1.1 Schools

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Higher education does not exist in a vacuum. It is part of a broader process of education that begins before a person first starts school. While it is not in the scope of this Review to make specific recommendations relating to school education, the Panel believes that it is impossible to look at issues of higher education without looking at how it connects with schools and how the sector can encourage and facilitate better pathways into university.

If children are not taught to read, write and count, they have no hope of going to university (submission no. 54, Centre for Independent Studies, p. 2).

Universities can only do so much on their own. Although we acknowledge that the scope of the Review limits what the panel can recommend regarding the pipeline of Indigenous people through the school system, we must put on record that this pipeline is a crucial limiting factor to the overall success that universities can demonstrate in improving Indigenous access and outcomes (submission no. 59, Universities Australia, p. 9).

The school sector is the primary avenue through which most Australians enter higher education, but not for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.

Schooling provides students with the knowledge, skills and qualities that are the basis for higher education and lifelong learning, making success at school fundamental to successfully transitioning to higher education.

While progress has been made over recent years, the rates of retention, Year 12 completion and transition to university are still poor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students and well below those of non-Indigenous students.

The current challenge facing the university sector in terms of Indigenous engagement is two-fold. The first challenge is that nationally Indigenous kids are still dropping out of school in Years 8 and 9, and the majority of Indigenous students making it to Year 12 either do not aspire to head into university, nor have the necessary skill set and achievement levels, or both. The second challenge, is a subset [sic] of the first and that is the retention of Indigenous university students (submission no. 6, Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, p. 2).

Current situation

High school retention and completion rates are lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students than for non-Indigenous students

According to the Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision, ‘[a]pparent retention rates30 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from the beginning of secondary school to Year 12 increased from 32.1% in 1998 to 47.2% in 2010, while the non-Indigenous rate increased from 72.7% to 79.4%’ (SCRGSP 2011b, p. 4.49).

As a result of high dropout levels, in 2008 the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 20- to 24-year-olds who reported completing Year 12 or equivalent was 45.4%, half that of non-Indigenous 20- to 24-year-olds (88.1%) (SCRGSP 2011b, p. 4.49).

Levels of academic achievement and attainment are low among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

As noted in a report by Universities Australia (James et al. 2008, pp. 47–8), there has consistently been a wide gap in literacy and numeracy between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students. In 2009, 1,143 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 15-year-old school students participated in the triennial OECD Programme for International Student Assessment. Results indicate that the differences between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and non-Indigenous students in the domains of reading and mathematical and scientific literacy equate to around two full years of schooling. Almost 40% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students did not reach Level 2 (the OECD baseline) compared to 14% of non-Indigenous students (Thomson et al. 2010, p. 11).

In 2009, only around one third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieved the minimum proficiency level in international tests for science, mathematics and reading literacy, compared to around two thirds of non-Indigenous students (SCRGSP 2011a, p. 34).

Without significant improvements in literacy and numeracy attainment, a school-to-university pathway will continue to be inaccessible for high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students.

Across all levels of education Indigenous participation in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] is well below that of non-Indigenous students, which is especially significant given the very young demographic profile of the Indigenous population ( ABS 2006). ... without an appropriate level of STEM skills, Indigenous peoples’ share in the opportunities of Australia’s economy will be limited (submission no. 17, South Australian Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology, p. 1).

The numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who leave school eligible for university are low

Despite increases in the overall proportion of school students who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander31 and some improvements in the retention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students, the gains have not been great enough to result in more than a trickle of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students coming through the pipeline from high school to university (Aurora Project 2011b, pp. 18–21).

For direct entry to university from Year 12, most students need an Australian tertiary admission rank (ATAR), with an ATAR above 50.00 ‘usually required for entry into more popular courses and universities’ (SCRGSP 2011b, p. 4.55). In 2010, 7.1% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander potential Year 12 population achieved an ATAR of 50.00 or above, compared to 40.4% of non-Indigenous students (SCRGSP 2011b, p. 4.56). However, it should be noted that many universities ‘take a holistic approach when assessing applications from Indigenous students’, meaning that ‘Indigenous applicants often are not assessed solely on the basis of their academic results’ (SCRGSP 2011b, p. 4.55).

One reason for lower levels of university eligibility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students may be course selection in the later years of high school. A 2008 paper by the Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council (Thomas 2008, p. 14) noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are seriously underrepresented in ‘academic’ courses in Years 11 and 12. ‘In 2008, about 38% of Indigenous students undertook a Year 11/12 course aimed at gaining university entrance, compared to 78% of non-Indigenous students’ ( DEEWR 2008, p. 59).

