University after high school: a road less travelled by Indigenous Australians

Students sit next to The Quadrangle at The University of Sydney, in Sydney.
Students sit next to The Quadrangle at The University of Sydney, in Sydney. Source: AAP

A relatively small proportion of Indigenous school leavers will head to university this year, but plenty are finding bright futures in TAFE or other pathways, like Australia's defence forces.

School leavers across Australia are getting ready for life as adults, and many are going to university - but it's likely a different story if you identify as Indigenous.

Indigenous Australians aged 18-29 years old are much less likely to attend university compared to the whole population in that age group, while the proportions of young people in vocational education and training (VET) are more even.

Despite that, there are many young Australians who aim to attend university.

Year 11 student Khan John from Broome Senior High School says although he is unsure about what career he will pursue yet, university subjects most interest him.

"Despite my uncertainty with regards to my future career I know that the knowledge I gain from school will benefit me in my future," Khan told NITV.

"I understand also that unless I do well at school I will not have the opportunities open to me to choose from a wide range of options at university."  

He said his family, teachers and school program "Follow the Dream" helped him towards his objectives.


Another is Allan Wosomo from St Teresa's College at Abergowrie. He wants to study primary education at university. 

"My grandmother was a teacher and I would like to go back to community on Saibai Island, and hopefully teach the young kids up there," he said.

Allan said education at St Teresa's College had given him the skills and confidence, "and the motivation to apply for university".

Work experience at Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School in Ingham, which his Year 12 coordinator organised, gave Allan great insight into the teaching profession. 

Khan and Allan aim to accomplish what many young Indigenous Australians aim for after school, but for the total Indigenous population of young people, the university pathway is less travelled compared to the total population.

Rates of course completions in VET studies are closer to parity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, compared to rates of university enrolments.

Note: these charts rely on the assumption that each person completed or was enrolled in a single course only.

This gap for university enrolments has implications for students and Australia as a whole, as research suggests those who finish university qualifications as their highest level of study will realise greater financial success.

That is not to say TAFE and VET courses are a bad choice; VET courses can lead people into fulfilling careers in a wide range of industries and trades.

Different courses return different benefits

If you want to become a tradesperson or work in hospitality, a VET course may be the best thing for your career.

Yet, not all VET courses return the same benefits for students. Research shows qualifications at the lower end of the scale - certificate I and certificate II - return lesser career and earnings benefits than certificate III, certificate IV and diplomas (and higher).

Governments have recognised the importance of increasing participation in VET; a stated COAG goal is to increase the proportions of 20-24 year olds who have completed year 12 or Certificate III courses to 90 per cent by 2020.

Indigenous young people lean towards the courses with less career benefits more than the total population of young people.

The percentage of young Indigenous people completing certificate I and certificate II VET courses in 2013 was almost double the proportion of all Australian young people.

However, there are many exceptions.

Pursuing the TAFE option 

Travis Gulliver, school captain of St Teresa’s Catholic College in the rural town of Abergowrie, north of Townsville in Queensland, believes TAFE can provide him the right education for a promising career. 

"I plan on becoming an electrician," he told NITV.

"It's something that's caught my eye and is interesting. I have cousins and uncles that told me it's a really good job to take up."

Travis said his teachers had provided lots of information about apprenticeships.

"They have supported me and helped me to get the information I need to make the right decision."

Indigenous people are less likely to study at university

Indigenous Australians between 17 and 59 years of age are less likely than other Australians in the same age group to be enrolled at university.

That gap has been steady for the past decade.

Note: the 17-59 year age range was used, since about 98 per cent of students fall in this range.

The trend is not all bad news, with the percentage of Indigenous people between 17 and 59 years of age who are enrolled at university increasing at a faster rate than the total population in that age group.

In November, a joint project between SBS News and NITV showed increasing numbers of Indigenous students were making it to year 12. The growth has been even more rapid than the total population growth of year 12 students.


Yet, the increasing number of Indigenous year 12 students each year is not translating into more Indigenous school leavers going to university, said Professor Ian Anderson, Pro Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne.

"The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids finishing year 12 is growing," Professor Anderson told SBS News.

"The number of Aboriginal kids in the higher education sector - the proportion really hasn’t shifted over the last few years."

Professor Anderson has expert knowledge regarding Indigenous higher education. He was formerly the director of Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, and was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Council's co-chair.

He said the number of Indigenous school leavers going into university had grown, in line with the total number of school leavers going to university. That was due to a policy change, which meant university numbers were no longer capped, he added.

"While it's good that more Aboriginal people are getting into university, we need to get it at population parity."

The lack of Indigenous year 12 students going to university was due to a number of reasons, he said.

"They're finishing, but they're not quite getting the marks that they need to go on to university. 

"The second thing that’s quite important is what people are studying.

"Here in Victoria, for example, there are more kids in year 12 in the TAFE-type pathway than the university-type pathway," Professor Anderson said.

Another issue was the subjects that students studied in secondary school, he said.

"We don’t have enough of our young kids in secondary school doing science and maths type subjects, which open up a whole bunch of opportunities," Prof Anderson said.

Indigenous university students are often older

Professor Anderson said Indigenous university students are often older.

“The big gaps are in the 17-25 year old age group,” he said.

“This means that people are getting into university by very indirect routes… they're not coming necessarily from school to university.

Data from the Department of Education and Training supports Professor Anderson's statement that older students make a larger proportion of Indigenous university students compared to the total Australian population. The bulge in older Indigenous university students as a percentage of all students is despite a generally younger population of Indigenous Australians, compared to all Australians.

Starting university studies at a later age has an impact on individuals and the Indigenous economy, Professor Anderson said.

"If you come to university as a mature age student, your professional opportunities are delayed," Professor Anderson said.

"If you're delaying your earning power by five or six years, it means that you have less money set aside to buy your home, less money to support our family and support your kids."

You might not need to go to university or TAFE

Bright careers could culminate from choosing an alternate career path to university or vocational learning, Stronger Smarter CEO Darren Godwell said.

"Being Stronger and Smarter is about being ready for life, not necessarily being ready for university," Mr Godwell told NITV. 

He said while his institute supported Indigenous youth enrolling in university courses, "the bulk of our people will assume meaningful, productive lives in other professions and ways".

"We want to prepare our jarjums for that reality, we want them stronger, smarter for life."

Preparing for the defence force 

Leroi Getawan from St Teresa's College in Abergowrie, Queensland, does not plan on attending university or TAFE, but he is forging a meaningful career.

He has applied to be a boatswain mate with the Australian Navy after exploring the Australian Defence Force website.

"Mainly so I can learn new things and meet new people," he said.

Leroi said his college supported him to realise his goal.

"We visited the HMAS Canberra earlier this year when it was in Townsville and got to experience firsthand what it’s like to live and work on a naval vessel," he said.

The army also conducted training exercises in Ingham and Abergowrie in November where school students participated in a 24-hour, paired, immersion experience. 

"Fred and I were the first to go in," he said.

"We spent about two days there doing drills and exercises, it was all really technical. We got to cruise around in the big army trucks for most of the day, which was pretty awesome."

Data used for this article is available here.