Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were clustered in society and culture (32.5%), health (19.1%) and education (18.1%) fields of study at university in 2010 ( DIISRTE 2012a).85 Encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into broader fields of study will be important to grow the depth and breadth of the Indigenous professional and academic base over time.
In addition, the Panel heard during consultations that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are more likely to drop out of university without completing their degree. The Panel examined the need for institutional support to respond to both of these issues.
What needs to change?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students need to be encouraged into broader fields of study
In research commissioned for the Review, Anderson highlighted the ‘need to focus, in particular, on maths and science literacy, as success in these disciplines is critical for access into a cluster of professional fields in which Indigenous Australians are significantly under-represented (accounting and commerce, engineering, veterinary science etc.)’ (Anderson 2011, p. 28). In addition to secondary school interventions, Anderson identified that:
[i]nterventions are required that support the development of maths and science capabilities for those secondary school student[s] and adults who transition into higher education but who require additional development of these capabilities in order to succeed in the program in which they are enrolled (Anderson 2011, p. 28).
The recent 2012–13 Budget initiatives discussed earlier should help to improve the mathematics and science capabilities of secondary school students but they do not specifically address the needs of university students.
Submissions to the Review did not refer to this matter in detail, and the Panel believes that it is an issue that requires further consideration and examination by universities. The Panel would like to see more work done by universities on how best to develop such interventions and to share best practice on how to encourage broader fields of study among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Recognition of part completions of study
The Panel found some evidence to suggest that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ engagement with education involves dropping out at various points and can be ‘cyclical rather than linear’ (submission no. 23, NSW Aboriginal Land Council Northern Region Local Aboriginal Land Councils, p. 4). The Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council submission refers to data that shows:
that the retention rate for first year Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is estimated at 67.6 percent, compared to 79.2 percent for all other domestic students. This translates to the sector losing one in three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, compared to the one-in-five dropout rate that occurs for all domestic students. Similarly, overall completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are reported to be 22 per cent less than for non-Indigenous Australian students (submission no. 73, IHEAC, p. 4).
Unpublished data from the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations similarly indicates higher rates of both first-year dropouts and lower rates of completions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students compared with non-Indigenous students. For example, among students who enrolled in a bachelor course in 2005, by 2010 45.7% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students dropped out compared with 22.6% of non-Indigenous students ( DEEWR n.d.).86
Throughout the report, the Panel is recommending a number of strategies to support retention and completion rates among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. A further approach that could be explored by universities would be to recognise the achievement of students who leave part way through their courses and to encourage them to return. One approach could include providing an accredited qualification, for example a diploma after one or two years. This approach would be similar to that used for postgraduate students who are able to achieve varying levels of completion including graduate certificate, graduate diploma or a master’s degree.
Any initiative would need to be applied to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students and be based on each university’s assessment of how best to recognise courses or units completed by the students without in any way compromising academic standards. It also needs to be recognised that this is still a poor second best to supporting students to complete their entire course of study.