Challenges and constraints for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students


Defining success

'Success' can be defined in both individual and collective terms, and in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people making a successful transition into higher education, family and community are vital. The key point made is that success does not end at the transition of one student, but rather, the changing of patterns of opportunity as more Indigenous students transition successfully thus creating a critical mass.

A senior manager in a leading practice IEU defined success in clear and bold terms:

Completion is essential. There should be no exception other than people's choices for personal reasons, to perhaps do something else. It should not be because of barriers or failure of support. If students have an aptitude to learn, even if they have not achieved a suitable ATAR, they can still complete university studies with proper support that is currently available.

A number of respondents raised the idea that success can also include failure. The point was made that success does not necessarily mean passing all units in the first year and can be about 'sticking with it' even when a student initially fails units of work. A senior Indigenous education policy maker identified the need to set Indigenous terms of reference for what constitutes success:

We need to identify the key success factors for transition to higher education. We need to define our own interpretations of what constitutes a successful transition to higher education. Numbers through or completions met does not always constitute a successful transition or a good experience.

Financial constraints

The financial constraints for students in choosing to invest in a university education are significant. Almost all respondents raised financial constraints as one of, if not the most significant factor impacting on the ability for Indigenous students to continue in higher education. As one respondent stressed, "the key constraint would have to be financial difficulties that students face and issues of accommodation and scholarship support". Financial stresses include things other than just the direct costs of studying, for example: childcare; public transport; running a car; and accommodation.

Students often begin with a single focus and without complete knowledge of support mechanisms and expectations. When fractures start to occur, students may well find that they could have chosen different pathways and alleviated impacts of costs associated with their study. Mature age students have pressures of family and finances, and also if they are at university, they are likely to be leaders within their communities and hold significant responsibilities. Jobs come up and with family financial pressures it is hard for students not to take a job, even if for a while.

Complexity of Programs is also an issue. ABSTUDY and other programs have become so complicated that this has led to some students amassing huge debts. They don't realise that, when they drop a unit and if they don't tell ABSTUDY, they are still accumulating debt, or they may pull out but not let the university know and so end up accumulating large Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) debts. They may even accumulate university penalties just by not being able to negotiate the system. This can be very problematic for many young students.

Subjugating Indigenous Knowledges and Indigenous Education Centres (IEUs) in a silo culture

Siloing of Indigenous centres can lead to the kind of marginalisation and separateness that some centres have been accused of fostering, and many feel that they have become. It can be that universities unwittingly sideline Indigenous Knowledges and mechanisms by ingrained latent paternalism, or by not wishing to seem uninformed, or asking how best to collaborate.

Common and well-known misconceptions of Indigenous enabling centres include the notion that they keep students from participating in mainstream university life; cost too much for the outcomes they produce; and do not generate successful outcomes for Indigenous students. The view is that they were once but are no longer necessary and indeed are part of the problem by babying or hindering Indigenous students.

However, the overwhelming reality is that Indigenous student support centres have played a significant role in achieving the numbers of Indigenous students attending university since the 1980s and their continuing role in attracting and supporting Indigenous students remains crucially important. Yet these centres are often overworked and under-resourced, with many respondents working in these centres relating that Indigenous aspects of community, culture and Indigenous Knowledges are not generally respected by the wider university.

Monitoring and evaluating student progress

Many students do not receive targeted support with assessments and nor is there an awareness of their needs early in their career. They are therefore placed on the back foot from the beginning, and students studying online or in remote locations especially experience these things. Alert systems that trigger supports are varied. Some provide individualised learning support from enrolment while others trigger communication to support services when a student doesn't respond or fails to submit work, or after they have failed when debts are incurred.

Expectations upon Indigenous students

Indigenous students are invariably 'identified' across a range of units, by choice or by awareness by lecturers and administrators. This can lead to unrealistic expectations: to know all things about Aboriginal issues relating to a discipline; to be involved in all and any community based actions tied to the campus; and to be providing advice, time and effort to a range of university activities relating to Indigenous themes. The burden of always performing and the increased pressures on small numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students was noted as a significant issue. One young male student studying in a remote location remarked that:

. . .sometimes I feel under pressure to do well in university just because I am one of the few Indigenous people my age that have the potential to do it. It can be a great motivator but sometimes it feels like there is a weight on my shoulders and that there is too much pressure on me to succeed.

For many students, a combination of many factors affect the success or otherwise of their transition into higher education. There are the common pressures of supporting other family members or younger children, either directly or through sharing of caring responsibilities that Indigenous students often carry. Crisis in families and the poverty in communities, ill-health and deaths in extended families, can also result in students "getting sucked out of university", as one respondent put it. There is a need to consider these common constraints as the following observations demonstrate.

