Under-represented groups in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population


Under-represented cohorts within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population

Six specific groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population have been identified as being under-represented in relation to higher education: women as primary carers, young men, prisoners, students from remote areas and people with disabilities. It should be noted that many students belong to more than one of these specific groups. Experiencing the multiple layers of disadvantage associated with belonging to more than one group often compounds their challenges. Targeted data for these groups are limited and inconsistent, indicating the need for further research and analysis.

Women who are primary carers

In 2010, females comprised 66% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolled students (Behrendt et al., 2012, p. 8). The rate of participation of Aboriginal women in further education from their mid-thirties is higher than Aboriginal men or non-Aboriginal men and women (Doyle & Hill, 2012, p. 25). A profile of Aboriginal women indicates they are often single mothers who may defer education until their children have completed schooling. Care costs and availability, access to information, peer and family networks, IEUs, enabling courses and away-from-base courses contribute to Aboriginal women's decisions in making the transition to further education. Enabling Aboriginal women to maintain cultural and family connections is given as an important factor in achieving educational success (White, 2007, cited in Doyle & Hill, 2012, p. 36). Larkins et al. (2011) studied a small group of disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young mothers in Townsville, Queensland, and found some of the women to be already disengaged from education or with low expectations, limited future plans, and who regarded pregnancy as an option that "might provide some advantages" (p. 554).

Young men

A number of studies (refer to Literature Review, pp 29-30) have identified a preference for vocational training over academic education among young Indigenous men from rural and regional areas (Craven & Marder, 2007; James, 2000; Larkins et al., 2009). Larkins et al. (2009) also found a higher percentage of young men (19.5%) felt they would be "happy/proud" to be teenage fathers than young women (9.1%) (p. 15) as this would follow traditional family roles. To counter the impact of government policies which place responsibility at the individual level, and do not consider implicit inequalities and power imbalances, the authors recommended assistance for families and students in mapping pathways; changes in pedagogy and policy; and co-operation between vocational and educational sectors (p. 17).

The mining industry actively supports and recruits Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in some areas of Queensland and Western Australia, in conjunction with VET, universities and private providers. Indigenous enrolments in such supported places are higher for males and tend to be in short "enabling" courses, or at the lower end of the certification spectrum (Taylor & Scambary, 2005, p. 87). Tiplady and Barclay (2007) identified inconsistent standards in mining companies' reports of the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that they trained, educated and employed.

Young people not making the transition from VET

In 2010, only 3.8% Indigenous students enrolled in university study six months after completing VET training. This percentage has decreased from 6.5% in 2002, although it has not been a steady decline (National Centre for Vocational Education Research, 2011a). In 2009 only 6% of Indigenous students entered university on the basis of a VET Award course which compared closely with the 7% of non-Indigenous students who followed this pathway (Panel for the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, 2011), indicating that this is not a strong preference for Indigenous or non-Indigenous students. Dual-sector institutions RMIT and Swinburne University had the highest transition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students from VET in 2010 (IHER, p. 44), indicating a stronger pathway.

Transition from VET to university has been problematic for more than 25 years because of incompatibilities in "curriculum, pedagogy and assessment" (Australia. Department of Education Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR] & Bradley, 2008, p. 179). The IHER (pp. 39, 44) identifies the continued problems and limited transition from VET, and recommends clearer definition of pathways to higher education.

People with disabilities

In 2009, over 4 million people, or 18.5% of Australia's population, reported having a disability (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2010). In 1996, university students with disabilities comprised 1.9% of the student population, and in 2006, enrolment of students with disabilities in higher education rose to 3.6%, a figure that Ryan (2011, p. 74) suggests is low in terms of the whole population, and is most likely underreported. Figures for disabled students are reported in higher education statistics, but they are not differentiated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status.

Statistics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians with disabilities are limited (O'Neill, Kirov, & Thomson, 2004). Before 2002, there were no surveys of the extent and nature of disabilities among the Australian population. The Productivity Commission (2011) based its inquiry report, Disability care and support, on the 2006 Census and the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, although it claimed the statistics may be understated. Reasons suggested for this under-representation include non-response rates to census and surveys, and a difficulty for Indigenous people to relate to the concept of disability (Productivity Commission, 2011, p. 532).

The Productivity Commission estimates there are 26,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians with a "profound or severe core activity limitation", with the highest level of disability in remote areas. Although the numbers indicated by the statistics are considered to be underestimated, they are higher than those for non-Indigenous Australians, and barriers to support are greater for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Productivity Commission, 2011, p. 533).

In 2008, approximately 42% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a disability or long-term health condition had left school at Year 9 or below compared with 26% of people without a disability and 18% of people with a disability had completed school to Year 12, compared with 27% of those with no disability. Further, 26% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25—64 years with a disability or long-term health condition had a post-school educational qualification at a Certificate III level or above in 2008, compared with 32% of those with no disability or long-term health condition. Indigenous persons with a disability and living in non-remote areas had a higher rate of post-school qualifications (30%) than those with a disability and living in remote areas (14%) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011c).

People in the prison system seeking higher education outcomes

At June 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported 8,533 average daily full-time adult prisoners identified themselves as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013a), or just over one quarter (28%) of the total prisoner population, and 2% of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population over 18 years of age. The figure consisted of 7,754 (91%) male and 779 (9%) female prisoners with median ages of 30.4 years and 31.6 years respectively. This compares with 30,814 (71%) non-Indigenous full-time prisoners—28,466 (92.4%) male and 2,346 (7.6%) female prisoners. The ABS cautions that these figures are dependent on the prison population self-identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (not all identified), and may not be fully accurate representations.

Limited data are available regarding higher educational aspirations, participation levels and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners. Correlations between low levels of education and high levels of incarceration among Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians are complex. The potential value of education in reducing imprisonment rates is recognised, although it is acknowledged that this is only one contributing factor (Australia. Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Communities, 2010, p. 31). The Senate Committee identified limited research into this area in Australia, citing mainly international literature in its paper, highlighting a need for further investigation and evidence-based data driving policy and practice to enhance opportunities for prisoners seeking higher education opportunities.

Recent research by Carnes (2011) identified a lack of independent research into Indigenous prisoner education worldwide, and specifically in Australia. Carnes' post graduate study of Aboriginal prisoner education in Western Australia highlighted five gaps: "provision of adequate resources and infrastructure; access to current technology; innovative training programs; a focus on cultural education; access to education" (p. 5), a situation that prevails despite multiple recommendations and committees of inquiry.

Rural and Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students

Many practical hurdles exist for students from remote communities aspiring to attend university. Universities have not traditionally engaged with remotely located students and are now encountering competition from other sectors, such as mining companies which are targeting communities and students in transition through VET courses and mine-related employment.

A study focusing on aspects of student characteristics and experiences in Australia's regional universities (Richardson & Friedman, 2011, p. 41) found that Indigenous people are far more likely to enrol in regional universities than in metropolitan ones, a pattern that is replicated across the whole of Australia.

The move to increased online delivery often disadvantages students living in remote areas of northern Australia. Where Internet services are available connections are often slow, intermittent or unreliable, and only available in particular centres, for example schools, which are closed for 12 weeks of the year. Students from remote areas are often not confident with the online environment but this improves greatly when on-campus workshops are held to introduce students to online learning.