One of my teachers said to me, ‘I’m not putting you into chemistry, physics or any of those because I can’t see you passing this year, I reckon you’re going to drop out any way’ (Cameron Howard, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

There are low levels of aspiration to participate in higher education among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

The capacity to aspire is not evenly distributed in society. While during consultations the Panel met many individuals and their families who aspired to or were engaged in higher education, there are still generally lower levels of aspiration to participate in higher education among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than non-Indigenous Australians. There are several reasons for this, including a lack of confidence in academic ability, low expectations of academic achievement by teachers and career advisers, and a lack of understanding among friends and family about the opportunities that higher education offers.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have been taught to have negative views of their academic ability and as a result lack confidence. Hossain et al. surveyed 50 high school students from five Queensland schools and found that a high degree of negative self-perceptions existed, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students believing they are ‘too dumb’ to attend university (2008, p. 12). During consultations the Panel heard from many university students that during school they had felt they were not ready or good enough for university, and it was only with extra support from enabling courses or Indigenous Education Units that they made it to university.

I never thought of any academic goals or future for myself (Billy Kickett Morris, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

After high school, university was never an option for me, it was just something I didn’t think I could achieve (Nicole Copley, Teaching, University of the Sunshine Coast).

High-performing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students often do not go on to higher education

Neither Year 12 attainment nor high achievement during Years 7 to 12 guarantee a transition into higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ‘What is a natural and often assumed progression for many non-Indigenous students can still be a major barrier for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 22).

The 2010 Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students performing within the top brackets at school are not proportionately represented in university participation (cited in Aurora Project 2011b, p. 22). Only 39% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who scored in the highest reading quartile continued directly into tertiary study, compared to 65% of non-Indigenous students (Nguyen & NCVER 2010, p. 8, Table 7).

It may be that capable students are reluctant to show ambition beyond that which is expected by their peers. Many members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community have a cultural reluctance about ‘talking ourselves up’ (submission no. 36, CareerTrackers, p. 4).

The survey conducted by Hossain et al. revealed that even students in Years 11 or 12 who are consistently getting high marks consider leaving school early and securing menial employment (Hossain et al. 2008, p. 13).

Teachers often have low expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

The Panel found many teachers have low expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ academic skill and potential, which can affect how students are taught and the options they are presented, and may affect their aspirations to pursue higher education (Craven et al. 2005; Ferrari 2006, both cited in James et al. 2008, p. 48). For example, career advice given in schools is weighted to steer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into vocational education and training and university may not even be presented as an option.

Calma cites Dr Chris Sarra as arguing that ‘mainstream Australia has very negative perceptions’ of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, filtering down to those involved in the education system. ‘Some teachers have lower expectations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children based on the “complexity” of Indigenous young people and perceptions that Indigenous families “don’t value education”’ (Calma 2008, p. 46, note 172). This bias generates disproportionately negative outcomes for students who are not pushed as hard, given less attention and not given the support they need to aspire to and transition into higher education.

I got told by most of my teachers, ‘Look, you’re not going to be up to doing tertiary education, so probably best to leave now’ (Declan Scott, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

During the consultations the Panel also heard anecdotally that a lack of information on and understanding of pathways into higher education by teachers and career advisers means they often do not provide adequate information to students. A study by Craven et al. on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students’ aspirations relating to schooling and further education found the students who participated in the study were not getting accurate career information about educational pathways and prerequisites (Craven et al. 2005, p. 17).

University outreach programs do not always provide the support and information school students need

The study by Hossain et al. (2008, p. 19) suggests that university outreach activities do not always provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students with the level of intensive support they need, including adequate information on the financial and academic aspects and long-term economic benefits of undertaking higher education study. In this study, 43% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents reported an urgent need for economic information about, for example, the HECS-HELP system and the long-term benefits of higher education, and 40% noted a ‘substantial’ need for academic information like the importance of school-based grades and appropriate subject selection to entry into higher education.

These information gaps may in part reflect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ unfamiliarity about pathways to higher education, which has resulted from inadequate career counselling at school, the inability of families to provide advice if no member of the family has previously attended university, and the absence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander role models who have been to university (Craven et al. 2005; Lamb et al. 2004, p. 27; James and Devlin 2006; James et al. 2008, p. 49). Well-targeted university outreach programs can fill this gap.

Other factors that influence success at school

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, a key factor influencing their ability to succeed in the school system is that many are the first in their family to attend senior secondary school. This means they are less likely to have the knowledge, resources and potentially aspiration necessary for them to achieve their academic goals, including knowing what is expected of them and feeling a sense of belonging (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 23).

