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Identity, Ownereship and Appropriation

Aspect of Aboriginal Australian Experience in Tertiary Education

Olga Gostin

This paper springs from a chance encounter with Professor B.N. Saraswati during an excursion to one of Australia’s most enigmatic art sites in the Laura area of the Cape York Peninsula, in August 1992. During three days of extensive travelling and occasional intensive walking, we shared thoughts and exchanged views on our common experience as professional anthropologists engaged at some time (and in my case, currently) in teaching in an indigenous tertiary program.

Professor Saraswati thought that my background as a person of mixed Russian-Belgian descent, with first hand experience of African and New Guinea cultures, yet teaching for the past 13 years at Australia’s first and foremost national tertiary program for Aboriginal people in Adelaide, South Australia, merited airing at this learned forum. I am pleased and indeed greatly honoured to be here today, though it is a matter of profound regret that my Aboriginal colleague, Mercy Glastonbury, had to cancel her visit at the last minute for family reasons. We had hoped to present complementary papers. I therefore seek your tolerance and understanding in my standing here and talking, not on behalf of Aboriginal Australians, but simply as one passionately committed to the cause of Aboriginal participation in tertiary education.

Aboriginal higher education has emerged as a significant initiative only in the past twenty years. Indeed, the first Aboriginal person to receive an undergraduate degree was Charles Perkins in 1966. The neglect of tertiary education can be directly correlated to the overall neglect of Aboriginal education from primary school onwards. This in turn is a legacy of Australia’s colonial past and the policies which informed non-Aboriginal attitudes towards the first Australians from the time of contact in 1788. Without engaging in a lengthy historical review, it is possible to summarize the causes of neglect as follows:

(i) a fundamental lack of respect for, and/or appreciation of Aboriginal culture and capabilities so that the original Australians, with a few notable exceptions, were not deemed capable of systematic instruction at the same level of expectation that applied to non-Aboriginal persons;

(ii) repressive practices which saw the physical, psychological and cultural dispossession of the first Australians. These ranged from forceful physical removal and dislocation from traditional areas, removal of children from their parents, to deliberate cultural suppression where people were actively forbidden to speak their own languages, practise vital customs and/or engage in hunting/gathering activities which formerly had ensured a healthy diet and ongoing bonding with land through custom;

(iii) the imposition of an alien value system which saw Christianity and Anglo-Saxon culture as a major ‘civilizing’ force, while at the same time denying equal access to the benefits of that civilization;

(iv) policies of segregation, assimilation and later integration — all of which were based on the premise of asserting the dominant (Western) culture. This was extended to the point that the true history of the invasion of Australia, the resistance of Aboriginal people to it, their remarkable survival and their ensuing dispossession remained largely hidden from the Australian consciousness until the mid-1970s.

Against this background, it is not surprising that Aboriginal people on the whole performed rather poorly in what educational opportunities were offered to them. By the 1970s, however, new political forces led to the emergence of Aboriginal tertiary education. The reasons for this were as follows (Bin-Sallik, 1990:1):

(i) following the 1967 referendum giving the Federal Government the authority to act on behalf of Aboriginal interests (which had formerly been the exclusive responsibility of the States) the need to redress the educational disadvantage of Aboriginal people became a matter of priority;

(ii) the Federal policy of self-management generated a need for Aboriginal leadership;

(iii) government policy deliberately sought proportional Aboriginal representation in the private and public sectors thereby creating new avenues of employment and a demand for qualified people;

(iv) Aboriginal people themselves demanded increased access to tertiary education;

(v) this was made possible by the release of federal funds for tertiary institutions to launch new programs.

The first tertiary program for Aboriginal people launched under this initiative in 1973, was the so-called Aboriginal Task Force at the South Australian Institute of Technology, now the School of Aboriginal and Islander Administration (SAIA) at the University of South Australia. This program was supposed to be a once-off event aimed at training community workers for the Department of Community Welfare. The success of the course lead to its evaluation modification and consolidation over the next two decades during which it moved from delivering awards in welfare and community development to a fully accredited Bachelor of Arts degree in Aboriginal Affairs Administration. Since its inception in 1973, the Aboriginal Task Force as it is still informally and fondly known, has produced some five hundred graduates almost all of whom have found employment in government departments, Aboriginal organizations and private enterprises. The success of the program was largely due to its operating on a two-strand, mutually supportive basis with one sector delivering academic programs and the other offering support under the so-called Aboriginal Higher Education Unit (AHEU) or ‘enclave’ system.

