Education Within a Generation

The education gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is rapidly closing. Charlee-Sue Frail and Natalie Ironfield share their personal experiences with Woroni.

Historically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s engagement in the education system was not a positive experience, with a history of exclusion and segregation. This consequently led to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering the workforce at a younger age. Furthermore there existed a strong culture of institutionalised racism that inhibited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from pursuing their educational aspirations. Over time this led to a significant gap between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population and their educational attainments.

The 1960s marked the emergence of a shift in education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with prominent Indigenous leaders arising, such as Charlie Perkins, who graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts. This was a positive step, and much needed shift for our people, who werelong denied the chance to achieve their educational aspirations. This initial increase in the education of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had far reaching effects for the community, and renewed hope among many for a positive future.

By 2010 there were 25,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in total who graduated from university throughout a wide range of disciplines. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people currently only make up 1.09% of university enrolments, there are signs that this figure is increasing. From 2006 to 2011 there was a 40% increase in Indigenous enrolments in higher education.

As Aboriginal students who make up part of this small, but increasing figure, we are proud to be part of the education movement. Despite the fact that this has been a slow process, we are starting to see positive shifts in education through the entire education system. We believe that increases in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university enrolments can be attributed to the great support mechanisms that are available to assist us from the time that we enrol in university, up until the time that we graduate.

Unfortunately financial instability is one of the major barriers to attending university, and money is one of the major reasons for the high drop-out rate among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Employment opportunities that can be gained through the Australian Public Service Cadetship Program and the CareerTrackers Indigenous Internship Program have assisted many students throughout the completion of their studies. On top of financial assistance, these program have also allowed us to develop as young professionals so that we are prepared for the workforce upon graduation.

Given the low number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people entering into higher education, and the limited understanding about university within families and communities, support networks are critical for the successful completion of university. There are various Indigenous educational support units within universities across Australia. At ANU, the Tjabal Centre provides an array of support services that encourage enrolment and retention. Furthermore, each year the Indigenous student collective at ANU are invited to attend the National Indigenous Tertiary Education Student Games. Last year we met in Cairns with students at universities from all across Australia. This allowed us to build great support networks all across the country with like-minded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

When considering past generations of both of our families, completing school was not a norm, nor was entering into higher education. Thankfully, the emphasis on the importance of education drastically shifted among our families and among the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are no longer excluded, restricted or segregated from educational opportunities. Rather, we have seen an emergence of pathways and support mechanisms that encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enter tertiary education, achieve their educational desires and improve their life opportunities.

We have already seen the change that one generation can make. With the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduates expected to double by 2020, a new generation of leaders will emerge to create educational pathways for future generations. A positive change that this nation needs.