Understanding completion rates of Indigenous higher education students from two regional universities
Fiona Shalley, James Smith, Denise Wood, Bronwyn Fredericks, Kim Robertson and Steven Larkin
Charles Darwin University, CQUniversity, The University of Queensland and The University of Newcastle
Data shows that Indigenous higher education students have lower access, participation and completion rates compared with non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students from regional and remote areas face additional challenges and barriers in accessing and participating in higher education and are further under-represented in the national Indigenous higher education student population. They are likely to belong to multiple equity groups, attracting significant educational disadvantage when the appropriate systems are not in place to support them.
There have been numerous calls for an improved evidence base to inform better policy and practice to support increased Indigenous participation and success in higher education (e.g. Anderson et al. 2008; Behrendt et al. 2012; Frawley et al. 2015). This, coupled with statements from the Commonwealth Government asking for greater transparency and accountability around indicators of student success and student attrition, provides the impetus for more targeted research. This report investigates the higher education outcomes of Indigenous students enrolled in two regionally based universities—the Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Central Queensland University (CQUniversity)—bringing together quantitative and qualitative analysis.
In comparison to the national domestic student population, the CDU/CQUniversity Indigenous student profile shows they are:
- generally from regional and remote Australia and from low socioeconomic status (SES) classified areas
- likely to be studying externally (including online and distance learning)
- likely to be female
- likely to be mature-aged (25 years and over)
- more likely to have an identified disability but less likely to identify a non-English speaking background
- likely to be admitted through pathways other than secondary school
- highly likely to be the first in their family to enrol in university
- likely to be enrolled in a limited number of study areas (society and culture, education or nursing) and unlikely to be enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects if they are female.
Student enrolment data collected by universities are complicated, reflecting the often complex nature of student engagement with higher education. Students can discontinue and re-enter degree courses over time, exit with a different degree type, change their study discipline, change universities within their degree, and change their study intensity between full and part-time, and study modality between internal and external. These factors influence the length of time it may take to complete a degree and relative success and completion rates.
Cohort analysis provides a data methodology that can track students through their higher education pathway and identify relationships between characteristics of a population and that population’s behaviours (Commonwealth Department of Education and Training [DET] has applied cohort analysis to the domestic all-student university population since 2014). Combined with qualitative student narratives, the cohort analyses in this report provide a richer understanding of how Indigenous students enrolled in CDU/CQUniversity progress through their university study.
The main findings show that when compared to the national Indigenous student population, Indigenous students from CDU/CQUniversity are less likely to complete a higher education award. However they have comparable levels of persistence and commitment, and around six per cent are still engaged with their study 10 years after enrolment. Student and study characteristics are associated with successful completion in similar as well as different ways to the national DET all-student cohort analyses, with many of the characteristics inter-related. Compared to men, more Indigenous women are participating, and they are successfully completing at much higher rates. Results also point to full-time study intensity and a multi-mode design (combining both internal and external elements of course work) being associated with higher award completion success. Remoteness is compounding issues around access and participation, with barriers related to communication, technology and financial support all identified as significant in student and staff interviews that investigated factors contributing to Indigenous student success.
The process of analysing the data highlighted weaknesses associated with the student enrolment data, as well as the design of information systems and current evaluation targets and methods when they are applied to Indigenous students from regional and remote areas. It also pointed to some specific research gaps and the continuing under-representation of Indigenous students who speak languages other than English (who are more likely to be living in regional and remote areas). Utilising student enrolment data on its own was found to have limited ability to predict success. Contextualising these results with student and staff narratives recognises the multifaceted dimensions associated with successful completion and identifies the need to consider the uniqueness of Indigenous student circumstances in regional and remote areas.
The report calls for further commitments to improved data, and quantitative methodologies for monitoring progress. When accompanied by targeted qualitative research (narratives and surveys) the analyses provide the depth of understanding required for targeted Indigenous higher education policy and practice appropriate to those students from regional and remote places.
 In 2017 Senator Birmingham, Education Minister, asked the Higher Education Standards Panel to investigate factors influencing student completions.