Recently, while teaching an 'Introduction to Indigenous Australia' course, a non-Indigenous student asked me if it was true that Indigenous people got to go to university for free. He had heard that Indigenous people were also recipients of a range of other benefits and privileges not available to non-Indigenous people.
Intrigued, I decided to ask the class what they thought about this idea that Indigenous Australians received goods and services and even financial compensation for being Indigenous. Many of the students held the belief that indeed Indigenous Australians received privileges and benefits not available to non-Indigenous Australians.
The level of conviction that this was in fact the truth shocked me. I asked the class to tell me more about the ‘free’ things available only to Indigenous Australians.
The first question was about university. I am not sure where this idea originates from but it is enduring. Members of the class were convinced that Indigenous Australians did not have to pay for a tertiary education and received “free” government funds to attend.
Some also believed that Indigenous students passed and received their degree without having to do any of the assignments. I asked them if this was the case why are Indigenous people under-represented in the university sector?
Indigenous Australians like all other Australians pay to go to university. The only way any student would come to university without paying fees is if they had a scholarship.
According to the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: Final Report 2012, Indigenous people comprise 1.4 per cent of student enrollments at university, including only 1.1 per cent of higher degree by research enrollments. Indigenous staffing levels are also low, with 0.8 per cent of all full-time equivalent academic staff and 1.2 per cent of general university staff being Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people.
Indigenous Australians like all other Australians pay to go to university. The only way any student would come to university without paying fees is if they had a scholarship. There are very few scholarships for Indigenous people specifically.
In terms of the “free payment” – Indigenous Australians generally have access to the same or similar services and support for studying as other Australians. They do not receive “free payments” because they are Indigenous nor are they exempt from doing the work. Specific government programs not “free payments” are available to address the economic and social disadvantage that Indigenous Australians may face. Such payments are generally also means tested.
The next range questions were amusing in some ways given the ridiculousness of them. I was asked if it is true that Indigenous people get free wedding dresses, a free dog, a free Toyota and a free payment from Centrelink (perhaps to pay for dog food for the free dog). The most nonsensical question however, was whether Indigenous people get “free home loans”.
Commonsense would surely tell us that a loan requires repayment therefore cannot and is not “free”. I was at first amused at the absurdity of the questions then realised that some of the students actually believed that these were indeed factual. To be clear – there is no truth to these myths.
I asked the students to reflect on why they thought that Indigenous people received such things for ‘free’. Over the next 13 weeks we examined historical documents written by colonisers that described massacres of Indigenous people and forced dispossession of lands.
The literature provided students with evidence that revealed that for over two centuries, policies of ‘Protection’, Segregation and Assimilation variously regulated the daily lives and movement of Indigenous people in Australia. Regulation occurred through child removal, enforced miscegenation, the outlawing of culture and language, the destruction and theft of lands and the breakdown of kinship relations through forced relocation; in effect, policies and practices were aimed towards the containment and annihilation of all Indigenous people.
I was at first amused at the absurdity of the questions then realised that some of the students actually believed that these were indeed factual. To be clear – there is no truth to these myths.
While many non-Indigenous people may argue that such practices were a thing of the past, evidence suggests otherwise. For example, in 2007 the then Prime Minister John Howard led the Northern Territory Intervention, which was widely condemned as racist and including by the United Nations. More recently, the Western Australian government announced plans to stop funding fundamental services to Indigenous communities essentially forcing Indigenous peoples, in these locations, from their homelands.
In 2016 the Productivity Commission revealed that Indigenous Australians are becoming more disadvantaged with increasing accounts of intergenerational trauma, high imprisonment rates, alarming suicide rates and mental health issues. Characterisation of Indigenous Australians as recipients of a “free ride” and who are seen to be motivated to rort the public purse has its roots in an ignorance of Indigenous experiences of dispossession, colonisation and ongoing colonial violence.
When confronted with the idea that Indigenous people get everything for free it is important for commonsense to prevail. I am pleased that my students were able to see that there was no truth to be found in the questions that they had and that they were able to critically reflect on why they thought there was.
Bronwyn Carlson is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Wollongong and author of The Politics of Identity: Who Counts as Aboriginal Today?