First generation senior secondary students (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or otherwise) are less likely to attend university and to complete their studies than the broader student population. One recent research study revealed that only 29% of students whose father left school by Year 10 attained university qualifications, compared to a 65% university graduation rate for students whose father went to university (Cassells et al. 2011, p. 15). These findings are consistent across the higher education sectors in other countries.32

I’m the first of 32 grandchildren to come to university (Jamilla Sekiou, Bachelor of Laws and Legal Practice, Flinders University).

What is being done to improve school achievement and transition to higher education?

Closing the Gap targets and National Partnership Agreements

In 2008, governments agreed to take action to close the gap in education outcomes between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students by:

  • halving the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in reading, writing and numeracy within a decade (2018)
  • halving the gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 20- to 24-year-olds in Year 12 or equivalent attainment rates by 2020
  • ensuring that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander 4-year-olds in remote communities have access to early childhood education within five years (by 2013).

These targets are being supported by government investments in National Partnership Agreements such as the Smarter Schools National Partnership Agreements (Low Socio-economic Status School Communities; Literacy and Numeracy)—which are focusing on the special needs of disadvantaged students and in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and investing $2.5 billion in the wider education system—and the $970 million National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education, funded over five financial years to June 2013.

The last Closing the Gap report delivered to the Commonwealth Parliament by Prime Minister Julia Gillard showed that progress has been made on two of the three education targets:

  • The gap in the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students at or above national minimum standards in reading, writing and numeracy at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 has decreased in seven out of the eight instances since 2008, with the only exception being Year 7 numeracy. There are eight gaps (four year levels across reading and numeracy) against which progress is measured. ‘Some falls in the gap have been quite large: Year 3 reading (6.6 percentage points), Year 3 numeracy (4.6 percentage points), Year 5 numeracy (4.5 percentage points), and Year 7 reading (4.9 percentage points)’. Others have been smaller: Year 9 numeracy (0.2 percentage points) and Year 9 reading (1.9 percentage points) (Australian Government 2012b, p. 19).
  • The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living in remote communities who were enrolled in a preschool program in the year before full-time schooling rose from 87% in 2009 to 90% in 2010. The Australian Government anticipates that more improvements will occur in 2011–12 and 2012–13 when the majority of funding from the Commonwealth under the National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education will be delivered (Australian Government 2012b, p. 18).

Progress since 2008 against the Closing the Gap Year 12 attainment target will not be available until the 2011 Census data is released (Australian Government 2012b, p. 22).

To help meet Closing the Gap targets, the government delivers and supports a number of targeted programs and initiatives that seek to build or reinforce the school and university-readiness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, such as the, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014

, the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program and several programs delivered by non-government providers. The government also delivers the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program that reaches out to low SES school students, some of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014

In May 2011, COAG endorsed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Action Plan 2010–2014. The purpose of the plan, developed by the Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs (MCEECDYA),33 is to help education providers to accelerate improvements in the educational outcomes of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people (MCEECDYA 2010).

The plan identifies national, systemic and local-level action in six priority areas that evidence shows will contribute to improved outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education:

  • readiness for school
  • engagement and connections
  • attendance
  • literacy and numeracy
  • leadership, quality teaching and workforce development
  • pathways to real post-school options.

Through Action 46 of the ‘pathways to real post-school options’ domain, all governments have committed to the development of a companion document to the plan that outlines actions to close the gap in training, university and employment outcomes and to provide links between the school sector and the training, tertiary education and employment services sectors. Through other actions, school education providers have committed to provide innovative and tailored learning opportunities, mentoring and case management strategies to increase the retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to Year 12. They have also committed to strengthen partnerships between schools, VET providers, universities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to broaden horizons and post-school options of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Indigenous Youth Leadership Program

The Indigenous Youth Leadership Program provides funding to support young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have a high potential for educational success, but are disadvantaged, to attend high-performing secondary schools (to complete Year 12) or universities (to undertake an undergraduate degree) ( DEEWR 2011i). As at October 2011, 523 of the 634 students participating in the program were secondary school students (unpublished departmental data). By targeting both Year 12 completions and university enrolments, the Indigenous Youth Leadership Program contributes to increasing the potential pool of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher education students (unpublished departmental data) ( DEEWR 2011k, p. 60).

Non-government programs

A number of non-government organisations work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students to support and mentor them through high school. Others work with teachers to improve the support they give to students. Some of the organisations that were drawn to the Panel’s attention throughout the consultations were the Stronger Smarter Institute, the Aurora Project, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience, the Yalari Foundation and the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

The Stronger Smarter Institute is a partnership between Education Queensland and Queensland University of Technology that aims to raise expectations of and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The institute delivers leadership programs for school leaders and works in partnership with governments, schools and universities engaged in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education to enhance the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students. It also develops and facilitates research projects.

