1) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university enrolments are at record levels and continue to grow
The large disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous educational achievement at the school level, particularly in remote Australia, is well understood. In general, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have lower school attendance and retention rates and considerable gaps persist in literacy and numeracy levels.
Lifting the overall performance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander school children remains central to broader efforts to ‘close the gap’. In part, this will be achieved through more Indigenous students making the transition from school to higher education. Encouragingly, this is one area in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are already making significant gains.
Since Margaret Williams became the first Indigenous university graduate in Australia in 1959, there’s been a steady growth in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people participating in tertiary education, especially in degree and post-graduate level studies. By the end of 2010, there were around 25,000 Indigenous graduates in Australia.
Based on the steady growth in enrolments and completions, these numbers are projected to swell to more than 50,000 Indigenous graduates by 2020 and more than 100,000 by 2050.
While these figures are impressive, it is important to keep this achievement in perspective. A considerable gap remains between the proportion of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who commence and complete higher education.
Improving educational achievement and completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for year 12 is the key factor in addressing this gap.
2) Indigenous students are moving into more specialised and skills-intensive areas
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are studying in all major fields including medicine, science, engineering, education, social science, economics, accounting, architecture, and law.
Indigenous students are also increasingly diversifying within disciplines. For example, ‘health graduates are no longer only nurses, but also podiatrists, physiotherapists, radiologists and pharmacists.’ Joe Lane 2009
Particularly significant gains have been made in the medical profession. As at October 2010, the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) estimated there were 153 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctors and 161 medical students in Australia.
These figures are encouraging because Indigenous medical student numbers have overtaken Indigenous doctor numbers, which will greatly contribute to the collective pool of Indigenous medical knowledge and expertise.
However, there is still a way to go before the rising trend in Indigenous medical student enrolments matches non-Indigenous numbers. AIDA continues to work with medical schools to increase the recruitment and retention of Indigenous medical students across the country.
3) The first Indigenous Rhodes scholar will start at Oxford in 2011
South Australian Rebecca Richards is the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australian to receive the prestigious Rhodes scholarship in its 108 year history. Rebecca will enrol at Oxford University in September 2011 and study for a Masters of Philosophy in Material Anthropology and Museum Ethnography.
Every year, greater numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enrolling in and completing post-graduate studies at Australian Universities. In 2009, 318 Indigenous students enrolled in doctorates – around seven times more than were enrolled just 15 years ago.
4) Many more Indigenous students are participating in vocational education and training
Increasing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are also gaining formal qualifications through vocational education and training (VET) programs. In 2008 alone nearly 11,000 Indigenous people received VET qualifications in areas as diverse as plumbing, journalism, horticulture, hairdressing, and hospitality.
In 2010, around one in three Indigenous students who completed their VET studies chose to go on to further studies, including university or TAFE.
There’s also been encouraging growth in the number of Indigenous apprentices and trainees across Australia with completions more than doubling in a decade—up from 1,512 in 1999 to 4,489 in 2009.
5) Achievement in higher education will help close the gaps and achieve reconciliation
Reconciliation and closing the gaps are about creating a shared future for all Australians, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are given the same respect and have the same opportunities to live a good and healthy life as other Australians.
University and VET qualifications are important for gaining employment and building economic independence and prosperity. With economic independence, individuals and communities will have increased opportunities and a broader range of life choices.
Achievement in higher education may also lead to improved social and health outcomes. A recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with university qualifications were: more likely to be in the labour force and employed full time; had considerably lower rates of smoking and alcohol abuse; were less likely to live in overcrowded dwellings; and were less likely to have been arrested in the last five years.