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Annual Indigenous Higher Education Update

By Joe Lane - posted Thursday, 19 November 2020

Higher education has been quite a success story for Indigenous people, particularly for urban women. Over the past fifteen years, commencement numbers have risen by an average of more than 6 % each year. More than half of all young Indigenous women enrol in standard university courses before they hit their mid-twenties and, in fact are participating in higher education at slightly higher rates than non-Indigenous Australian men.

Total Indigenous graduate award-level numbers by the end of this year, 2020, could be around 55,000. Graduate numbers have improved by around 7.3 % p.a. There could be 100,000 indigenous university graduates by 2030, out of an adult population of 600,000. Two-thirds will still be female, 80-90 % will still be urban.

To summarise IHE changes:


(ABS Census numbers)

I would suggest that federal Education Department figures may currently be 10 % (+/- 5 %) too low, while ABS Census figures could currently be 15 % (+/- 5%) too high. So total graduate figures - the bottom-line, after all - are more likely to have been

A bit of back-history: University education was more or less reserved for the upper classes in Australia until well into the twentieth century. The middle classes didn't start to get into it in decent numbers until perhaps after the Second World War. And higher education for working class kids usually meant in teaching and nursing until well into the 1960s.

As well, secondary education was class-oriented: full public secondary schools near middle class areas only commenced after about 1905, and 'technical' schools for working class kids continued until well after the War. As well, any secondary education - apart from a handful of agricultural high schools - was restricted to the cities, including large rural cities such as Wagga.


Aboriginal people overwhelmingly lived in rural areas until well after the War, and usually in smaller towns. So most Aboriginal children received only primary-level education until well into the sixties, unless their families had moved into the cities (including the rural cities) earlier. Hence, parents were not able to advise their kids about educational opportunities since they themselves had not had any, until those families moved from the rural areas into the cities. And then the kids had to learn off their own bat for perhaps another generation. The numbers of Indigenous kids matriculating was consequently very low until much later - in fact, not until the late 1990s.

So Indigenous numbers at higher education - characteristically, at first, teachers' colleges and nursing schools at hospitals - rose from very low numbers only after about 1960, and as a small but continuous flow only after about 1975. Larger groups enrolled, with student support, only after about 1978-1980. But by 1990, most universities provided Indigenous student support services.

Indigenous rates of matriculation have massively improved since 1998 or so. Indigenous girls are now probably more likely to matriculate than NON-Indigenous Anglo boys. Certainly, Indigenous women are now enrolling at universities at higher rates than non-Indigenous men.

There is still an enormous amount of work to do in schools, to encourage Indigenous boys to push on with their education - their university enrolment numbers are persistently barely half of those of Indigenous girls. Indigenous students in secondary schools still seen to shun the STEM areas - Indigenous university students are disproportionately represented in Arts fields. Quite amazingly (at least to me) very few Indigenous students enrol in Conservation and Natural Sciences fields. But of course, there have now been many Indigenous graduates in all sorts of STEM fields such as Vet. Science, Podiatry, Physiotherapy, Accounting, Speech Pathology, and of course, Medicine: there are now perhaps more than a thousand qualified Indigenous medical professionals across the country.

Overwhelmingly, Indigenous university students come from urban backgrounds, since, after all nowadays, they are born and bred in the cities, and can be expected, like any other city kids, to seek employment in the cities. The wonderful work being done by many foundations has helped many rural and remote student to prepare for and enrol in university education over the last twenty years. But it is still a small trickle.

Until the first few years of this century, a large minority of Indigenous students enrolled in (perhaps one could say 'were channelled into') Indigenous-focussed courses, but those numbers have almost vanished since about 2005. Clearly, the increase in the numbers of Indigenous matriculants since 2000-2005 has correlated with the massive growth in numbers in standard, award-level, mainstream courses.

I look forward to the day when somebody from the Indigenous elites says something, anything, positive about Indigenous higher education.

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About the Author

Joe Lane is an independent researcher with a long-standing passion for Indigenous involvement at universities and its potential for liberation. Originally from Sydney, he worked in Indigenous tertiary support systems from 1981 until the mid-90s and gained lifelong inspiration from his late wife Maria, a noted leader in SA Indigenous education.

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