The high point of NAIDOC week was when the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt made the overdue commitment to convene a referendum to give Australia’s Indigenous people constitutional recognition. The Minister asked us to walk in partnership to effect change.
This might be the way forward for further education in Alice Springs given the challenges facing Charles Darwin University and Batchelor Institute, which have been well documented in the Alice Springs News.
Nationally there were only 30,000 Aboriginal people with a university degree in 2014. That figure in 2010 was 25,000 and in 2006 it was 20,000 up from 3,600 in 1991.
So there is a slow growth trend, but generally universities have underperformed against their obligations to Aboriginal people.
There were 15,585 Aboriginal students enrolled in universities in 2015, which only represented 1.6% of domestic enrolments.
Enrolments have been low, attrition rates high and Indigenous staff remain few.
In the last decade there have been some improvements. Participation rates are tracking upwards.
Albeit fragmented, individual universities are steadily implementing internal policies to lift participation and attainment by Indigenous people, and are taking steps to make the university environment more welcoming.
ILLUSTRATIONS from Batchelor Institute graduation ceremonies in Alice Springs.
So why don’t more Aboriginal people go to university? The answer is complex.
A 2017 study by the University of Newcastle found that high-achieving Aboriginal children are less likely to want to go to university.
While 72% of non-Aboriginal students in the top NAPLAN quartile aspired to go to university, only 43% of Aboriginal students in the same quartile said they wanted to attend.
On top of the challenges every young person faces when entering university, such as costs, there are some which are unique to Aboriginal students.
Connection to land is a significant issue. While the majority of Aboriginal children live in major cities and regional areas, those who do live in remote communities are often reluctant to leave because connection to land is very important and they are deeply committed to their family and community.
Other barriers include fear of being a minority and risk of exposure to racism and discrimination and also learned low expectations because many Australians carry the myth that Aboriginal students achieve less, or fail.
Some call it an “aspirational impediment” which makes students believe they couldn’t get into the best universities in Australia, but the reality is they can and they succeed.
Entering university, or in some cases even secondary school, is often a first experience for the families of Aboriginal students.
This means there is limited family or community experience to guide them, which can make the prospect of going to university very daunting. Distrust in government institutions still lingers.
Immediate work is often seen as more rewarding. When Aboriginal students have to decide whether to go to university, immediate paid work, or studying at TAFE, might appear more appealing, especially if available locally.
At the other end Universities Australia (UA) is trying to address these issues and has set an Indigenous strategy that aims to maintain growth rates for student enrolment that are at least 50% above the growth rate of non-Indigenous student enrolment, and ideally 100% above. UA is also aiming for retention and success rates equal to those of domestic non-Indigenous students in the same fields of study by 2025.
Among other targets UA aims to achieve equal completion rates by field of study by 2028 and wants to take a community leadership role in promoting Indigenous higher education and building opportunities for wider community engagement.
These aspirations are commendable and few would disagree with them, but the strategy does not include the concept of developing a new dedicated First Nations university.
So what evidence exists to support having a First Nations university? What model should be followed? Where has it been done well?
It is open to students of all cultures and nationalities and is not restricted to those of First Nations descent. It now maintains an average annual enrolment of over 3000.
Closer to home in New Zealand, Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi was established in 1991 and is one of only three institutions designated as Wānanga (Maori university) under the 1989 Education Act.
This was an important step that recognised the role of education in providing positive pathways for Māori development.
Since that time the institution has offered a range of qualifications, from community education programmes, Certificates and Diplomas to Bachelor, Master and Doctoral degrees. It provides educational opportunities to all Māori, New Zealanders and Indigenous students.
A 2014 report by the NZ Ministry of Education on outcomes of tertiary education for Māori graduates found that the earnings premium for Māori who completed tertiary qualifications was greater than for non-Māori.
Māori bachelors degree graduates were more likely to be in employment five years after study in the fields of economics and econometrics, earth sciences, chemical sciences, rehabilitation therapies, philosophy and religious studies and nursing.
The first year out of study employment rates were reasonably similar between ethnic groups after completing qualifications at higher levels, but Māori were less likely to be in employment than non-Māori after completing qualifications at lower levels.
However, Māori were more likely than non-Māori to be on a government benefit after completing lower level qualifications.
Universities New Zealand claims steady growth in Māori achievement in universities, increasingly at higher levels of qualifications who now represent 12% of all domestic university students.
Of the 16,705 Māori students 10,615 were females (64%) and 6,090 were males (36%) – an increase of 19% from 2008.
Māori doctorate students have increased by 26% since 2008 and earn more than non-Māori graduates five years after study. Almost half (48%) of recent Māori university graduates were the first in their families to attend university, one third are parents and 70% are female.
We should recognise what Australian universities have done and are already doing. Indigenous Higher Education Units (IHEUs) are located in 42 universities around Australia.
This includes the Australian Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Education at Charles Darwin University and the Tjabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre at the Australian National University.
These units provide an Indigenous presence on all Australian university campuses to support students and have created a network of academics.
This is a good start based on good intentions, but is scattered and fragmented. Given the Maori experience we need a designated Indigenous campus which will make a significant difference to the tertiary educational aspirations of Aboriginal Australians.
One of its first tasks could be to explore the feasibility and sustainability of a First Nations university in partnership with Indigenous people and the university sector.
Given that 65% of all Indigenous Australians are under 30 years of age, this could make enormous difference by investing in their futures.
Such a study should consider if Charles Darwin University and Batchelor Institute could be merged to create a critical mass of students and a more viable institution.
In a response to the Commonwealth Government’s Review of the Higher Education Provider Category Standards Discussion Paper Batchelor Institute explained the current restrictions on establishing an internationally relevant First Nations university (of specialisation) in Australia.
The options are to transition Batchelor Institute into such a university, or the creation of a new university, which Batchelor describes will be a “nationally defining challenge and opportunity for Indigenous education and Indigenous sovereignty within Australia. We argue that a specialist theme of ‘Indigenous / First Nations education and training’ is sufficiently strong and relevant, and of significant international and national importance, to be considered a specialisation”.
Over and above the political challenges, the regulatory process to create a new university is technical and rigid.
A challenge for emerging specialist providers is to overcome a lack of overt mentoring mechanisms available to new players in the market.
Academic and corporate governance mentoring relationships with established universities would be essential in achieving targeted, specialist growth and greater diversity among higher education providers and university providers.
If the regulatory hurdles can be overcome a First Nations university would be the place where the educational and employment aspirations of Indigenous Australians are paramount.
It would be the national home for a dedicated research function for leading academics in indigenous culture and history.
A First Nations University would be an important symbol, but that is not enough. It must produce high quality employment ready students and also be an internationally respected hub for Indigenous research.
In his National Press Club address last week Minister Wyatt said: “We must never forget the significance of symbolism, but it must be balanced with pragmatism that results in change for Indigenous Australians.”
Mark J Smith is the grandson of Father Percy Smith (1903-82) who was the first resident Anglican priest based in Alice Springs from 1933 and with his wife Isabel founded St Francis’ House, a home for Aboriginal children. Mark holds an honours degree in history and politics from the University of Adelaide.