Indigenous students need support in the Covid crisis

14 July 2020

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) Lisa Jackson Pulver highlights what is needed to secure successful outcomes in higher education for Indigenous students.

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver

Universities share the Commonwealth government’s desire for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to achieve successful outcomes in higher education as those afforded to all Australians.

However, significantly increased effort remains necessary before parity in educational success can be attained.

Consistent with the Commonwealth’s goals, outlined in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Strategy and Closing the Gap, we are committed to ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are enrolling, progressing and completing their higher education studies at the same rate as other students.

Universities are equally concerned that these benefits remain accessible to urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as well as those in regional and remote areas.

Progress has been made against these goals with support from the Commonwealth government under the Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP) and the Away From Base (AFB) program. These partnerships are productive and the benefits tangible however, in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, hard-fought gains are in danger of erosion.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student population is disproportionately impacted by both the virus and the necessary actions to curtail its transmission.

With household finances under stress, issues faced by a population already combating endemic socio-economic disadvantage have been exacerbated. The challenges of establishing a home environment conducive to study are acutely felt. Together, these have compounded the detrimental effects of reduced access to tutors and the loss of collegiate and mentoring support experienced within dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spaces on campus.

Prospective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are facing a similar set of issues. They have had the pressures of pandemic added to the challenges of navigating university admission, often as the first person in their family to do so. Under the current circumstance’s institutions have had to curtail planned outreach and enrolment support activities. Face-to-face engagement and, specifically, a direct presence in regional and remote communities could not responsibly continue in their conventional forms.

The established lines of engagement for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to access tertiary education are in danger of fracturing.

Many universities have deployed both ISSP and AFB funding to supplement support for these areas, however, the unprecedented nature of the challenge requires the Commonwealth government to re-examine the level and nature of funding it provides.

A 15 per cent increase on current ISSP funding for this year and until 2024 would permit additional, necessary support for outreach activities to engage prospective students and allow for the development and implementation of distance learning support for existing students. These funds could be targeted for use in additional scholarship support and support for addressing issues of connectivity.

With the funding calculation for ISSP based on each institution’s performance in the previous calendar year, the current circumstances are forecast to impact negatively on enrolment, progression and completion numbers. The uncertainty this causes as universities struggle within a broader contraction of funding, particularly from reductions in overseas students, will have a cascading effect on their ability to respond to these challenges.

A review into the restrictive nature of funding for activities under AFB is needed. Under current rules universities are not permitted to use AFB funds to support students’ educational internet and connectivity costs. This is impractical under circumstances where all teaching and learning must be carried out online. Currently, many universities are in a position where we need to re-purpose ISSP funding to support the new needs of our AFB students, placing further pressure on both schemes.

A 15 percent increase on current AFB funding is necessary in an operating environment where the continued insulation of regional and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are at risk of exposure to COVID-19. An adjustment of the administration costs component of the AFB from 10 per cent to 20 per cent will allow more dedicated staff to work on AFB activities.

Universities believe the Commonwealth government needs to address the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in this time of unprecedented national disruption.

This article was first published in The Australian.

Professor Adrian Miller, Deputy Vice-President (Indigenous Engagement), Central Queensland University;

Ms Angela Leitch, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy), Queensland University Technology;

Professor Braden Hill, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Equity and Indigenous), Edith Cowan University;

Professor Bronwyn Frederick, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), The University of Queensland;

Professor Gregory P Lehman, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Aboriginal Leadership), University of Tasmania;

Professor Irene Watson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Aboriginal Leadership and Strategy), University of South Australia;

Dr Leanne Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy), Macquarie University.

Professor Jacinta Elston, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), Monash University;

Professor Jill Milroy, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Education), The University of Western Australia;

Professor Juanita Sherwood, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), Charles Sturt University;

Professor Mark McMillan, Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Education and Engagement), RMIT University;

Professor Megan Davis, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), University of New South Wales;

Professor Michael McDaniel, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement), University of Technology Sydney;

Professor Michelle Trudgett, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education, Strategy and Consultation), Western Sydney University;

Mr Nathan Towney, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Leadership), University of Newcastle;

Professor Paul Chandler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Inclusion and Outreach), University of Wollongong;

Professor Peter Radoll, Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of Canberra;

Professor Reuben Bolt, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Regional Outreach), Charles Darwin University;

Professor Shane Hearn, Pro Vice- Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement), The University of Adelaide;

Associate Professor Simone Tur, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Indigenous), Flinders University.

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