Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pride in Australia's Aboriginal people

I did not intend to post today. I was not posting on this blog until Saturday. Then two things happened.

The first was an email this morning from Joe Lane. The second was watching a movie much loved by my eldest called Remember the Titans. The two link.

I began writing on Aboriginal issues again in part because what I saw as a success story, the remarkable success of Australia's Aboriginal people across a range of dimensions, had been turned into a story of failure. Joe shares this frustration. He also feels that the work that he has done and especially that of Maria, his first wife, in advancing Aboriginal education has been downgraded, devalued, by the constant negativity.

How does this link to Remember the Titans? Well, this is a somewhat soppy success story about black-white relations in the US. It is a story of the way in which initially forced cooperation across racial divides came to a positive end.

Australians are often critical of the US. Yet we have, I stand to be corrected, no equivalent of Remember the Titans. All our movies appear to about past evils, there are no stories of successes, especially soppy popular successes.

As a white fella there are things I cannot say about the current structure of Aboriginal society without risking accusations of racism. I do not need to say those things. Members of the Aboriginal community and especially the young are quite capable of saying them for me.

To be a young or youngish Aboriginal leader is to be constantly exposed to pressure from their community. I can understand this in a way perhaps that some modern metro Australians cannot. After all, I have been an activist in smaller communities. Still, I had no real understanding of the scale of the pressures.

Aboriginal society is changing in ways barely perceived by the broader community. That is a matter for them, although I can try to contribute in my own limited way.

In the meantime, I thought that I might contribute to the discussion by simply publishing the paper Joe sent me. I might disagree with some of Joe's individual points. But this is hardly the story of failure.

Phases in Indigenous Tertiary Education

Joe Lane

In 1980, there were fewer than 300 Indigenous graduates in tertiary education. By the end of this year, about 25,000 Indigenous people will have graduated from universities around Australia. This is a phenomenal rise in barely a generation. The key mechanism to bringing about this change has been effective support programs for Indigenous students.

1950 - 1980

Generally, Indigenous people could not enrol in secondary education until the 1940s, since state policies prohibited Indigenous people from living in towns and cities where the secondary schools were located. During the World War II, a handful of Indigenous people, usually the only ones in their communities, were encouraged to go to independent boarding schools for the secondary education necessary for training in professional helper-role courses. This was on the assumption they would all go back to their communities and spend their entire careers in remote communities, “serving their people”.

This didn’t quite work out the way it was planned, and the graduates - usually nurses and teachers, with some missionaries and social workers - tended to find work in urban areas. In South Australia, the first nursing and teaching graduates completed their studies from around 1952, and many found work overseas, as well as in country towns.

After the war, with many people leaving missions and settlements for country towns (and eventually metropolitan areas), secondary education became available for the first time for many Indigenous people. A handful of secondary students matriculated from the end of the 50s and enrolled at teachers’ colleges and nursing schools. But graduate numbers rarely rose above one each year between 1952 and 1975 and total number of SA graduates (including hospital-trained qualified nurses) was still fewer than 20 by 1975.

1975 - 1990

In 1973, and again in 1978, interventionist programs were inaugurated to boost Indigenous tertiary numbers. They took two quite different forms:

  • In 1973, a sub-degree program was written up for community workers at the Institute of Technology, called the Aboriginal Task Force. This course was specifically for Indigenous people; it was a two-year course while the existing course for non-Indigenous students covered three years. There was little, if any, interaction between the two groups of students, and Indigenous graduates were expected to go out to Indigenous communities or organisations once they had graduated. This segregated model (some would call it a racist model) later became known as the enclave model.
  • In 1978, a preparation and support program, the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP), was set up at Underdale campus of Torrens College of Advanced Education (CAE), later Adelaide CAE, and later again the SACAE, to orient and prepare Indigenous students for enrolment and success in the standard teaching courses available on-campus. Students were recruited, tested, and prepared in a term-length (later a semester-length) orientation program, and once enrolled, studied alongside non-Indigenous students in standard programs of study, accessing support services from specific ATEP staff. This model later became known as the support program model.

In 1980, the support program concept at the ACAE was broadened to off-campus study centres in (eventually) five SA country towns, with students at first all enrolled substantially in the mainstream course in Early Childhood Education (ECE). Graduates were recognised as gaining standard qualifications. In time, these study centres provided preparation and full study support for Indigenous students in Aboriginal Studies, Business and other courses, as well as ECE.

In 1985, another program on the lines of the Underdale model was inaugurated at Salisbury Campus, called PASS - Programs for Aboriginal Students at Salisbury. In 1990, this program commenced a year-long bridging course, specifically to prepare Indigenous students for enrolment in the standard Conservation Management course at Salisbury. This program has assisted possibly the majority of Conservation Management graduates in the State.

What is striking is the immediate increase in graduate numbers from these interventionist programs: between 1980 and 1990, more than 200 Indigenous people graduated from universities, overwhelmingly (160) were at degree-level and post-graduate courses - and most of these were in mainstream or standard courses. Even without any support effort from Adelaide or Flinders universities up to that time, the support programs in the SACAE and the enclave program in the old SAIT had increased South Australian Indigenous graduate numbers from an annual average of less than one per year to 20 per year - and they were still building up.

Also in the mid-80s, Roseworthy College set up a support program to enrol, support and graduate Indigenous students in standard courses there.


In the late 80s, both Flinders and Adelaide Universities set up small support programs, both based on the Underdale support program model rather than on the enclave model. However, Adelaide University had also taken over the program from the Centre for Aboriginal Studies in Music (CASM) and has operated it ever since as an enclave program, alongside the mainstream support program which was helping to enrol students - as Flinders was doing - in a wide range of mainstream programs.