The Stronger Smarter Leadership Program aims to support school and community leaders in their pursuit of educational excellence for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students by helping to enhance their leadership capacity and challenge their assumptions about school culture and practices.

The institute also administers the Australian Government–funded Focus School Next Steps initiative, which is designed to improve educational outcomes for more than 9,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 102 schools across Australia in the areas of attendance, engagement, literacy and numeracy.

The Aurora Project delivers education programs that focus on increasing opportunities and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and professionals through training, internships, placements, scholarships, professional development and other initiatives such as The Aspiration Initiative. The initiative works to increase opportunities and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, helping to ensure that they realise their potential at school, university and beyond.

The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) delivers programs that aim to give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students the skills, opportunities, belief and confidence to finish school at the same rate as their non-Indigenous peers. AIME operates from university campuses and runs a core program and an outreach program that deliver mentoring, tutoring and leadership and development programs to students in Years 9 to 12. AIME also connects students with post–Year 12 opportunities, including further education and employment.

The Yalari Foundation provides support and access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from rural and remote areas to attend high school and, in limited cases, university, by providing education scholarships for tuition and accommodation. Since its inception in 2006, Yalari has provided scholarships to around 180 students to attend boarding school.

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) provides boarding school and residential college scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in financial need to attend school and university. The AIEF currently supports around 230 secondary students in boarding schools in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

While there is anecdotal evidence of the success of these programs, the Panel is not aware of any independent evaluations of them (with the exception of Yalari), and suggests that such evaluations would be helpful to share examples of programs achieving success.

Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program

The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) was introduced by the Australian Government in 2010 to support the government’s ambition that 20% of domestic undergraduate students are from a low socio-economic status ( SES) background by 2020. The HEPPP provides funding to assist universities to undertake participation and partnership activities that improve access to undergraduate courses for students from low SES backgrounds, as well as improving the retention and completion rates for these students. The government has committed $736 million over four years from 2012 under the HEPPP. It does not specifically target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but given their high incidence of low SES they are likely to be major beneficiaries of this program (in 2006, 47.9% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians lived in low SES areas compared to 17.1% of non-Indigenous Australians ( ABS 2008b)).

The ‘Participation’ component of the HEPPP provides a financial incentive to universities to increase the participation of domestic students from low SES backgrounds in accredited undergraduate courses, and support the retention and success of those students. Participation activities run by a university might include aspiration and capacity building, mentoring, peer support, tutoring, scholarships, transition programs and modifications to teaching delivery and learning methods to better meet the needs of students from low SES backgrounds.

The ‘Partnerships’ component of the HEPPP provides funding to universities to develop outreach activities in partnership with primary and secondary schools, VET providers, other universities, state and territory governments, community groups, and other stakeholders to raise the aspirations and build the capacity of people from low SES backgrounds to participate in higher education.

The Panel notes in the 2012–13 Budget the Australian Government announced it would reform the HEPPP by reducing funding for the participation component by $68.2 million over four years from 1 January 2013, resulting in a fall in the average annual funding rate per student from $1,800 to $1,400 but locking in $1,400 per student so that as low SES numbers grow, so will funding to universities. The government will also increase the funding available through the partnerships component of the HEPPP by $50 million over four years to support innovative approaches to help disadvantaged students aspire to and complete a university qualification, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

In the 2012–13 Budget the government also announced it will increase loading funding for enabling courses (discussed in section 1.3), which will support disadvantaged students once they reach university. Together these budget changes will produce a net increase of relevant equity funding of over $23 million, and support growth in participation and enabling loading funding into the future.

What are universities doing?

Research conducted by Dr Wendy Brady shows that the majority of universities undertake some form of outreach activity to help unlock capacity at the school level and increase their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student intake (Brady 2012, p. 15), with varying levels of success. These outreach activities can take the form of recruitment drives, mentoring programs, career expos, transition days, school visits, attendance at community events, and the general marketing of the university to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Their purpose is to build students’ understanding of the opportunities afforded by, and the nature of, university study—both to inspire students and equip them with the capacity to succeed.

What needs to change?

It is clear to the Panel that the combination of low retention, low academic achievement and low attainment in schools is producing a much lower proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students than non-Indigenous students leaving high school with the capacity to get into and succeed at university. This point was a recurring theme throughout the consultation process.34

The low numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students completing Year 12 with the knowledge and skill levels required for university entrance presents a major barrier to increasing the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and staff in higher education.