The difficulties associated with money, safe affordable housing, and family attitudes towards education, are important factors contributing to student success, or otherwise, especially if there is no prior experience of a family member having had a university education. One respondent has observed that:

. . .students get homesick they miss their family and their family doesn't always understand that they need to go away to get an education, especially for families in remote locations and low socioeconomic status (SES). The families say they are being selfish by being away from them. There is not enough being done to engage Indigenous students in remote locations. Students in very isolated areas have no concept of what a university education is. The focus is too much on the urban kids.

A senior educator engaged in developing pathways for Aboriginal students from secondary school to higher education stated:

There needs to be good education and information for families and communities so people know what the value of education is and what it will do for families, community and for themselves. If people feel it is just about them and family feel that way, they'll not have the support they need. Employment outcomes are also important, and people being able to work back in their communities. People need to see the positive benefits on personal and community levels. The responsibility for educating our young people needs to be seen as a cultural responsibility. If community can see how it ties back in to supporting culture they'll see the value of it and support students in their studies.

Beyond impacts of resources and circumstances of significant personal hardship, a leading national Indigenous educator cited the need to act from a base of family and community partnerships from an early age:

It is a big job getting families and parents to see the value of higher education and we need to move beyond that resistance to Western frameworks and knowledge that can be valuable and separate it from past policies that were not about enabling but about controlling. There is a lack of resources for institutions to support Indigenous students. There is a lack of resources for individuals and family members to support their children. It also comes down to how an institution works to target and support Indigenous students. At times there can be scholarships and sponsorships, but these are small contributions. What can be done that focuses on student skills and the whole person, so that investment in people is seen as a worthwhile investment, in their abilities?

Lack of cultural competency among university staff members

Indigenous students experience the outcomes of the 'deficit' model of low expectations, racism and also assumed assimilation or lack of cultural legitimacy for being at university. A general lack of cultural competency for staff members and students was reported. Indigenous support centres have to re-invent the wheel too often due to lack of good policy up-take, changing staff and a general lack of engagement with identified issues including governance, transitions and mentoring.

The lack of cultural competency of professional and academic staff members can lead to students feeling alienated, and this often impacts on the time they can spend on their studies. As one senior Indigenous academic remarked, "universities are a foreign place to Indigenous and non-Indigenous students with no social capital around going to university".

One student, who was waiting for a package to arrive in the mail prior to commencing, was unaware that the onus was on him to go online, enrol, and commence studying.

If you don't feel like you belong and are adequately equipped, the first hurdle is enough to cause you to retreat. If you acknowledge your strengths and see yourself as resilient and entitled, you will be more likely to overcome issues confronting you (An Aboriginal academic working on building resilience of disengaged students).

A university 'silo culture' can lead to a lack of engagement in Indigenous issues. Many universities are keen to engage in ceremonial events (for example Sorry Day), but not in more meaningful practical processes and events. Many respondents discussed the problems of implementing changes to increase student numbers and provide valuable input into university culture. Some felt hindered by a lack of resources and an inherent culture of seeing Indigenous students as being in need, rather than in their capacity to provide unique knowledge and contributions to university life.

Diversity of demography—students living in remote areas

One respondent commented that access to high school, and in particular Year 11 and 12, programs designed for university entry are rare in remote (and sometimes regional) NT [Aboriginal] schools. Many principals and teachers continue to have low expectations for Aboriginal high school age students in remote communities. Another key educator in the Sydney area noted;

Geography counts. In NSW you could draw a line and say west of that line we're less likely to succeed in attracting students and community. This does not mean that these areas aren't focused on. . .in those areas. . .it is likely that people have not engaged with western society as strongly as other areas where kids come to university. . .where the foundations of dealing with places like a university are just not as developed, and so there is more work that needs to be done to address that.

There is a widely held assumption in the NT that students do not want, or are not interested in, university attendance. Students are directed into VET programs particularly through the VET in Schools courses—which may be successful at improving school attendance ('earn or learn'), but university study is not promoted. Interestingly many Kimberley students who go to boarding schools for secondary education are directed to VET programs and while they attain Year 12 they do not have an ATAR.

Students with disabilities

There is a range of specific issues relating to the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students with disabilities, for young men, for young women as single carers, and for prisoners. It is known that all of these groups are underrepresented although good, detailed data about these students is notably absent, and at best difficult to find (refer Literature Review).

