The Indigenous Support Program assists eligible Table A higher education providers to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and advance the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy. The Panel understands that this is the main source of funding for most Indigenous Education Units.
Eligible universities must meet quality and accountability requirements stipulated in the Other Grants Guidelines (Education) 2012, section 1.20.1, of the Higher Education Support Act 2003. These requirements state that universities must satisfy the government that they meet all of the following criteria:
- the provider has implemented strategies for improving access, participation, retention and success of Indigenous Australian students;
- the provider has demonstrated increased participation of Indigenous people in the provider’s decision-making processes; and
- the provider has an Indigenous employment strategy.
Funding provided to individual universities in 2011 ranged between $118,000 and $2.64 million.
What needs to change?
Improving accountability for Indigenous Support Program funding
An internal review by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations in 2011 found that the accountability and reporting provided by universities on this program was highly variable and could be considerably improved. Activities are not often described well and rarely in quantitative terms, making it difficult to assess the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the program ( DEEWR 2011k).
While the current arrangements allow universities considerable flexibility in how they use the funds to best meet the needs of their students, the Panel heard during consultations that there is confusion about what can and cannot be funded under the program. In particular, there was confusion regarding whether restrictions on the use of funds was a requirement of the program or the university.
In addition, the department’s review and the Panel’s consultations highlighted that further transparency and accountability is required regarding how universities determine their Indigenous Support Program funding allocations. An earlier submission by the National Union of Students to the Bradley Review suggested a more transparent system of universities reporting funding of Indigenous Education Units, to provide students and staff with a better understanding of the reasons for changes, reduction and limitations to services as they happen (Indigenous Branch, National Union of Students submission to the Bradley Review, submission no. 327 (Watt & Smith 2008, p. 14)).
The Panel is also keen to see a greater focus on improvements in both retention and completions in addition to enrolments.
The way in which ISP [ Indigenous Support Program funding] is provided to universities can be problematic. Currently it provides an incentive for universities to enrol students, but there is little incentive to have them complete. Changing the way ISP is calculated could assist in encouraging universities to support Indigenous students more holistically to ensure an increase in completions (submission no. 30, Australian National University, p. 2).
The Panel proposes a revised approach to the Indigenous Support Program which would involve:
- re-weighting of the Indigenous Support Program formula towards retention and completions to provide a clear incentive to institutions to increase successful course completions by their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
- greater transparency and accountability by universities regarding their Indigenous Support Program funding and expenditure.
The Panel is also interested in exploring with universities in a transparent manner how universities are using their Indigenous Support Program funding to boost their other efforts to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through their mainstream funding support from the government.