Universities need to build strong relationships with schools and work closely with them to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander retention, academic achievement, Year 12 completion and transition to university by:

  • increasing efforts to build students’ skills in key areas like mathematics and science, academic achievement and aspiration to go to university, beginning at least with students in Year 7 (the earlier the better), through outreach activities and intensive support in the form of case management, mentoring, outreach and academic enrichment programs, while still putting resources toward:
  • building family and community support for higher education
  • building peer networks that support academic participation
  • ensuring that students have the information they need about higher education like the importance of school subject selection and grades; immediate costs associated with study for books, travel and accommodation; what to expect in terms of classes, lectures and study; and support available through HECS-HELP, scholarships, subsidies and Indigenous Education Units
  • improving teacher quality and education by ensuring that teachers graduate with the qualifications, training and cultural competence to promote excellence and encourage ongoing study.

Universities and schools should also consider working in partnership with non-government organisations that deliver support programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and are achieving good results. The Panel notes some schools and universities are already doing this by working with organisations such as the Smith Family, the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience and the Stronger Smarter Institute.

Improve university outreach

During university consultations the majority of younger students interviewed indicated the main reason they ended up in university was because of one or more positive experiences with a university while they were still at school—through a school-based camp, a university visit, or a particular individual. The main impact of those positive experiences was that they were introduced to advantages of participating in university and gained a stronger understanding of what would be expected of them.

I came to uni through Shenton House at University of Western Australia; they have an outreach program (Cameron Howard, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

They [Shenton House at University of Western Australia] were the first people to say, ‘You can do this’, and that’s what I wanted to do but I just never even considered that it would have ever been a possibility for me (Billy Kickett Morris, Medicine, University of Western Australia).

A high number of submissions noted the importance of university outreach activities like preparatory courses, bridging programs, information sessions, residential programs such as science and mathematics camps in Years 7 and 8, parent and community engagement and mentoring support programs35that raise aspirations, provide important information, build key skills, support academic achievement and encourage peer networks for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Universities fund some of their outreach activities to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school students through the HEPPP, which the Panel found is generally considered to be a good program.

The Commonwealth Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) provides an excellent opportunity to connect efforts in the schools, vocational and university sectors to lift the achievement of Aboriginal students in higher education ... (submission no. 71, NSW Government, p. 6).

The Panel heard anecdotally that some universities are using HEPPP funding for marketing activities to recruit students to their university or to particular courses run by their university rather than to encourage participation in higher education more broadly. The Panel believes that the individual university marketing budgets should be used for that purpose.

Building aspiration

The Panel heard that building aspirations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of all ages is vital:

in school children in order to ensure progression and retention to secondary and post-secondary levels, and in parents and elder family members in order to provide adequate support networks for the students (submission no. 22, Swinburne University of Technology, p. 3).

Aspiring, while still at high school, to participate and succeed in higher education is a key factor in a student’s decision to attend university once they finish Year 12. Anderson argues ‘aspiration building requires some form of university presence in the lives of Indigenous students who are considering options about post-secondary pathways’ (2011, p. 27). Universities can encourage aspiration in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through outreach activities that build skill sets, encourage learning, build cohorts, provide mentoring and show students, their families and communities where an education can take them.

Outreach activities need to begin as early as possible

Sector consultations suggested that outreach activities are most commonly aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Year 9–12 students from local high schools36 when dropout rates are increasing and large numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students have already made the decision to leave school for work, VET study or unemployment.

The Panel believes it is vital that universities start their outreach activities with students no later than Year 7 and earlier where possible.

The national literacy and numeracy rates show that by Year 7, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are behind non-Indigenous students on literacy and mathematics competency (NAP 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011). School retention rates37 after Year 10 drop significantly to around 48.7% ( ABS 2012b, National School Statistics Collection Table 64a). If universities do not start their outreach with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in primary and early secondary schools it may be too late to support their academic achievement.

[T]here is a growing recognition in the sector that to increase overall access rates there needs to be more work done by universities to increase the aspiration to go to university amongst junior-middle secondary schools (submission no. 31, National Union of Students, p. 2).

Gale et al. (2010, p. 33) cite Heckman and Rubinstein (2001, p. 148) as noting that ‘the best “pay‐offs” for investment in education are those in which academic and aspirational support for students begins as early as possible and is continued for as long as possible’.

Building on existing efforts

The University of New South Wales ASPIRE program aims to build capacity across New South Wales at student, school and community levels to encourage more students from low SES backgrounds, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, to progress to university. The comprehensive program works with students from Kindergarten to Year 12 to create an awareness of higher education, raise student aspirations, support academic achievement and help students to realise their full potential. It is delivered through age-appropriate in-school and on-campus activities and supported by additional elements such as mentoring and tutoring. The University of New South Wales ASPIRE program is funded through the HEPPP.