All respondents noted the significant gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men at university. One senior Indigenous manager of university programs noted:

There is a definite gender divide for Indigenous students. We need to focus on men and increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male participation in Higher Education. The key issue is that many men are the breadwinners for their families and so cannot forego employment to complete study. We need to develop packages to motivate young men from a young age to see university as a future pathway.

When assisting students with a disability in the enrolment processes one respondent reflected:

I have asked this question and on at least two occasions the student has said while they do not have a disability, a family member who they care for does and they have asked about assistance managing the study blocks in the mixed mode delivery and care for this family member.

Indigenous academic support staff members largely rely on information provided by students on their course application forms to refer them to the disability office of the University. For one respondent this worked well so long as: ". . .the equity office have [sic] well trained and culturally competent staff".

People in the prison system

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people need as many options as possible when they leave prison. Undertaking further study whilst in prison is a significant way to secure a range of options. The majority of universities do not have programs designed to engage prisoners in study. One university was invited to present at a careers day in a prison, whilst others identified partnership programs that they would like to develop, including offline programs that can be supported with on-site classes. However, it was noted that dedicated funding for such programs was not available and such initiatives often fell into the category of workloads that are not recognised by mainstream government funding guidelines.

One exception to this is the University of Newcastle where 'low risk' prisoners are given leave to go to campus to do some units of study. The university's community engagement division is active in this program and plays a mentoring role with these students. The SCU has enrolled students who studied whilst incarcerated, who were allocated a contact person who was, wherever possible, culturally relevant. However it was difficult to collect specific Indigenous or non-Indigenous information on this program.

Another example involves Nulloo Yumbah, Central Queensland University's (CQU) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learning, spirituality and research centre. This centre delivers its Tertiary Entry Program in correctional centres, and supports inmates enrolled in other CQU programs. TRACKS, a tertiary preparation program from the UNE, is delivered via distance education to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men at the Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland (IHER 2012, pp. 172-3).

All respondents involved in delivering courses to prisoners identified difficulties such as accessing online course materials, and fulfilling assessment criteria as Information and Communications Technology (ICT) use is strictly limited by institutional requirements. Media students for example were unable to complete assessment tasks that involved filming within the prison and were not permitted to create digital work for transportation back to the training institution for assessment and reporting purposes.

Traditionally low ATAR—low rates of secondary school completion

Initial increases in the number of Indigenous students accessing university in the 1990s fell in the early 2000s. Respondents observed that this shift occurred as the cohort of Indigenous student applicants transferred from a finite number of mature aged students to a smaller number of students who had completed secondary studies with tertiary entrance rankings sufficiently high enough to access the university. There has been a steady increase in the number of younger Indigenous secondary school graduates who are able to access higher education based on ATAR in the last 13 years. This growth has not significantly reduced the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous student applicants directly transitioning from secondary school to higher education.

Staff members of IEUs and students interviewed for this project believed that many Indigenous students were not being directed to university as an option regardless of a range of outreach programs that had attempted to engage teachers, principals and students by individual universities. Some respondents noted the focus in recent years on Indigenous employment in the mining industry and a focus on pathways through VET to employment opportunities in this sector. Most believed that a continuing factor in poor student transition could be found in low expectations of teachers in secondary schools coupled with limited family experiences of higher education. Lack of community and family experience of the value of and opportunities created by obtaining a university education were considered to be common in remote areas where university engagement with the community was considered to be minimal except in areas where some IEUs had generated direct pathways (such as UWA's and CU's focus on the Pilbara and BIITE's focus on the Northern Territory).

To counter this problem, a number of universities have designed internal processes whereby student merit beyond the value of an ATAR ranking is able to be taken into account when students apply for entry. The University of Sydney estimates, or re-calculates, Indigenous students' ATAR by removing the results of subjects that don't scale well, and makes recommendations to the various faculties based on the course preferences expressed in their University Admissions Centre (UAC) applications. The Cadigal Program enables The University of Sydney to reduce the course entry requirement (ATAR score) by five points, providing students who are marginally below the entrance rank an opportunity to be assessed for entry and the possibility of staged and supported engagement with their studies. If a student is still within eight points of the entry requirement, a recommendation can be made to the faculty to consider accepting a student with a reduced load until such time as enabling programs can be implemented to progress the student's ability to enroll full-time. The UNDA utilises a model for all student intake that includes consideration of ATAR and direct interviews with each student to assess their suitability for university. A UNDA Indigenous student reiterated the importance of moving beyond an ATAR and recommended that his university's "model of scores plus interview should be replicated for transition looking at whole person not reducing someone to a Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) score".

