, mentoring, cadetships and work experience.

By increasing the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander professionals across different fields, all Australians will benefit from access to more diverse expertise, knowledge and skills.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and research

Indigenous perspectives and knowledge, translated into curriculum, teaching practices and graduate attributes, can make important contributions to helping professionals meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Where professionals are being trained to work in fields with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, business partners and/or communities, they should learn relevant knowledge and gain an understanding of contemporary Indigenous issues to help them in their professional work. The Panel proposes that universities develop Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teaching and Learning Frameworks that reflect the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge within curriculums, graduate attributes and teaching practices. The Panel also recommends that the Australian Government continue to support the work of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies ( AIATSIS) in the digitisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data. The Panel further recommends that there be a review of AIATSIS to examine its future strategic direction, its role and functions, governance structures and levels of resourcing with a view to strengthening its capacity to preserve and disseminate Indigenous knowledge and support Indigenous research.

Researchers translate knowledge and ideas into innovation that drives productivity and improves the wellbeing of all Australians. The Panel considers it imperative that the national research priorities include specifics related to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research. It also supports growing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people completing higher degrees by research, and ensuring that there is adequate government support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research and researchers.

Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff

Given the relatively low number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in both general and academic positions across the sector, the Panel believes that universities will need to increase their efforts to ‘grow their own’ academic staff and to attract external staff into the sector. Building on the National Indigenous Higher Education Workforce Strategy, government can help by investing in academic staff, initially providing short-term funding to all universities to employ staff and in the longer term moving to a system where funding is provided to universities who continue to employ these staff after the initial funding has ceased.

The Panel also wants to see government, employers and universities partner to sponsor a cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander intellectual and professional leaders to take up leadership roles across a broader range of faculties.

University culture and sector governance

For all of the above to succeed, vice-chancellors will need to lead from the top and, together with faculties, drive change in university culture and governance, so that there is shared responsibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education outcomes across each university leadership. Improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education outcomes should be integral to the university’s core business.

The Panel believes that there should be greater representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in senior governance positions. The vice-chancellor and other senior university management should be responsible and accountable for delivering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student and staff success and this should be reflected in their performance arrangements.

The achievement of the parity targets is central to achievement of the Panel’s vision and will require all of the above issues to be addressed and progress to be measured. The Panel believes that the most appropriate accountability mechanism for articulating strategies and measuring progress will be through the mission-based compacts between the universities and government. The Panel would like to see universities articulate their strategies for achieving the parity targets within their negotiations with government and for these to be recorded and reported on through the compacts. The government should consider adjusting reward payment structures to recognise those universities that exceed the targets through performance payments.

The way forward: an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education strategy and monitoring and evaluation framework

The Panel proposes that the Australian Government lead the development of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education strategy to provide a comprehensive framework for its response to the Review. The Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (IHEAC) can provide a leadership and advisory role to the Minister in the development of the strategy. It will also be important for the Australian Government to develop a robust monitoring and evaluation framework to monitor progress and evaluate outcomes. The Panel notes that while there is a large quantity of data collected through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and departmental reporting processes, further work could be done on the quality and relevance of data collected. The Panel would like to see a greater focus on data and evidence that specifically identify the critical factors influencing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander success in higher education. Where possible, efforts should be made by the Australian Government to avoid any duplication of effort and to make the best use of existing data. The government will also need to undertake further modelling work to set appropriate timeframes for achievement of targets, noting that they are interdependent with the achievement of other targets already set by government including the COAG Closing the Gap targets.

1 The Indigenous Economic Development Strategy 2011—2018 ‘is an Australian Government policy framework that aims to support the increased personal and economic wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians through greater participation in the economy’ (Australian Government 2011).

2 The initial parity target of 2.2% is based on 2006 Census data.

3 See the glossary.