Early indications are that the program is achieving positive outcomes, including changing the attitudes of students who previously had negative attitudes to higher education and increasing the numbers of university offers for partner schools. Schools who have a high level of engagement with ASPIRE have shown an 85% increase in the numbers of offers to university from 2009 to 2011, compared with a 24% increase for schools with a low level of engagement with ASPIRE.38 In its next phase the ASPIRE program will focus on increasing the numbers of partner schools, working with teachers on professional development, embedding aspirational activities in school curriculums and building linkages with community organisations. An Indigenous ASPIRE project officer has also been recruited to work specifically with ASPIRE Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and communities.

Support for Years 10 to 12 should focus on supporting a successful transition to university

While the Panel believes that junior and early secondary school years are the formative years in which outreach programs are most important, it is also necessary to support students in Years 10 to 12 to ensure that they continue on the path to Year 12 and on to university. Mentoring, pathway support and case management are vital in these years to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students overcome any barriers to completing Year 12 and successfully transition to university. The Panel found that a mentor and case management support can mean the difference between an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student staying at school and dropping out of school before reaching Year 12.39

Building on existing efforts

A number of universities, including the University of Sydney, have formed partnerships with the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME). AIME operates on campus to provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander high school students in Years 9 to 12 with mentors who are at university. The mentors provide literacy and numeracy support, homework and assessment support, and help students to build self-confidence.

Innovative programs such as the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME), which brings university students into direct contact with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and which the University has long been associated with, are highly valuable (submission no. 33, University of Sydney, p. 7).

Building key skills and peer networks

It is important that outreach activities help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to build the skills they will need to complete Year 12, successfully transition to university, and enrol in courses in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are underrepresented.

With a significant gap in results between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students in key competencies such as mathematics, science and English (Thomson & De Bortoli 2008, p. vii; James et al. 2008, pp. 47–8; SCRGSP 2011a, pp. 16, 34), the Panel believes that building skills in these areas needs to be a focus for university outreach programs. Not only will they help students to successfully complete Year 12, but they can also give students better opportunities to pursue the degree of their choice at university.

[T]here is an urgent need to improve Indigenous school students’ exposure to and performance in mathematics. Low performance in this crucial enabling discipline excludes too many Indigenous students from university study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, and in Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science (submission no. 16, Group of Eight, p. 13).

The government announced a science and mathematics package in the 2012–13 Budget in response to the Chief Scientist’s Mathematics, Engineering and Science in the National Interest report. The $54 million package is designed to encourage school students to take up mathematics and science through special programs, scholarships and partnerships with universities, and to improve the number, quality and training of teachers in mathematics and science. The Panel hopes to see better student engagement with mathematics and science at school as a result of this investment.

Another way of encouraging mathematics and science take-up that has proved successful is through peer networks, which can encourage aspiration and academic excellence through peer-to-peer encouragement and support. Peer networks have been found to be effective (Pechenkina & Anderson 2011, pp. 17–18) in overcoming a number of barriers to education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, including the absence of readily accessible personal family assistance experienced by many first generation senior secondary students.

Research in the United States also indicates that students are four times more likely to enrol in university if their friends do (Choy 2002, p. 16), suggesting further benefits that could emerge from creating a strong cohort of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who can support each other throughout school (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 24).

Building on existing efforts

The University of Western Australia’s School of Indigenous Studies runs an annual Indigenous Science and Engineering Camp for students in Years 9 and 10. The camp is designed to encourage students to study science and mathematics through to Year 12 and to progress into university studies in the areas of science, engineering and technology. Twenty-five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attend the camp each year, with a majority coming from regional areas of Western Australia.

The camp involves cultural ‘science’ excursions, hands-on experiences in science and engineering faculties on campus, information on science career options for students and parents, and interaction with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander science and engineering graduates and current students. A follow-up program of contact and engagement is provided in Years 11 and 12, as part of the School of Indigenous Studies residential study and careers seminars.

The camp and follow-up program ensure that the younger participants have the supervisors and role models they need to encourage them to do science and mathematics and the older participants have a group of peers they can share information and experiences with.

The university is seeing an increase in science enrolments, as the first cohort from the Indigenous Science and Engineering Camp program enter university.

Better information and education for school students and their families

Many submissions noted the need for outreach activities to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities to understand the value of university education and build wider expectations for their children to go on to tertiary education after high school.40

Programs aimed with a particular focus on families and communities can be used to develop the expectation that tertiary education will be pursued after high school. Universities should form relationships with Indigenous communities and families to engage and encourage tertiary education throughout primary school, where these relationships can provide a supportive environment for enrolment after high school (submission no. 47, Curtin Student Guild, p. 3).

The need for better information is more fully explored in section 1.4.

