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Growth in Indigenous tertiary education enrolments, however graduation gap remains

Declan Brennan -

A new report by Universities Australia has highlighted strong growth in Indigenous enrolments but has laid bare the difficulties faced by First Nations university students in graduating. 

Despite an increase of 127 per cent in bachelor’s degree completion numbers, the latest figures show an overall completion rate for students sitting at 50 per cent. This is significantly lower than the rate for non-Indigenous students (71.1 per cent.) 

Tamara Murdock from the Aurora Education Foundation said that there are both positives and negatives to the new numbers.  

“It is a great thing that enrolments for First Nations students are up,” she told National Indigenous Times. 

“It is not a new thing (the gap) between enrolment and completion. However, the new enrolment numbers are making the gap between them more visible.” 

There are several issues that present for First Nations students that make graduation a more difficult prospect.

The report by Universities Australia highlighted some of these:

“…Indigenous cultural competency training is still largely driven by non-Indigenous people through white racial frames that inform how and what they seek to know about Indigenous people.”

“Approximately a third of universities either currently acknowledge and adjust the workload to accommodate the cultural burden on Indigenous peoples within their institutions, or they are actively developing mechanisms to address this matter.”

Current ACU student and proud Ngunnawal woman, Tyahn Bell, who was recently awarded an Indigenous scholarship in partnership with both the Australian Catholic University and the Australian embassy to the Holy See, said that issues for Aboriginal students are numerous, and can come from the way universities have been designed. 

“I believe Uni as a whole is from a white society perspective,” she said. 

“When I go home like I've got to, you know, do my assignments and stuff. But then there's other stuff which I'm like ‘my friends who aren’t First Nations they wouldn't have to worry about this.’ There’s a lot of stress.”

Proud Ngunnawal woman and scholarship recipient Tyahn Bell. (Image: Jo Excel Rinon/ACU)

Various universities who spoke to the National Indigenous Times said they had implemented programmes to better help First Nations people during their enrolment. 

Professor Maree Meredith, Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Leadership at the University of Canberra, said “We need clear plans to support students not just to enrol at university, but to excel at university and then to find their feet in the workforce after graduation.”

“The University is developing new strategies to address these issues and we recognise that we need to create new approaches to deliver the changes that we want to see in Indigenous student participation.”

When addressing the National Press Club last week, Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, said that Aboriginal people were more likely to have “experienced homelessness than to hold an undergraduate degree.

In her view, this constituted a “systemic and structural disadvantage.”

Ms Bell noted since moving to a smaller university, she has become “more than a number” and feels more valued.

Coming from the small town of Yass in New South Wales, her experience of the challenges in adjusting to a large city mirror many - both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – who come from regional areas to study. 

The Universities Australia report stated graduation outcomes were more positive for First Nations people, both in employment and wages. 

Ms Bell at the end of the day, she hopes the enrolment numbers will transfer into graduation success. 

“Our ancestors have paved our way and we were created for success!" she said. 

“I want to highlight to all mob that University can be challenging and it's okay to feel like it is there is no shame in that, but always remember who has paved our pathways and who has walked them before.

“I could be many things which is deadly but the one thing I am most proud of being a Ngunnawal woman.”



















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