National

Top city universities falling behind on indigenous enrolment

 

Indigenous high students try their hand in a pharmacy lab as part of the Wingara Mura – Bunga Barrabugu program at the ...
Indigenous high students try their hand in a pharmacy lab as part of the Wingara Mura – Bunga Barrabugu program at the University of Sydney. Photo: Ben Rushton

NSW's most prestigious universities are falling behind their regional counterparts in Indigenous enrolments, data from the federal Department of Education has revealed.

The University of Sydney and the University of NSW have some of the lowest indigenous enrolment rates in the state, with up to one-third that of regional universities.

Indigenous high students try their hand in a pharmacy lab as part of the Wingara Mura – Bunga Barrabugu program at the ...
Indigenous high students try their hand in a pharmacy lab as part of the Wingara Mura – Bunga Barrabugu program at the University of Sydney. Photo: Ben Rushton

UTS Associate Professor Dr Nina Burridge, who studies indigenous education, said some universities could be doing more to boost indigenous enrolment, particularly if young people were reluctant to move to the city to study.

"On the one hand I would say that unis are well meaning. But, sometimes, there's a lot of rhetoric rather than reality - the publicity in some ways overshadows the success rates."

Kyol Blakeney, an Aboriginal primary education student at Sydney University, agrees. In 2015, he was a keen advocate for indigenous engagement as president of the student representative council.

Mr Blakeney said the problem lies not in individual outreach programs, but in larger hurdles indigenous young people face with the prospect of moving to study in the city.

"The connection to land is very important. For a lot of young people in Aboriginal communities it's quite a big step to move away from home."

He said larger city universities could be doing more to help indigenous students make the move.

"The University of Sydney doesn't have many opportunities for a simple thing like accommodation," he said. "If you live in Broken Hill, no matter how much procedure the uni has to boost enrolments, they're not going to get them to study there.

"A high population of Aboriginal people come from a regional, low socio-economic background. Being able to pay for your textbooks and general living, it's a big ask for someone who has just left school."

But one area of study stands out as lacking enrolments more than any other.

Among the 15,000 indigenous students at Australian universities in 2014, only one in 10 enlisted in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) degree, according to Federal Department of Education data.

As the Turnbull government rolls out its innovation agenda, including an announced $48 million towards improving STEM literacy, education institutions are scrambling to reorganise their priorities.

"There is an aspirational impediment that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids think they couldn't get into the best universities in Australia, but the reality is they can and they succeed," said Sydney University deputy Vice-Chancellor Shane Houston, who is responsible for indigenous strategy.

An event held at Sydney University on Monday saw 226 indigenous high school students from around the nation given a taste of university life, with demonstrations across a variety of subject areas including a pharmacy lab where they were invited to make hand cream.

"Ultimately I want to be a GP or a surgeon, or maybe even a pediatrician. I'm just going into medical studies to open my eyes a bit more," said André Ross, 18, who is beginning year 12 in Alice Springs this year.

The three-hour flight from the Red Centre didn't deter Mr Ross, who said: "I'm used to the distance and I don't mind it because they've got Skype and all that now."

The high school program, which runs all week, is part of the university's long-term strategy of outreach and financial assistance to encourage more indigenous young people to take up study, particularly in STEM degrees.

Charles Sturt University in Bathurst had the second-highest number of indigenous students nationwide, after the University of Newcastle, in 2014. "There's a very large indigenous population in western NSW so it's a core part of our mission," said CSU's vice-chancellor, Professor Andrew Vann.  "But proportionally, indigenous students are much less represented in STEM than in other area. That's something we have to work on across the whole sector."