The National Aboriginal Education Committee (NAEC) defines enclaves as follows:

An enclave support program is where Aboriginal students enrolled in standard courses within institutions are given additional support appropriate to their culture, lifestyles and educational background (1984: 16).

The functions of the AHEUs have been enumerated by Bourke et al. (1991: 4) as follows:

(i) to design and administer specially targeted advertising and recruiting programs;

(ii) to conduct alternative selection procedures, and recommend on admission;

(iii) to provide ongoing academic tutorial assistance and study skills programs to enrolled students;

(iv) to provide personal counselling, as needed;

(v) to assist students in a range of non-academic areas such as housing, child-care and financial support;

(vi) to provide designated space and facilities for the specific use of Aboriginal students.

The success of the Aboriginal Task Force with its enclave program made it a model for tertiary institutions throughout Australia many of which adopted enclave support functions as a back-up for Aboriginal students studying conventional or so-called mainstream courses. The Task Force remained distinctive in that both its academic program and its support functions were tailored specifically for an Aboriginal clientele, a feature which will be discussed later in this paper.

Table 1 shows how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student enrolments have increased almost sixfold in the past decade. It is interesting to note that women make up a consistent 60 per cent of Aboriginal enrolments and that an annual growth rate of some 30 per cent has been recorded for the past five years with the exception of 1990.

Table 2 shows the correlation between Aboriginal enrolments and the establishment of support programs. Thus in 1969 with no support there were only 18 enrolments; in 1982 with 10 support programs there were 854 enrolments; and in 1989 with 62 support programs there were some 3,307 enrolments. (Bourke et al., 1991: 3)

Table 7.1

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students in Higher Education, 1982 and 1987-91:



Annual Growth Rate Females share of Aboriginal enrolments (%) Aboriginals % share of total enrolments
Year Females Males Total
1982     854     0,3
1987 1,166 767 1,933   60.3 1.5
1988 1,614 951 2,565 32.7 62.9 0.6
1989 2,025 1,282 3,307 28.9 61.2 0.7
1990 2,286 1,323 3,607 9.1 63.4 0.7
1991 2,987 1,820 4,807 33,3 62.1 0.9

From: Higher Education Series, Update No. 2, October, 1992.

Table 7.2

Aboriginal Enrolment and Support Programs Expansion since 1972


Aboriginal enrolments Support Programs


*    1969 18 nil
     1972 72 nil
     1979 748 5
**  1982 854 10
*** 1989 3,307 62

* CDE Survey of Aboriginal Access to Tertiary Education, AGPS, undated.

** NAEC Aborigines and Tertiary Education: A Framework for the 1985-87 Triennium, AGPS, 1984.

***DEET Higher Education Series Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Students, Report No. 3, April 1990.

From: Bourke., et al., 1991. Career development in Aboriginal Higher Education Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Fig. 1 compares the age distributions of Aboriginal and all higher education students, showing a predominantly older Aboriginal student body.

Fig. 1

Distribution of Aboriginal and All Higher Education Students by Age Group (%), 1991.

From: Higher Education Series, Update No. 2, October 1992.

Fig. 2 shows the distribution of Aboriginal and all higher education students by course, showing that Aboriginal students are more likely to be enrolled in diploma, associate diploma or non-award courses (Higher Education Series — Update No. 2, October 1992).

Aboriginal All Students

Fig. 2

Distribution of Aboriginal and All Higher Education Students by Level of Course (%), 1991.

From: Higher Education Series, Update No. 2, October 1992.

It can thus be seen that Aboriginal involvement in tertiary education has taken off, thanks to the role of supportive programs developed in the last 20 years. Even so, it must be noted that proportionate Aboriginal participation in the tertiary sector still remains at one-third that of all Australians (Department of Education, Employment and Training [DEET] 1988: 34).

