How are Universities Supporting Indigenous Students and Communities?

Higher education institutions and governmental bodies have a responsibility to encourage and support the recruitment and retention of Indigenous students, so how are they meeting this responsibility?  

Indigenous students still face a range of institutional and structural obstacles when it comes to succeeding in the higher education space.  

According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (PNPI)19% of 18–24-year-old Native American students are enrolled in college, compared to 41% of the overall US population.  

Additionally, “25% of Native Americans over the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher, compared to 42% of all those over the age of 25.” 

In Australia, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap has set a higher education target for 70% of Indigenous Australians between 25 and 34 years of age to have a tertiary qualification by 2031. 

To put this target in perspective, 72% of non-Indigenous Australians had such qualifications in 2016, compared to 42% of Indigenous Australians (rising from 19% in 2001).  

By working in partnership with Indigenous communities and leaders, governments and higher education institutions can help establish long-term strategies and support services that improve representation, equity, and inclusion for Indigenous students.  

So how are institutions and governments working towards this objective and supporting Indigenous students and their communities?  

In Australia, the Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP) “provides supplementary funding to universities to help students take on the demands of university and succeed. Universities can offer scholarships, tutorial assistance, mentoring, safe cultural spaces, and other personal support services. The flexibility of the ISSP assists universities to tailor their services to match student needs.” 

Since its introduction in 2017, the federal government program has helped universities support more than 19,000 Indigenous students, with the program resulting in 27% increase in tutorial assistance for Indigenous students. 

The Australian government also introduced a performance-based funding model in 2019, which dictates that the amount of funding that public universities receive from the government is contingent on how they measure in four different areas: 

  • Graduate employment rate 
  • Student experience and satisfaction 
  • Student success (attrition) 
  • Equity group participation 

Equity group participation refers to the percentage of enrolled students who are Indigenous, from a low socio-economic background, or live in a regional area, so this demonstrates another governmental effort to increase university enrollments for Indigenous Australians.  

From a sector perspective, Universities Australia also introduced its own strategy in 2017, bringing its 39 member universities together to work on the participation, retention, and success of Indigenous students in universities.  

This strategy includes three key actions, improving enrollments and performance in students, academics, researchers, and staff; improving the university environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; and increasing the engagement of non-Indigenous people with Indigenous knowledge, culture, and educational approaches. 

In 2019, a report focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health students in the tertiary education system found that the key factors that affected their retention were:  

  • Family and peer support 
  • Competing obligations 
  • Academic preparation and prior educational experiences 
  • Access to the Indigenous Student Support Centre 
  • Financial hardship 
  • Racism and discrimination 

To address these factors, nursing, health, and medical science faculties implemented a range of multi-layered measures. The most successful strategies included:  

  • Culturally appropriate recruitment and selection processes 
  • Comprehensive orientation and pre-entry programs 
  • Building a supportive and enabling school culture 
  • Appointing Indigenous academics 
  • Embedding Indigenous content throughout the curriculum 
  • Developing mentoring and tutoring programs 
  • Flexible delivery of content 
  • Partnerships with the Indigenous Student Support Centre 
  • Providing social and financial support 
  • And ‘leaving the university door open’ for students who leave before graduation to return 

So, which of these measures has your institution implemented to support your Indigenous students? And what strategies are in place to work towards these objectives?  

Universities Canada reports that 80% of its member universities have a strategic plan for advancing reconciliation and to ensure the academic success of Indigenous students 

Additionally, “more than 80% of universities work with Elders to provide cultural supports like visits and mentoring to Indigenous students” and “more than 80% of universities have a partnership with Indigenous communities and organizations to foster dialogue and reconciliation.” 

While these statistics are impressive, there is still a long road ahead when it comes to equity and inclusion for Indigenous students in higher education spaces.  

Dr. Hayden King is the Executive Director of Yellowhead Institute and Advisor to the Dean of Arts on Indigenous Education at Ryerson University in Canada. He says that Indigenization is problematic and doesn’t address fundamental issues.  

It implies that we’re adding Indigenous peoples to existing institutions and structures and making them a bit more hospitable, but it doesn’t address the core structural issues of institutions like the universityWe can recruit more Indigenous students to campus and put Indigenous iconography on campus, which are all symbolic changes, but representation is only a partial remedy.” 

As stated in a recent QS report, How to Prioritize the Ethnic Diversity of Staff at Higher Education Institutionsit’s crucial to remember that diversity and representation doesn’t automatically lead to inclusion.  

Institutions should consider that: “While you may encourage ethnic diversity and representation amongst staff, consider how your institution supports these staff members, how it handles their development and advancement, how it listens to their concerns, and how it addresses their priorities and needs.” 

The same measures should apply to your students, consider how your institution is listening to them, adjusting to their needs, and providing additional support.  

Higher education institutions need to work with Indigenous communities and groups to determine how they can best encourage and support Indigenous students and improve their retention and graduate outcomes.  


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