Contrary to popular myths, Indigenous students in mainstream society, representing the majority of Indigenous children and youngsters, are doing well at school, staying to Year 12, and doing professional courses at universities. The proportion of Indigenous Australians who now graduate from universities is as high as the proportion of Indigenous university graduates in New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, where they have had a head-start. These achievements deserve to be acknowledged, not buried.
By the end of 2008, almost 24,000 Indigenous men and women had graduated from Australian universities, with nearly 1,500 graduating annually. More than 90% had bachelor’s or graduate degrees. The Indigenous students’ annual retention rate is now more than 80%. These are remarkable results for the first generation of Indigenous university graduates.
It has been conveniently forgotten that most Indigenous children were rarely allowed to finish primary school a mere half century ago. Across Australia, few Indigenous people enrolled in tertiary education until specific support programs were set up in the 1980s, after which Indigenous graduate numbers rose from 200 in 1980 to 3,000 in 1990 and 13,000 in 2000. By 2010, this number is expected to double and double again by 2020.
Indigenous children, like other students from low socio-economic backgrounds, clearly need academic support in schools. Instead, the schools they attend are often poorly maintained, classes are crowded, and teaching standards are low. It is actually amazing that so many Indigenous children stay at school until Year 12 and do so well at university.
At present, only a handful of children from remote communities fortunate enough to receive scholarships to mainstream boarding schools may expect to go on to university. Until all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have the same curriculum and the same teaching standards as other Australian children, Indigenous illiteracy in remote Australia will continue to be rampant. Equal rights in education is their birthright as much as any other Australian child’s.
Joe Lane is an independent South Australian researcher. His paper Indigenous Participation in University Education is published by the Centre of Independent Studies and available on www.cis.org.au.