The government has announced that three programs- the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme (ITAS), the Indigenous Support Program and the Commonwealth Scholarship program- will be scrapped and rolled into the new Indigenous Student Success in Higher Education program.
The budget states that these programs - which provide financial assistance, counselling, cultural support and tutoring- are being consolidated to give ‘universities more flexibility to implement responses that best meet the needs of individual students’.
Furthermore in an effort to encourage student retention, support services funding provided to universities will now be based on whether Indigenous students stay in their course, rather than the number of enrolments.
Indigenous students and education advocates say they’re unsure whether funding will remain the same or whether students will still have ready access to support services like ITAS, a tutoring program.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of people already, and they’re so upset that ITAS is going to be cut,” says Lizzie Green, the National Union of Students Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Officer.
“They’ve used it [ITAS] all throughout their degree...you hear students who feel like they're going to struggle and these tutors are trained in the field or they’ve done the same subject as you, so they know what you're going through."
As a third year Wiradjuri student studying at Sydney’s Macquarie university, Lizzie says that using the tutoring service, which provides two hours per week per subject of specialised tutoring, she saw her grades go from a credit to a HD in her difficult politics major.
The student director of the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association Kersandra Begley echoes these concerns.
“For myself and all the other Indigenous medical students that I speak to [ITAS] is completely critical in passing medical school, and also in thriving- we don’t want to just pass,” she says.
Changes requested by Indigenous educators
However, Indigenous education experts say many of the changes are exactly what those working in the sector asked for.
“We recommended this- those programs needed to be more flexible in their application and…I think these are good measures, it’s a new way of doing things,” says Charles Darwin University Professor Steve Larkin.
Professor Larkin is a Kungarakany man who was on an expert panel that provided a report to government in 2012 about how higher education can be improved for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. He says many of their recommendations have been implemented under the budget.
He says programs like ITAS- which previously was not available to post-graduate students and had limits on the amount of tutoring each student could receive- will now be opened up, with universities able to administer the programs according to the needs of each student.
He also says he believes overall funding for the programs will continue.
“The money is still there but it’s just that it’s been reallocated under the new package -the ITAS and ISP and scholarships program are going to be rolled into one fund that each university will get and they’ll be able to use that money as they see fit,” he says.
The budget states that ‘funding has already been included in the forward estimates’ for the new program.
NITV has sought clarification from Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion over the funding arrangements.
Programs essential in tackling low Indigenous retention rates at university
Latest figures show that less than half- just 47 percent- of Indigenous students graduate from their degree, with almost half of those citing financial difficulties
Lizzie Green says these student support programs are essential in tackling low university retention rates for Indigenous students.
“It’s such a big problem and if the solution is to put all funding in one block I think you’ll see students drop out, especially ones that have moved away from home,” she says.
“The staff at the Indigenous unit there are always there to talk no matter what and it becomes like a second family. I know one girl who moved from Broome to Macquarie University and it’s a huge difference and you want to just have someone to talk to.”
Ms Green says she is starting a campaign to keep the programs separate.
“People are still unsure about how it’s actually going to work and I’ll be getting in touch with ministers and shadow ministers,” she says.