• USYD Vice Chancellor Shane Houston. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The University of Sydney have embarked on a bold new plan to accommodate as many new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as possible.
Ryan Liddle

9 Mar 2017 - 4:03 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2017 - 4:03 PM

For Indigenous and non-Indigenous students alike, the first year of University is always the hardest.

Adjusting to a new learning environment, balancing a social life and a bank balance on next-to-no income can often lead to many students withdrawing from study.

It's a problem that Professor Shane Houston the Vice Chancellor at the University of Sydney, who was once an Indigenous first year himself, is seeking to address through a new program targeting first year students, in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students

“We run about 18 per cent of University students dropping out in their first year, so what we've got to do is pay particular attention to the first year that students study," he told NITV News.

"Talking to students and others around the University, we found that it’s the cost of living.”

Sydney is one of the most expensive cities to live in, a factor than can deter potential students from taking up study here. Despite this, the University of Sydney has been trying to bolster its ranks with local and interstate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students.

“The last couple of years we've been trying to boost the number of ATSI students at Sydney Uni and we've had great success, we've seen our numbers grow by about 40 per cent which is a great outcome," he said.

"This year we've seen a significant number of students, about 160 so far that have enrolled in courses this week so we're seeing real numbers go up but getting them in here is just the first step, we want to make sure students finish their degree, you know, that's where the payoff is so we've been looking at the student journey.”

Enrolling students is one thing...

"What we've found was the biggest risk that ATSI students face is in their first year. You know, sometimes you can't survive in Sydney on Abstudy alone, you've got to be able to supplement your income so people get a first job, then they get a second job and then they've got to juggle jobs, their social life and their academic life, that becomes really problematic," Vice Chancellor Houston said.

“So what we decided to do was to provide an accommodation guarantee so any ATSI students that comes to Sydney can actually be guaranteed a bed in a University owned accommodation and we’ve got a few thousand beds around the university, Queen Mary building, International House and a few other places guaranteed and we will heavily subsidise that accommodation so it takes the pressure off students in their first year."

Alleviating stress and distractions

“In trying to fit into a new setting, finding new friends, stepping into a different learning environment can be hard, so we’re trying to lessen the pressures. We hope that it will ultimately give them more time to invest in their studies and to think about what they need to do succeed in their chosen degree."

Professor Houston is encouraging new and potential enrolments to sign up to the program.

“Any of the 160 students enrolled this year will be guaranteed a bed…if that number went up to 200, we could do that too,” he said.

The community feedback to the changes has been positive.

“I’ve been travelling through country NSW, and they all love the idea that they can send their love ones down into a safe environment where they can focus on degrees and they can succeed at university and you’re going to guarantee them a bed? Absolutely, they love the idea.”