As Indigenous enrolment in tertiary education continues to climb, issues which adversely affect the retention and potential enrolments of Indigenous students become even more apparent.
A 2015 Charles Darwin University study found that from 2007 to 2013 there has been an increase of Indigenous enrolment in tertiary education, by 45 per cent. However, the study also reported a large disparity with completion rates, with indigenous students far more likely to dropout.
The enrolment numbers continue to grow with Indigenous Bachelor of Science student at Monash University. One of the Indigenous Officers for the Monash Student Association (MSA) Krystal De Napoli said: “When I began my degree in 2015, we accounted for 60 students of Monash’s overall population – this year we have reached roughly 240.”
Ms De Napoli credits this growth to proactive steps Monash University is taking to engage Indigenous students.
“The students are actively engaged through our support unit, Yulendj. The staff there have helped build this community on campus, and the Indigenous students always do their best to welcome new students and engage with current ones,” she said.
These steps by Monash are in line with Universities Australia unveiling a target of 50% increased participation of Indigenous students by 2020. This was announced in March 2017, and since then most major universities across Australia have committed to this goal.
Ms De Napoli believes that the issues with retention and enrolment are different for each Indigenous student, however, socio-economic factors and lack of cultural understanding lie at the heart of the problem.
“I have come from a low-income family and a rural town. This made it so that I would work on weekends, clashing with when open days were typically held, and that universities and their campuses were not easily accessible,” she said.
“I also grew up not really understanding what university was or how it was structured. I always enjoyed my studies and knew I wanted to pursue them further, but without guidance and understanding, it was difficult to set any goals about tertiary education.
“I am the first in my family to attend university, but I am hoping my experience makes it more accessible for my family to understand what tertiary education is like and whether it suits them,”she said.
Jyden Brailey, another current Indigenous student is studying a Bachelor of Primary and Secondary Education. Mr Brailey is the other Indigenous Officer for the MSA, is also facing similar issues with the present structure of tertiary education.
“For myself coming from a low socio-economic background and non-traditional home life before university impacted my road to university as it had a serious effect on my studies throughout my high schooling,” Mr Brailey said.
Tarsha Jago another Indigenous student currently studies a Bachelor of Law/Arts and believes that cultural misunderstanding also plays a significant role in the lack of engagement.
“The intergenerational trauma that we carry impacts everything we do. It is not something that can be explained or something we can escape. We are generally very family orientated and perhaps reluctant to move too far from home,” Ms Jago said.
The lack of Indigenous representation at the staffing level also exacerbates the issue.
“It is frustrating that there are no Indigenous lecturers on the Indigenous studies centre or faculty,” she said.
Mr Brailey also experienced lack of cultural understanding when learning about Indigenous education.
“In the first tutorial for an Indigenous education unit I took, my tutor started the lesson by stating “Non-Indigenous people should not teach about Indigenous issues and education” and then proceeded to do so. Not only is this ironic but it also shows that Monash needs more Indigenous academics within the faculty and the wider university,” he said.
These experiences reflect that while there is progress being made, more is needed to continue to grow enrolment and retention of Indigenous students.
Mr Brailey suggests that: “More outreach from universities into schools that have a high Indigenous student population to make students aware of the options available to them and the ways to be eligible for them.”
Further financial support would also be beneficial, as the “majority of them, come from low socio-economic backgrounds meaning that opportunities are very limited for them and for many university is nota realistic option,” he said.
Ms Jago also calls for more leniency with cultural practices.
“[This] means special consideration for sorry business, community responsibilities and safe spaces,” she said.
Universities are on the right track with Indigenous affairs. However, there is still room to develop and improve to ensure tertiary education is accessible to all in the community.
“I think that Monash is leading the way in this regard, though. Over the last few years, I have witnessed the growth of enabling programs and student outreach which has undoubtedly led to this exponential growth of the Indigenous cohort. I hope that not too long in the future we are able to see a population parody,” Ms De Napoli said.