These support programs grew rapidly in the early 90s, totalling some 200 students and graduating 20 Indigenous people annually by 1994. At Flinders, the focus from early on was on health-related courses, but Adelaide also had relatively high numbers studying law. In 1994, Adelaide University set up a one-year bridging course to prepare Indigenous students for science-oriented courses, particularly medicine, with limited success.

Interstate, experiences were roughly similar, with many support programs being inaugurated in the late 80s. Some took the enclave path, writing up specific awards for Indigenous students, usually at sub-degree-level. These awards were offered to students externally, so that Indigenous students only came onto campuses for block-release programs, usually during normal student breaks. This way Indigenous students were not only doing different courses but were not even studying them on-campus alongside other students. These segregated programs continued well into the present decade.

Other universities, such as QUT, Newcastle and Charles Sturt, set up support programs to prepare and enrol Indigenous students in standard courses - Charles Sturt at a number of widely separated campuses. Again, some sandstone universities set up both small support programs for Indigenous students (usually standard-entry) in mainstream awards, and enclaves for Indigenous-specific (often external) students in sub-degree courses. Large numbers of students in enclave courses helped to boost student numbers and satisfy the queries of the federal education authorities about low enrolments.

Between 1990 and 2000, all remaining universities set up support services for Indigenous students along the lines of the two models, support programs and/or enclave programs, with some additions and variations. Some universities, such as Edith Cowan, New England, James Cook, Southern Queensland and Deakin, focused on recruiting and enrolling students externally in specially-written courses, sometimes at study centres, sometimes as isolated students. A couple of universities enrolled huge numbers of students in external bridging courses, until the federal department forced a reduction in this lucrative strategy in 2000.

Programs at some universities were totally enclave-oriented, with minimal support for Indigenous students in what the program staff regarded as “white” courses. And of course, some universities, particularly multi-campus institutions, at various times used complex mixtures of support programs, enclaves and a non-support (even an anti-support) focus on teaching Indigenous-focused awards to both Indigenous students (often in lower levels, such as Diplomas and Certificates) and non-Indigenous students (in full-degree courses).

By its nature, the support program model is open-ended - there is no limit to how many students can be recruited or in the range of disciplines in which they can enrol, if they can meet the entry requirements. By contrast, the enclave model can develop only a handful of courses, in Aboriginal Studies, Health, Education, Welfare Work, Cultural Studies and Administration, and usually at sub-degree level, one- and two-year certificates and diplomas. In this sense, the enclave model is very limited, and very dependent for its numbers on the likelihood of future employment in the Indigenous Industry and government enclaves.

Meanwhile, on many university campuses, Indigenous studies programs had been set up for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, from as far back as the late 70s. Indigenous Studies staff have tended to favour the enclave model in which they had major teaching roles. But there has always been a struggle between support programs and Indigenous Studies departments for control of direction, funding and staffing. One could say that many Indigenous Studies staff (Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous) did not see any value in the support program model and that, to many of them, the natural place for most Indigenous students was not at universities at all but rather at TAFE or in remote communities, hunting and gathering - while, in the long run, the natural market for Indigenous Studies was to be amply provided by non-Indigenous students: particularly if all non-Indigenous students at a university were required to enrol in at least one Indigenous Studies subject.

At many universities, this struggle led to the subordination of support program staff under Indigenous Studies departments, where their support role was diminished in favour of the teaching of non-Indigenous students. This was exacerbated from 2000, when a massive decline in sub-degree and non-award enrolments - and a spurious assumption of the “decline” in Indigenous student numbers - provided the rationale to wind down support for Indigenous students.

2002 - the present

One can infer from enrolment and graduation data that a major strategic change took place early this decade: at some universities, sub-degree Indigenous-focused courses were wound down and discontinued, while support staff were dragged more and more into the teaching (or more precisely, tutoring and marking) of non-Indigenous students. As it happened, this was occurring at the same time (perhaps since the mid-90s) as a rapid decline in Indigenous interest in Indigenous-focused study and segregated education.

This decline also coincided with a rise in the number of Indigenous students completing secondary education: in South Australia, the number of Indigenous students enrolling at Year 12 rose five-fold between 1999 and 2007 and the number of students completing Year 12 rose seven-fold. From around 2002, the number of Indigenous students completing their secondary schooling and coming more or less straight in to tertiary education rose rapidly, countering the decline in sub-degree and Indigenous-focused enrolments. The great majority of Indigenous students who gain their Year 12 and who come on to tertiary study enrol in mainstream courses - a bare handful of such students have ever enrolled in Indigenous studies in South Australia since 1990.

One may ask why there was a sudden rise in the number of Year 12 students. A possible answer relates to the earlier phase of the urbanisation - really the metropolitinisation - of the southern Indigenous population in the 50s and 60s: the growth in the numbers of Indigenous children in standard, city secondary schools and the development of an urban working population.

In time, this population intermarried with other working people, overwhelmingly non-Indigenous, leading to a massive upsurge in the Indigenous birth-rate from the late 80s onwards: birth-group numbers rose from about 7,000 to 11,000. Perhaps a work ethic has been driving these children through their schooling and on to mainstream tertiary education, as a relatively sure means of acquiring more secure and satisfying careers, across a very wide range of fields.

Correspondingly, the proportion of Indigenous students enrolling and graduating in some helper-role courses - teaching and social work - has declined by some 20 per cent, offset only partly by an increase in the proportion of students graduating from nursing courses.

The fact is that Indigenous university commencement, continuation, enrolment and graduation numbers are at record levels. The proportion of Indigenous students at degree-level and above and the number of study areas in which they enrol is also at record levels. Thanks to support programs, Indigenous graduate numbers in South Australia have risen from 20 or 30 to more than 1,600 in barely 30 years. This number will easily double by 2020. This success story is unfolding all across Australia.

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