Remote chance of university

The recent release of 2009 university enrolment data shows that indigenous higher education participation continues to increase with 10,465 indigenous enrolments (an increase of nearly 10 per cent in one year, and 25 per cent since 2005). Several positive trends are emerging.

Most importantly, the proportion of indigenous students in sub-degree and soft cultural studies continues to decline. Pleasingly, the greatest increase in enrolment, 30 per cent, was in engineering and related technologies.

Although indigenous female students (6924) still outnumber indigenous male students (3546) two to one, the ratio of male students is rising. This also reflects a wider pattern as non-indigenous female students are 55 per cent of all higher education students.

A substantial number of indigenous students, 2883, are enrolled in postgraduate degrees.

However, these figures must be approached with caution. More than 900 of the "higher education" students are enrolled in theological studies, colleges of "natural"' medicine, and other institutions that are not university equivalents. In the Northern Territory, 412 students were enrolled at Batchelor College, whose graduates struggle with first-year course work in southern universities.

It is satisfying that indigenous graduates are taking their place in the professions and going on to postgraduate studies.

Does this mean that indigenous disadvantage is being overcome? Unfortunately, no.

On the contrary, there is an increasing gap between the two-thirds of working Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders whose standards of living are moving to mainstream levels and the one-third of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders who are left behind on welfare, either in capital cities and regional towns or on remote indigenous lands.

Almost all the indigenous students attending university (and an even larger number attending mainstream vocational courses) come from working families in capital cities and regional towns.

The first generations of working Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families born and raised in regional towns and cities usually inherited a strong work ethic from their parents. They were determined their children would go on to get the highest level of education they could attain. Many married non-indigenous partners. This group of urban Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders now represent perhaps nearly two-thirds of those who identify as indigenous.

These Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders share emerging mainstream characteristics with other emerging migrant groups.

The first generation worked at whatever paid the bills to ensure that the second generation did not have to do the same. This movement has clearly been in evidence since European settlement, but it was markedly accelerated with increasing mainstream work opportunities after World War II, perhaps half a generation after the Italian and Greek immigrants of the 1940s and 1950s and about half a generation ahead of the Vietnamese boatpeople of the 1980s.

In short, the move to the mainstream has been succeeding quite dramatically.

In the second and third working generation most indigenous school students, like non-indigenous school students, pass NAPLAN literacy and numeracy tests. University and vocational enrolment data indicate similar proportions to those in non-indigenous working communities stay at school and go on to a combination of work and post-secondary education. Indicating the socio-economic maturing of the indigenous working population, the 2009 increase in indigenous higher education enrolments (9.8 per cent) was almost twice as high as the rise in domestic enrolments (5.4 per cent).

The literacy gap is not between indigenous and non-indigenous students. It is not ethnic in origin.

The gap is between students passing literacy and numeracy tests in working families and failing in welfare-dependent families. The gap is widening.

The May 2010 NAPLAN results show that with a handful of exceptions, mainly of independent schools, remote indigenous schools are clustered at the bottom of Australia's 9500 schools, with appallingly high literacy and numeracy failure rates. Yet the authorities responsible for these results have not taken the steps necessary to introduce mainstream curriculums and effective teaching into these schools.

The "academies" operated by the Queensland Department of Education and Noel Pearson's Cape York Partnerships in Aurukun and Hope Vale and a few indigenous independent schools are the only exceptions.

These reformed schools attract high school attendance. Poor school attendance continues to be a problem in welfare dependent communities, but high attendance in reformed remote schools shows that poor quality schooling, not parent dysfunction, continues to be the main cause of poor attendance.

The Northern Territory has the highest concentration of separate indigenous schools, including some 40 Homeland Learning Centres only partially staffed by trained teachers. It has Australia's lowest literacy and numeracy pass rates and the lowest ratios of students achieving tertiary entrance records. Although the Territory has one of the largest indigenous populations, only 213 indigenous students are enrolled at Charles Darwin University.

Graduations continue to rise with 1407 new graduates added in 2009. The shift away from sub-degrees (only 7 per cent of graduates) continues and graduates in information technology, engineering, architecture and natural science are increasing.

There are now more than 26,000 indigenous graduates in the Australian professional labour force. Yet, shamefully, most of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children living on indigenous lands are being denied basic literacy and numeracy, let alone a wider mainstream education.

Joe Lane is an independent researcher whose paper, Indigenous Participation in University Education, was published by the Centre for Independent Studies in 2009.