Quietly making the grade

Contrary to popular myths, Left and Right, Indigenous students in mainstream society, representing the majority of Indigenous children and youngsters are doing well at school, staying to Year 12, and going on to 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, a total of almost 24,000 Indigenous men and women had graduated from Australian universities, with nearly 1,500 graduating annually. More than 90% had bachelors or graduate degrees. A substantial body of professionally trained graduates are role models for future generations. Commencements, enrolments and graduations are at record levels. The Indigenous students’ annual retention rate is now more than 80%. These are remarkable results for the first generation of Indigenous university graduates.

Professor Dodson of the Australian National University points out that 30% of Indigenous Australians are illiterate. These mostly come from separate ‘Aboriginal’ schools that are heirs to generations of poor education in remote communities. In marked contrast, the more than 60% of Indigenous parents who work in mainstream Australia send their children to mainstream schools where they achieve similar results to non-Indigenous children in similar socio-economic circumstances.

Between 1998 and 2007, Year 12 completions by Indigenous students in South Australia rose five times. They are still rising. In the mainstream Indigenous population, one in every eight adults is a university graduate. Two-thirds of the graduates are women, so that one in every six Indigenous women in mainstream society is a university graduate.

It has been conveniently forgotten by both the Left and the Right that most Indigenous girls and boys were rarely allowed to finish primary school a mere half century ago. In South Australia, many of the first Indigenous secondary graduates are still working.

Across Australia, few Indigenous people enrolled in tertiary education until specific support programs were set up in the 1980s, which resulted in Indigenous graduate numbers rising from a bare 200 in 1980 to 3,000 in 1990 and 13,000 in 2000. By 2010, this number is expected to double and it is likely to double again by 2020.

But Indigenous tertiary success is an orphan – few of the commentariat want to own it. The recent Bradley Review of universities dismissed Indigenous tertiary participation in a single page, concluding, erroneously, that enrolments were declining. The Indigenous Higher Education Advisory Council, reflecting its dominance by Aboriginal Studies academics, has regularly lamented the demise of Indigenous under-graduate enrolments.

Academics at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, in a rare comment on Indigenous university involvement, wrote in 2003 that ‘older Indigenous people are actually more likely to be enrolled in a postsecondary course than their non-Indigenous counterparts.’ The centre has said little since and nothing positive about Indigenous university completions. Back in the mid-1990s, when I reported to an Aboriginal academic that there were already perhaps 5,000 Indigenous graduates, with another 500 new graduates each year, his response was a crestfallen: ‘but it can’t keep increasing, can it?’ In fact, the answer to his question has been, is and probably will continue to be ‘yes.’

In the last 10 years, major changes have occurred. Indigenous enrolments at degree- and post-graduate level have risen substantially, while enrolments in sub-degree courses and bridging courses have plummeted. External enrolments are withering away, despite many efforts to keep Indigenous students off-campus. ‘Aboriginal Studies’ enrolments have gone into free-fall. At one major university, they have declined from almost 50% of Indigenous enrolments in the mid-1990s to barely 5% in 2007.

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.

The principal Indigenous education policy challenges concern the children who leave school unable to read, write or count in remote communities. At present, only a handful of children from remote communities who are the fortunate recipients of scholarships to mainstream boarding schools may expect to go on to university. Effective adult education to tackle the backlog of illiteracy and non-numeracy in these communities is also urgently required. 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.