Universities should form partnerships to deliver successful outreach programs

The Panel found many universities that are delivering successful outreach programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are doing so in close partnership with schools, government, communities, non-government organisations and other universities.41 A collaborative approach to outreach means universities can reach more students and ensures that the key people and organisations whose involvement is necessary to make them successful are engaged.

Through building on partnerships between key stakeholders, including schools, higher education providers, business and industry, parent and family groups, government and community groups; individual capacity to engage with higher education would increase, supporting Aboriginal people to make informed choices about [their] education ... options (submission no. 58, WA Government, p. 3).

The Panel also found the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program is supporting partnerships between universities and other groups by providing tangible financial incentives for the secondary and tertiary sectors to develop these collaborative arrangements (submission no. 75, Charles Darwin University, p. 7).

Building on existing efforts

Eight universities in Queensland42 and the Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment are collaborating in a statewide effort to stimulate interest in higher education and widen participation by people from low-income and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

The aim of the collaboration is to increase schooling, higher education and employment outcomes for these target groups. It comprises six projects being run over four years that focus on community engagement. It builds on existing capacity in the Indigenous Education Units in the eight universities, with each unit seeking to respond to local needs through targeted activities like university outreach to students, parents and communities, learning support to improve school retention and build aspirations for higher education, career advice, mentoring, homework centres and social networking.

High-achieving students need to be supported, as well as those at risk

Different views came out of the consultations on how to best build the pool of university-ready Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. One approach put forward by the Aurora Project is to move beyond raising basic levels of literacy and numeracy and instead focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students who are performing at or above the national average in the early years of high school (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 34). This approach is designed to make sure that gifted students with academic potential receive the support they need, and increases their chance of success. The Prep for Prep (New York) case study examined by the Aurora Project is an example of this; it focuses on bright students from African American, Latino and Asian backgrounds and places a selected few in the best boarding and independent schools in the city of New York (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 26).

A different approach is to focus on raising academic standards across the board. In an address to the Panel’s Key Thinkers Forum, Dr Chris Sarra spoke of the need to develop a ‘high expectations’ relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This approach, promoted by the Stronger Smarter Institute, encourages the academic excellence of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students and tries to instil this attitude in all teachers, career counsellors, and education administrators. This approach has the potential to create a much larger pool of university-ready Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. It also requires significantly more resources and is less likely to achieve individual success at the same rate as the higher-achievers approach. An example of this approach from the United States is the Upward Bound program, which is funded federally and supports over 42,000 first generation and low-income students at 700 locations across the country (Aurora Project 2011b, p. 30).

The Australian Government has tended to focus on raising the educational outcomes of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. However, the Panel considers that both approaches—supporting talented students to achieve their potential and raising the academic standards of all students—are essential to improving access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Universities should support both approaches where possible.

Improve the education of teachers

Teacher quality is a key enabling factor in improving student learning outcomes. As the sector primarily responsible for training the next generation of teachers, the higher education sector has an important role to play in ensuring that new teachers graduate with an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and a commitment to growing the aspirations, skills and academic achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

The Panel notes that from 2013 all states and territories will be using a nationally consistent approach to standards and strategies for teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, based on the National Professional Standards for Teachers. To ensure that graduate teachers meet these standards, universities mandate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education subjects in their curriculum and ensure that students who pass their teacher education course meet the competencies of the graduate standard, which includes demonstrating broad knowledge and understanding of the impact of culture, cultural identity and linguistic background on the education of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

However, while the National Professional Standards for Teachers are implicit in university teacher education curriculum development, they do not impose how such standards are to be met within a given curriculum—universities are autonomous in teacher education curriculum design. This explains why different universities produce graduates with varying levels of teacher quality, and highlights the need for teacher attributes to be improved. The national accreditation of initial teacher education programs comes into effect from 2013 and will address issues of teacher quality and preparedness. Teacher quality and capacity will be addressed later in the report under Improving secondary school teacher attributes in section 4.1.

Building on existing efforts

Macquarie University has introduced in 2012 a Master of Indigenous Education degree, which is designed to provide students with knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education perspectives and policies, practices and issues relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.

Te Kotahitanga is a research and professional development program run by the University of Waikato’s School of Education in partnership with the Pounamu Education Research and Development Centre in New Zealand (Te Kete Ipurangi n.d.). Te Kotahitanga supports teachers to improve Mâori students’ learning and achievement, teaching them to create a culturally responsive environment for learning which responds to student performance and understandings. The program includes an Effective Teaching Profile as part of a teacher’s professional development, underpinned by two major principles: the teacher understands the need to reject explicitly negative explanations for Mâori students’ achievement, and accepts responsibility for the learning of all their students. The program is operating in 49 secondary schools in New Zealand, reaching approximately 2,000 teachers.

