The Australian 15 September 2012
Education transforms lives, and the Behrendt Review proposes an Australia in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are well represented in each new class and on staff, a familiar part of the university community. It is an inspiring vision of the nation we can become – Glyn Davis, chair Universities Australia.
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, studying at university seems a distant prospect.
The Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People (the Behrendt Review) demonstrates that some Australians do not share equitably in the benefits of higher education.
Larissa Behrendt and three experts describe the scale of disadvantage: Improving indigenous accerssAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 2.2% of Australia’s working-age population, but account for 1.4% of all university enrolments, and just 1% of full-time equivalent university staff.
Inequality is evident already at school, with a Year 12 completion rate barely half that for non-indigenous Australians. The pattern continues through life – indigenous Australians remain poorly represented in the professions and managerial workforce.
Present approaches do not close the gap. The review finds “specific barriers that are preventing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from achieving their full potential in higher education”. These include the way many universities aggregate student support services in central Indigenous Education Units.
Such units play an important role, but the review argues responsibility for indigenous issues, students and staff should be part of the broader flow with every university. With indigenous students assigned to a central unit, faculties may not provide essential discipline-specific “tutoring, mentoring and connections to the professional world”.
The review proposes teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge in relevant disciplines, particularly when graduates will work with indigenous communities. National research priorities should embrace indigenous issues, and encourage more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to undertake research higher degrees.
These conclusions carry implications for university administration, the recruitment of indigenous staff, and for commonwealth funding programs to support indigenous students. The review urges vice-chancellors to “lead from the top and, together with faculties, drive change in university culture and governance”.
The 35 recommendations of the review will spark debate. The practice of central Indigenous Education Units has developed over decades, and is reinforced by funding guidelines. Recruiting disciplinary specialists at faculty level can be challenging. A shift from centre to faculties has employment implications.
This is an important package of recommendations, a policy proposal that begins with aspiration but pays attention to research and hard-won experience. Implemented, the review could make a significant difference for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.