The Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap 2016 report shows there have been some significant gains in the targets for higher education for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Over a decade there was a 70 per cent increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses (from 8,895 in 2004 to 15,043 in 2014).
A new report suggests further ways forward for the vocational and higher education sectors, according to its lead author, Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) at CQUniversity, Australia.
Bronwyn Fredericks writes:
Bridging, enabling and access programs in education are critically important for Indigenous students undertaking vocational and higher education, whether in health or other fields.
A new report, released by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) and conducted by CQUniversity, has found that access and bridging programs are vital when it comes to raising education aspirations among Indigenous students.
Bridging, enabling or access education programs are names given for formal programs of study offered by tertiary institutions, in which learners can build study skills that will help them transition into formal study, be that vocational (VET) or higher education.
Our research also found the importance of taking a broad approach to understanding what “success” means for students.
We found that these programs have a vital role to play in both increasing VET and higher education participation among Indigenous students and importantly in helping these students to recognise their sense of place, build confidence and resilience, and strengthen their cultural identity.
As part of this, the study explored how Indigenous learning journeys can both respect and grow cultural identity while simultaneously developing study skills.
Indigenous students undertake a range of courses and learning journeys in many and varied disciplines, including health and medical education programs. For health and medical educators there are learnings here too.
Many of the findings support the work already undertaken in the area of cultural competency, having an Indigenous graduate attribute in health programs, and grounding content in the context of the learners, including Indigenous learners.
Other findings tell us that educators – including health educators – could do more, including incorporating more Indigenous content, place-based knowledge, Indigenous pedagogies and more.
Breadth of success
Understanding the various interpretations of success were also considered from the perspectives of the student, their community and the institution delivering the program.
The research also confirmed that education has a key role to play in addressing Indigenous disadvantage and that there needs to be more opportunities for discussion on what constitutes ‘success’ in Indigenous education.
We need to consider “success” more broadly, as this term can have many different meanings including but not limited to improved confidence, a stronger sense of identity, gaining employment, improved engagement with the broader community, expanded learning capacity, course completion, entry into a vocational or higher education program, and of course completion of a vocational or higher education program.
Within the health context, the measures of Indigenous success can help in motivating, encouraging and inspiring the current and future generations of Indigenous health professionals, the Indigenous health workforce, and the Australian health workforce. For me, this is exciting and may also have capacity to influence other learners and the broader health workforce.
Indigenous approaches to teaching and learning must not only be recognised but incorporated into Indigenous access education programs. They allow students to not only develop study skills but also help them to connect with their culture, value their identity and build their sense of place within education and the community.
While access education is only a small slice of the lifelong education journey, it is a critically important one for many Indigenous peoples and the impact of access education should not be underestimated on a broader scale.
Understanding the lived experience
During the study we built case studies to provide rich documentation of the lived experiences of students who had participated in such programs, of staff who taught the programs, as well as community stakeholders.
Among the key themes that emerged during the study was the importance of including Indigenous culture in course content, as participants articulated that a lack of cultural understanding within access education programs appeared to constrain their personal learning journeys.
The study also confirmed that the notion of success was experienced across multi-dimensions of a student’s lived experience including cultural identity, voice, self-realisation, self-acceptance and pride.
Perhaps the most important thing gained from this research is that the participants involved in this study viewed success through multiple lenses.
The idea of success ultimately needs to be recognised as a multi-layered concept that includes issues of participation (for the institution) and reaffirming personal identity and confidence (for the learner), and needs to be viewed in terms of the broader community and the impact that increased participation in education will have on those connected to a student.
• This study was conducted by CQUniversity and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). Universities involved in the project included CQUniversity, Charles Darwin University and Federation University. The report titled Path+Ways: Towards Best Practice Bridging and Indigenous Participation through Regional Dual-Sector Universities is available at the NCSEHE website.
• Follow on Twitter: @BronFredericks