The second half of this paper addresses the use and relevance of culture-specific material and the structuring of awards specially designed by and for Aboriginal people to meet their self-defined social and cultural needs. The realization in the 1970s that ‘mainstream’ education was not succeeding was clearly shown by the low retention of students at primary and secondary school levels and by the mere trickle of students entering the tertiary sector. While a variety of socio-economic reasons might appropriately be forwarded to explain the Aboriginal negative experience of formal schooling, e.g. poverty, poor health, broken families, poor role models, discrimination and racism, one could also attribute the failure of Western type education at all levels to a profound sense of cultural alienation. In a word, mainstream education was seen to be both alien and alienating, with little relevance to the real-life experience of the students. This resulted in poor attendance and performance right across the spectrum, from primary to tertiary education.

The reality of this dilemma was recognized in a Report to the Schools Commission by the Aboriginal Consultative Group (1975) which strongly advocated the need for an increased number of Aboriginal teachers and the establishment of special teacher-training programs to meet the need of educating children in a culturally relevant setting. Two programs resulted from this initiative: that of Batchelor (sic) College in the Northern Territory, and the Anangu Teacher Education Program (ANTEP) at the University of South Australia (cf. George, 1992; Stewart, 1991). Graduates from these programs are trained specifically to teach in their own culture areas. Although regional differences undoubtedly will apply, the overall approach in Aboriginal education represents a quest

for total education which includes cultural education. Such education begins from different premises and aims at different outcomes, and as such is a study from within; an exploration, an analysis, a probing of one’s own world, of one’s people and their history (Bourke, 1992: 17).

On a national scale, the NAEC in 1984 set the target of training 1000 Aboriginal teachers by 1990, an initiative which has until recently soaked up much of the resources designated for Aboriginal higher education (Bourke et al., 1991:5).

For the most part, however, Aboriginal tertiary programs have focused on delivering enclave-type support to Aboriginal students enrolled in mainstream higher education courses. Until recently there has been a heavy bias of enrolment in the fields of teacher training, social science and the humanities, with only negligible enrolments in agriculture, architecture, computing and engineering. Business courses, health, science and law are gaining greater popularity.

The most distinctive initiative, however, relates to the development of courses and awards which are specifically designed for Aboriginal students in consultation with Aboriginal advisory groups. This approach was pioneered by the Aboriginal Task Force in 1973 and has since been imitated in several other universities. The characteristic of these courses is that they are vocationally oriented in areas of demonstrated professional need. Thus SAIA has developed special courses in Aboriginal administration aimed at training graduates for the public service, community organizations and statutory authorities. The University of Newcastle has developed a special medical course while the Charles Sturt University has launched a special Aboriginal Community Ranger course. Other initiatives are in the pipeline as tertiary institutions increasingly recognise that they must meet the needs of Aboriginal people in a socio-political climate which acknowledges the rights of indigenous people to formulate their own socio-cultural agendas and priorities. More relevantly, Aboriginal academics are increasingly calling the tune themselves and are defining what to them is considered to be appropriate tertiary education. This was the theme of the second annual National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Conference held in Hervey Bay, Queensland in December 1992.

The current trends were in fact anticipated in 1988 when the Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force recommended that certain conditions apply to funding Aboriginal education. These required institutions to consult with Aboriginal communities, define and implement access outcomes, establish long-term planning, develop culture-inclusive and sensitive curricula and practices, and undertake reviews consistent with national goals and priorities in Aboriginal higher education (Bourke et al., 1991: 9-10).

The evolution of such culturally determined programs can perhaps best be demonstrated by taking the case of the original Aboriginal Task Force. Bin-Sallik identifies several stages in its development (1990: 22-23):

(i) the creation of a two-year training program for welfare workers leading to a non-accredited certificate (1973-75);

(ii) the entry of Aboriginal students into an accredited mainstream social science course facilitated by the Task Force’s special entry program (1976-82);

(iii) the establishment of nationally recognized, accredited courses specifically designed for Aboriginal vocational needs through a consultative process with, and input from, the Aboriginal community, and where the bulk of the curriculum reflects Aboriginal needs (1983 cont.);

(iv) the South Australian Institute of Technology (now the University of South Australia) accepts full responsibility for the program by incorporating it administratively and financially into its formal structure by proclaiming it the School of Aboriginal and Islander Administration (1987);

(v) the University of South Australia launches the Faculty of Aboriginal and Islander Studies, the first of its kind in Australia, which includes the School of Aboriginal and Islander Administration and other Aboriginal-related teaching and research programs within the University (1992).

