New research — Interrogating relationships between student support initiatives and Indigenous student progression
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students are enrolling in university degrees at historically high rates; however, the majority of these students are not completing their qualifications. The latest available national statistics show that the national average six-year bachelor degree completion rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students is 41 per cent. This is compared to 63 per cent for non-Indigenous students and 56 per cent for low socioeconomic status (SES) cohorts, not separated by Indigenous indicators.
New NCSEHE-funded research led by Dr Bep Uink of Murdoch University investigated the enrolment-completion gap and questioned what supports are available to Indigenous undergraduate students, and how likely they are to access them. While previous research has examined individual characteristics of Indigenous students in relation to degree completion rates, this project shifted focus from individual students to universities to explore the efficacy of the support services that universities offer in terms of Indigenous student success.
Key findings from the study included:
- There was inconsistent use of data related to accessing support services and completion rates.
- Most Indigenous students did not access institutional support programs.
- Use of institutional support programs were inconsistently related to pass rates with the most consistent relation found between pass rates and receipt of scholarships.
- Rather than viewing student support in terms of functions or departments, participants conceptualised support as interpersonal relationships.
- Rather than viewing success through quantitative metrics, such as grades, units passed or degree completions, participants conceptualised success as quality of experience.
The study identified five overarching themes from yarning circle data, including:
- Positive interpersonal relationships, which referred to individual staff both within and outside of the Indigenous Higher Education Unit (IHEU) and peer-to-peer support.
- Individual attributes and experiences, which referred to students attributing their ability to progress through degrees to completion as being self-driven, as opposed to university supported.
- Sense of belonging, which referred to feeling—or wishing to feel—connected to Indigenous students and staff through the IHEU community; a desire for connection to culture and Country at university and wanting to be more visible within the broader university.
- Instrumental support, which reaffirmed previous findings in the research as to the challenges of financial insecurity, delays in academic and scholarship support, and the importance of pre-university preparation activities, units, and courses. It also highlighted a gap in support regarding transitioning out of university, once a degree is complete.
- Responses to forced online learning during COVID-19, which generated nominal mixed responses and did not appear to be of great significance to participants as lockdowns in Western Australia were short and had occurred months prior to data collection.
The report includes recommendations for practice, research and policy, including:
- Invest in data management solutions, and improved usage of available data to improve student support services.
- Ensure academic and financial support, including nuanced subsidies based on cost of materials, is available to students early in the semester.
- Improve student support practices, including providing holistic student support coordinators, clarifying the role of Elders in the higher education context, and creating a community of practice which validates the diversity of the student cohort, including those studying off campus.
- Benchmark completion data against that of other cohorts in a university context.
- Visibly acknowledge Traditional Owners in artwork, dual naming, and signage throughout the university campuses.
- Mandate professional development for non-Indigenous academic staff teaching units with Indigenous and/or cross-cultural content, in terms of Indigenous cultural awareness and sensitivity.
- Regular Indigenous-led audits of Indigenous and cross-cultural curriculum content to ensure it is culturally safe.
This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.