One national Indigenous education coordinator noted the problems associated with focusing on mainstream measurements of student ability:

We need to focus earlier on educational skills as we're seeing kids get to Year 9, 10, 11, 12 and they just don't have the skills to progress to university. We need to have been aware of their basic skills sets from much earlier and to have supported appropriate educational environments that are challenging but also welcoming. This reveals that the gaps in student abilities are remaining far too hidden. NAPLAN won't reveal what foundational skills are not being developed or why. We need monitoring that is appropriate and leads us back to where the system is failing our kids and our kids start falling behind, but getting pushed forward just enough to keep widening the gaps to the point where they just don't have the skills they need.

A 'tick-a-box' culture, low expectations and the question of entitlement

Most Indigenous students are keen to identify their heritage on university entrance forms in anticipation that this will help them connect with other Indigenous students. A number of students indicated they also saw this as ensuring that Indigenous presence on campus was recognised as they were all too aware of the need to reveal Indigenous student success in attaining entry to university. Some also indicated they were keen to identify to ensure assistance for them and for the larger cohort of Indigenous students from the university was able to be adequately resourced.

There was some debate surrounding the tensions between the need to ensure that targeted support for students who require it is provisioned, with some Indigenous students stating they did not need such support, but valued being part of a larger cohort of students where such needs could be met. Many such students noted they were involved in official and unofficial activities to mentor struggling students and noted universities often overlooked this asset of an identified Indigenous student cohort. Some students choose not to engage with enabling programs on the basis that, by being Indigenous, it will be perceived that they automatically need extra help, which is not always the case. This mirrors similar debates in the US regarding affirmative action and the values and pitfalls of such programs. In some areas of Australia affected by the recent histories of the Stolen Generations and their dislocating impacts on personal histories, many students know they are Aboriginal but have little information about their own personal histories. The key issue raised by students was the value of being part of an Indigenous student body and the assets that this creates when appropriately supported, including direct enabling support programs for those students who require it.

The issues of identification and the provision of support services were not considered to be a major problem by staff members of IEUs. While students must be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to access Indigenous identified programs (beyond mainstream enabling programs that many IEUs now engage with) proof of identify was often easily resolved through utilising local knowledge and following basic protocols of assessment. The University of Sydney provides the Koori Centre with a list of people who have identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The Centre contacts everyone on the list to confirm their genuine identity as, in the past, some students ticked the box wrongly. Thus, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students are personally communicated with and their constantly changing information updated if required.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) provides information about Indigenous students to the Jumbunna House of Learning and students are then interviewed informally about their needs and their heritage confirmed. When students apply for enrolment each year, at the UAC cut-off the Tjabal Centre of ANU receives a list of Indigenous identified students. The Centre then contacts the students and makes them aware of programs of support. All students have to sign a statutory declaration confirming that they are Indigenous to receive some of the Indigenous specific support offered.

Difficulties associated with the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme—Tertiary Tuition (ITAS—TT)

ITAS has been widely recognised as being a reliable and central means of engaging students successfully. A respondent from ANU commented: "ITAS is a key enabler of students". However, ITAS is also cumbersome in administration and implementation, and is in major need of an overhaul. While the value of ITAS was universally recognised by all respondents, tutorial support for Indigenous students is considered across the literature to be border-line or potentially at fail point. Universities report that ITAS inhibits flexibility and innovation (Behrendt et al., 2012, p. 76). It is important to note that ITAS is no longer available for students completing the bridging courses including literacy and numeracy programs. ITAS was originally designed for students as a way to ensure continuation of their studies, rather than to support Indigenous excellence in education.

As one respondent commented:

We would definitely support the government loosening up of the ITAS scheme so that it could be applied more directly and flexibly for better outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

ITAS is less successful for students in remote and regional centres as there are often few potential tutors in these centres who meet the ITAS requirements, or who can be a tutor, and those who fit the criteria rarely have time to tutor all students in these areas.

According to one respondent, one of the biggest predictors of the success of an Indigenous university student:

. . .is their ITAS tutor in terms of when their tutor is assigned (i.e. as early as possible at the beginning of the teaching session), and the quality of their tutor irrespective of race. Aboriginal students want the best possible tutor whether they are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. It is also vital that the student and their tutor develop a good relationship. However, the ITAS reporting process is very time consuming, there is a huge amount of compliance paperwork.

One of the drawbacks in the way that the ITAS scheme currently operates is that an ITAS tutor has to be 2 years in the degree above the student being tutored. One respondent related that peer-to-peer tutoring would be better as per the UTS' U-path program as it would also boost the self-confidence of the tutor. All respondents considered the ITAS pay scale to be too low.