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Laying pathways for greater success in education for Indigenous Australians

Graduates of a 2015 Tertiary Entry Program, which paves the way into university courses, with lead author and CQUniversity’s Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement, Bronwyn Fredericks (fourth from left) and Provost Hilary Winchester (far right). Peter Lawrence/CQUniNewsPICs, Author provided

Laying pathways for greater success in education for Indigenous Australians

Graduates of a 2015 Tertiary Entry Program, which paves the way into university courses, with lead author and CQUniversity’s Pro Vice-Chancellor of Indigenous Engagement, Bronwyn Fredericks (fourth from left) and Provost Hilary Winchester (far right). Peter Lawrence/CQUniNewsPICs, Author provided

The more we’re going to get into these universities, the more we’re going to get educated, which means the more the … Indigenous communities themselves are going to grow and close that gap. - A study participant in Rockhampton, Queensland.

Across Australia, Indigenous students consistently record lower rates of education at all levels than the broader population, as shown again in the latest Closing the Gap report.

So if we’re serious about addressing Indigenous disadvantage in education and seeing Indigenous Australians fully participating in our society and economy, what more can we do?

Our new Path+Ways research, released today by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, shows the value of building bridges into formal education.

Enabling program students in Rockhampton with staff at the Allied Health Lab, CQUniversity. Author provided

You might have heard of “bridging”, “enabling” or, most commonly, “access education”. Those are all terms used to describe formal programs of study offered by tertiary institutions, in which learners can build study skills that will help them transition to formal study, be that vocational or higher education.

Anecdotally, universities already know that access education is incredibly important in lifting Indigenous participation rates. Communities and Indigenous students have seen how they help too:

Supporting [access education] allows people in rural and remote communities to access this support to get them into university, we need more Indigenous students … coming out of universities with degrees. – A study participant in Darwin, Northern Territory.

However, despite the considerable efforts by some universities to offer access education, there has been a clear lack of evidence underpinning the programs.

Where there is evidence about specific Indigenous programs, it is typically limited to course evaluation-style approaches, which tend to focus on students’ experiences and opinions of course content and delivery – rather than what people have learnt and the new skills they have acquired.

Our new research looked at what’s currently being done in Indigenous access programs at regional, dual-sector universities, and how those programs could be even better.

Learning ‘both-ways’

The bridging program has definitely helped to expand and strengthen my identity, my confidence and my values as an Indigenous student and a person … each assignment that I do, each piece of knowledge that I’ve learnt … builds that confidence, my identity … and my history as that Indigenous person. - A female study participant in Rockhampton.

While access education is only a small slice of the lifelong education journey, it is a critically important one for many Indigenous people.

To get those programs right, our research showed how important it was to start with an understanding that students who lack a formal education can, and do, hold valuable knowledge. This is particularly true of Indigenous students, who bring unique perspectives to education and “knowing” by drawing on their cultural background and applying this to their study program.

Students working together in a computer lab. Author provided

Including Indigenous culture in course content emerged as a key factor in building strength, increasing identity and a sense of place. In particular, most of the participants involved with our study – irrespective of whether they were male or female, or in Darwin, Ballarat or Rockhampton – noted that a lack of cultural understanding in access education programs impacted on their ability to learn.

Our research also found that recognition of Indigenous people as “yarners” and “story tellers” needs consideration when developing curriculum, as does incorporating “both-ways” methodologies, which incorporate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge.

It enabled me to learn [how] I learn best and that was hugely beneficial … it enabled me to become an avid learner and to succeed [in] my current studies. - A study participant in Rockhampton.

More than one way to succeed

Perhaps the single most important thing we found through talking to our participants is that we need to rethink our idea of what “educational success” means. Simply measuring whether someone finishes a course, or moves from a vocational training course into a university, is missing a much bigger picture.

[Success is] about self-esteem, growing, being strong in your identity, understanding what the Western educational system is, gaining other sorts of employment or opportunities for employment … It broadens students’ ideas for career pathways, it helps students find their voice, it helps them be able to write, so there’s [many] levels of success mapped within that, that we as a university don’t call an actual success. - A study participant who teaches in a university enabling program.

When the people in our study talked about success, they said it meant improved confidence, a stronger sense of identity, gaining employment, improved engagement with the broader community, expanded learning capacity, entry into a vocational or higher education program, and, of course, the most easily measurable success: completing a vocational or higher education program.

I’ve always felt a little intimidated by the thought of … university. The bridging program has eased a lot of that anxiety and stress, so I’m actually … enjoying my learning experiences now … the value of what I’ve been learning has been monumental … and … has made me feel ten times better about myself as a learner. - A study participant in Darwin.

We need to attract, retain, challenge, include and inspire more Indigenous Australians through education. As our research shows, a good place to start would be to paying more attention to what Indigenous students tell us about what a successful education means to them.