A major ongoing feature of all these initiatives was the continuation of the enclave support program funded by the Federal Government through its Aboriginal Participation Initiative (API), which in 1990 allocated A$18m on a nationwide basis. Subsidiary funding is also available through the Aboriginal Education Strategic Initiatives Program (AESIP) which in 1990 committed A$7m nationwide (Bourke et al., 1991: 12).

The success or otherwise of programs and their enclave support systems specifically designed to meet Aboriginal needs has not yet been properly evaluated on a national scale. Bin-Sallik, however, conducted a survey of past student evaluation of the Aboriginal Task Force/SAIA (1990: 24). The salient points which emerge are that the program:

(i) reinforced/developed identity and pride in Aboriginality;

(ii) increased self-esteem and confidence;

(iii) developed an awareness of problems confronting Aboriginal people;

(iv) improved employment opportunities.

Most importantly, because the program was allowed to evolve over two decades, it has been able to incorporate and respond to the socio-political changes which have affected Aboriginal affairs. It would be true to say that the original Task Force has been a main contributor to the development of a national Aboriginal intellectual community (Bin-Sallik, 1990:33).

The future, however, is not plain sailing. For a variety of reasons, above all economic, there has arisen a strong drive to rationalize university courses and to trim budgets. The time of preferential API and AESIP monies is fast passing and Aboriginal supportive programs as well as vocational awards are under direct threat. The tendency is to streamline courses with the foreseeable outcome that mainstream awards will dominate. This trend may well set back the progressive initiatives of the past two decades which saw such a positive response of Aboriginal people to tertiary education. As Bin-Sallik points out: "tertiary studies are fundamentally acculturative by intent and rationale; [they] therefore constitute a potentially destructive experience for Aborigines" (1990: 141).

The threat of homogenization, uniformization and Westernization of hitherto distinctive Aboriginal programs is very real in Australia today. It is to be hoped that Aboriginal academics will take their cause on board and challenge the trend towards mainstreaming, if that is indeed, perceived as an undesirable direction. Much is at stake. In the words of Eleanor Bourke, Director of the Aboriginal Research Institute at the University of South Australia:

Appropriate education is critical in the survival of Aboriginal Australia but only if it is in harmony with Aboriginal aspirations and cultural contexts. The alternative is to loose Aboriginal values and lifestyles and to become Europeanised. Aboriginal people have to find the balance between gaining the necessary degree of expertise from western education and the enhancement of Aboriginality at the same time (1992: 17).


Aboriginal Consultative Group, 1975. Education for Aborigines: Report to the Schools’ Commission. Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Bin-Sallik, Mary Ann, 1990. Aboriginal Tertiary Education in Australia: How well is it serving the needs of Aborigines?, Aboriginal Studies Key Centre, South Australian College of Advanced Education, Adelaide.

———, 1992. "Aboriginal Studies and Academic Reconciliation", In Kaurna Higher Education Journal Issue 2: 1-7.

Bourke, Eleanor, 1992. "Aboriginal Australia", In Kaurna Higher Education Journal Issue 2: 12-17.

Bourke, Eleanor; Farrow, Rosie; McConnochie, Keith and Tucker, Adrian, 1991. Career Development in Aboriginal Higher Education, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

DEET, 1988. Report of the Aboriginal Education Policy Task Force, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

George, Rigmor, 1992. "Emerging Models of Educational Delivery in Remote Aboriginal Contexts". Paper delivered at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Conference, Hervey Bay, Queensland. Towards 2000: Maintaining the Momentum. 6-11 December 1992.

Higher Education Series, Update No. 2, 1992.

NAEC, 1984. Aborigines and Tertiary Education: a Framework for the 1985-1987 Triennium, Australian Government Publishing Service, Canberra.

Stewart, Ian, 1991. "Focus on Learning Styles: Aboriginal Teacher Education in the Northern Territory", In Access 5 (1): 19-22.


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