Too few Indigenous Australians are making it as academics in our universities. This has a significant impact on Indigenous development.
While the number of research students from Indigenous backgrounds has increased slightly over the years, from 0.84% in 2005 to 1.11% in 2014, PhD completion rates for Indigenous students has barely changed: in 2014, 0.55% completed their PhD, compared with 0.53% in 2005.
Research from New Zealand investigating the needs of Māori doctoral candidates shows that Indigenous PhD students need support in grappling with the tensions between their academic and cultural identities.
The New Zealand research showed Māori PhD students had many cultural, academic and personal demands. These impacted on their capacity to undertake a demanding program of study. These students also had difficulty finding supervisors who had appropriate expertise and research skills for their project.
For Australian universities to accelerate the growth of their Indigenous academic workforce they need to continue to grow PhD enrolments. Importantly, they also need to address PhD completions , which lag behind the growth in enrolments.
Create incentives for universities
To help create an incentive for universities to invest in Indigenous research, training programs should be weighted for Indigenous students.
Weighted funding supports universities to develop tailored programs and financial supports that are needed for the success of Indigenous doctoral students.
Indigenous students often start their research training a number of years after completing their undergraduate degrees. Being older, they usually have diverse needs, including family, work and cultural obligations. Others may relocate from regional areas. Financial support that meets their individual needs are critical to their success.
Tailor training programs
Traditionally, research training involves one or two supervisors per student. Supervisors provide academic support over the life course of the PhD. This is probably no longer the ideal model for most students including Indigenous students.
Training programs need to be tailored to the educational needs of Indigenous students.
Tailored programs could create opportunities for Indigenous doctoral students from different disciplines to come together, share their common challenges and find constructive solutions. Tailored programs could reduce the isolation that PhD students can suffer and enrich their doctoral experience.
Such programs can also create peer networks to support supervisors who lack sufficient experience in working with Indigenous students or in Indigenous research contexts. Improved supervision has been identified as a key to improving completion rates.
Offer more scholarships
PhD scholarships, such as Australian postgraduate awards, provide financial incentives for students while they study. But these schemes are highly competitive.
More scholarship opportunities are needed to support students across all disciplines. These should include ones that are targeted at the specific needs of Indigenous students.
New Zealand has made a significant investment in the development of pathways for Māori students. The Māori and Indigenous Doctoral Program is a national network with individual university sites. The program is integral to a capability-building program of Ngā Pae o te Maramatanga. Similar programs are being created here in Australia.
One feature of the New Zealand program is that the financial support offered does not end at the completion of their PhD. Bridging scholarships can be sought to continue to publish from the research while waiting for the examination process to complete.
Higher education is key to unlocking sustainable Indigenous economies. It is also important to cultural vitality of Indigenous communities.
It provides the know-how and expertise to tackle key challenges for Indigenous health, education and cultural renewal. Indigenous academics unlock the potential of universities for Indigenous development.
Indigenous academics bring their expertise in teaching and research in the field of Indigenous studies. They produce the ideas and innovation important for Indigenous development.
Indigenous academics are policy leaders and role models for younger Indigenous Australians. They are making their mark in a diverse array of fields that include mathematics, laboratory sciences and business.
Reform of Australia’s research training system has the potential to significantly accelerate Indigenous success that has been built over the last decade. Reforms should focus on increasing participation in PhD programs but also the flow-on to timely completions.