In Australia, the Stronger Smarter Institute, in partnership with the Queensland University of Technology, is working to build the capacity of teachers and principals already in the field through professional development. The Stronger Smarter Leadership Program is aimed at challenging their assumptions about school culture and practices and enhancing the leadership capacity of teachers and principals to achieve cultural change at the school level. The program also teaches teachers and principals to have a ‘high expectations’ relationship with their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Since it began in 2006, a total of 829 school leaders from 254 schools have completed the institute’s core leadership program.

Recommendations

Recommendation 4

That the Australian Government work with state and territory education departments to ensure that career advisers and teachers:

  • encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to consider higher education as a post-school option
  • have access to professional development that increases their capacity to teach and advise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

Recommendation 5

That the Australian Government revise the guidelines for the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) to:

  • refocus the emphasis of projects that are aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people to a greater extent on:
  • developing academic skills, especially in mathematics and sciences, in primary and early secondary schools, while still also giving some priority to:
  • building aspiration to go to university
  • building Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peer and family networks to encourage higher education as a shared goal
  • providing students in Years 10 to 12 with mentoring, pathway support and case management and academic enrichment
  • providing relevant information to students in Years 10 to 12, their families and communities about the transition to university for graduating secondary students
  • clarify that HEPPP funding should be targeted at generic promotion of higher education rather than promotion of universities’ individual courses.

30 The apparent retention rate is the percentage of full-time students who continued to Year 12 from respective cohort groups at the commencement of their secondary schooling (Year 7/8).

31 While the overall proportion of school students who were Indigenous increased from 3.5% in 2001 to 4.2% in 2006, this increase is in part due to changes in population demographics and has had no apparent influence on the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education (James et al. 2008, p. 44).

32 In Canada, 70% of students who had one parent with a university education went on to attend university themselves. In contrast, among students who did not have a parent with a college degree, only 30% enrolled in university (Thomas & Quinn 2007, p. 39, cited in Aurora Project 2011b, p. 23). The same Thomas and Quinn study showed that in Germany students were more likely to enrol in university if their father had been to university (55% compared to 9% of students whose father had not completed school) (p. 35, cited in Aurora Project, p. 24). Moreover, in a small study conducted in the United Kingdom in 2005, 77% of first generation students dropped out of their university degree in the first year, with 40% leaving during the first semester (cited in Thomas & Quinn 2007, p. 83, cited in Aurora Project, p. 24). In another study by Chen and Carroll, it was found that in the United States, 68% of students whose mother or father had a bachelor’s degree also completed university studies. By comparison, the percentage was only 24% for students whose parents did not have a degree (Chen & Carroll 2005, p. 6, cited in Aurora Project 2011b, p. 24).

33 MCEECDYA is now the COAG Standing Council on School Education and Early Childhood (SCSEEC).

34 For example, submissions from Anthony Linden Jones (no. 1); Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (no. 6); Group of Eight (no. 16); Government of South Australia – Department of Further Education, Employment, Science and Technology (no. 17); La Trobe University (no. 20); Swinburne University of Technology (no. 24); Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc. (no. 38); Janine Oldfield (no. 4); Government of New South Wales – Department of Education and Communities (no. 71).

35 For example, submissions from the University of Western Australia (no. 61); Charles Darwin University (no. 75); University of Queensland (no. 42); Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (no. 6); Victoria University (no. 11); James Cook University – School of Education (no. 14); Group of Eight (no. 16); National Union of Students (no. 31); Curtin University (no. 49); CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program (no. 36); Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Inc. (no. 38); Indigenous Lawyers Association of Queensland (no. 52); Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand Inc. (no. 25).

36 For example, programs run by the Australian National University, RMIT University, the University of Melbourne, Charles Darwin University, and the University of Queensland.

37 Based on 2011 apparent retention rates.

38 Statistics provided by University of New South Wales.

39 Submission no. 6, Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience.

40 For example, submissions by Anthony Linden Jones (no. 1); Victoria University (no. 11); Group of Eight (no. 16); Australian Catholic University (no. 37); Charles Darwin University (no. 75); University of Queensland (no. 42); Janine Oldfield (no. 4); Curtin University – Curtin Student Guild (no. 47).

41 For example, consortium of eight Queensland universities and the Queensland Department of Education, Training and Employment’s Schools Outreach and Indigenous Engagement projects (led by the Queensland University of Technology and funded by the Australian Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program); University of South Australia’s collaboration with community, business and government to support the Aboriginal Power Cup.

42 Australian Catholic University, CQUniversity, Griffith University, James Cook University, Queensland University of Technology, the University of Queensland, the University of Southern Queensland and the University of the Sunshine Coast (the consortium is led by the Queensland University of Technology and funded by the Australian Government’s Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program).