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Transformations in Indigenous higher education

By Joe Lane - posted Wednesday, 9 December 2009

For a generation now, tertiary education has been the quiet success story for Indigenous people. Back in 1980, there were only about 400 Indigenous tertiary graduates across the whole of Australia, but by the end of this year, the total will be more than 25,000: that’s one in every nine or ten Indigenous adults.

Currently, enrolments and graduations are at record levels. Women especially are doing well - in fact, Indigenous women (aged 18 to 59) are commencing tertiary study at a better rate (2.45 per cent) than non-Indigenous Australian men (2.26 per cent).

With a boom in the birth-rate since the 80s, it is possible that a total of 50,000 Indigenous people could be university graduates by 2020. One hundred thousand Indigenous people could be university graduates by 2034 - this is certainly possible, and this could be one of the targets for the 25-year Indigenous Education Plan.


But many Indigenous people are being progressively shut out from higher education opportunities, particularly in rural and remote areas. Student support services - not just at universities - will have to be strengthened and re-constituted if these people are to have the chances taken for granted by other Australians.

Commencements in 2008

Indigenous commencement numbers leapt to a new plateau in 2008, with 4,321 commencements, up 7 per cent on the figures for 2007.

One and a half per cent of all domestic commencements in 2008 were of Indigenous students, while Indigenous adults aged 18 to 59 made up 2.15 per cent of all Australian adults. Women commencers now outnumber men by 2.1:1.

Commencements at degree-level and above rose a remarkable 13 per cent: commencements in post-graduate courses have now risen by more than 50 per cent in barely five years. Diploma-level commencements have declined by 90 per cent since 1997. Since 1991, about 60,000 Indigenous people have commenced tertiary study.

Total Enrolments in 2008

Total enrolments were also at record levels in 2008, at 9,529. Total enrolments in degree-level courses and above have now risen by 68 per cent since 1997, a healthy 6 per cent or so per annum. Post-graduate enrolments have more than doubled in that time.


Sub-degree enrolments have declined from 13 per cent of total enrolments in 1997 down to less than 2 per cent in 2008: bridging course enrolment numbers have almost halved.

Graduations in 2007 and 2008

Annual graduation numbers rose by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2007, or nearly 6 per cent per year, suggesting a doubling in annual graduate numbers in the next twelve years. Graduations in 2007 were at record levels with 1495 graduates. Graduation numbers fell in 2008, but only in sub-degree-level awards (by 55 per cent).

Completions in post-graduate and in bachelor awards are at record levels: annual post-graduate numbers have more than doubled in eleven years, bachelor-level graduations are up 46 per cent, but sub-degree-level graduation numbers have more than halved in that time. In 2008, a record number of Indigenous teachers graduated. Women made up 67.4 per cent of all Indigenous graduates.

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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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