Equity Groups: Indigenous Students in Higher Education

This blog post is part of the Gonski Institute for Education’s open access annotated bibliography (OAAB) series, a project led by Dr Sally Baker. OAABs offer a snapshot of some of the available literature on a particular topic. The literature is curated by a collective of scholars who share an interest in equity in education. These resources are intended to be shared with the international community of researchers, students, educators and practitioners. The literature has been organised thematically according to patterns that have emerged from a deep and sustained engagement with the various fields.

This post was written by Dr Sally Baker and Dr Kevin Lowe.

There is a strong focus on Indigenous students’ access to, retention, participation and success in higher education. Eleven of the papers included in the review specifically focus on Indigenous students, but several others include Indigenous students in their analysis. As with other equity groups, research suggests that there are particular demographic patterns. Asmar, Page & Radloff’s (2015) data suggest that Indigenous students are more likely to be female, from a low SES background, older, first in family and come from provincial/ remote Australia. Similarly, Bandias, Fuller & Larkin (2013) found that there are more Indigenous women than men in higher education, with the highest proportion (70% of total indigenous enrolments in 2008) enrolments in the discipline areas of health, education, and society (see also Hall, 2015). In contrast, Day & Nolde’s (2009) participants were mainly not first in family (although from a sample of 12 students) and were an equal split of males and females. However, Asmar, Page & Radloff (2015) argue that these characterisations are impoverished and that a more nuanced understanding of who indigenous students are is needed, particularly in terms of differentiating between younger and older students.

A common finding in the literature is the significance of Indigenous centres for both students and staff. Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) foreground the centrality of Indigenous centres for supporting Indigenous staff and students, but note that these are usually marginal rather than central to universities, which they argue to symptomatic of broader, tokenistic attitudes towards Indigeneity in higher education. They make the point that, “The university may want ‘elders’ to perform ‘welcome to country’ at various events, but rarely considers linking with elders’ knowledge and networks to inform changes in university teaching, research and governance” (p.947). These authors also note lack of parity in resourcing Indigenous centres (compared with spending on the faculties) and the paradoxical positioning of Indigenous centres as formal spaces for developing Indigenous community while simultaneously bracketing off Indigenous staff and students from the ‘whitestream’ and from institutional decision-making.  Day & Nolde (2009) also discuss the significance of Indigenous centres, highlighting the importance of such spaces to provide “a safe counter space for indigenous students only. Here students became part of the indigenous family” (p.156). However, similar to Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) also argue that more investment is necessary to improving student progress and retention; “However such resources are often not forthcoming. Most non-indigenous faculty do not visit indigenous academic spaces, maintaining academic and cultural divides” (p.149). Moreover, although Asmar, Page & Radloff (2015) acknowledge the role of Indigenous centres, they argue that little is known about the actual impact of indigenous centres for supporting indigenous students, and therefore more research is needed.

In addition, there is a small but significant focus in the literature that focuses on Indigenous-specific enabling education. The work reported in Fredericks et al. (2015), examined alternative entry (enabling) programs for indigenous students through Cajete’s (1994) concept of path+ways/ both-ways, whereby a path is ‘wellthoughtout structure’ and way to navigate learning journeys. Their analysis positions success as a ‘multilayered construct’: “For Indigenous students, success in access programs is variously seen as increased ‘cultural identity’ and the development of ‘voice’, selfrealisation, selfacceptance and ‘pride’” (p.61). Fredericks et al. (2015) contend that access programs that are aligned with ‘both-ways’ approaches “can support inner transformations of self related to strength, knowledge acquisition, growth, identity and voice” (p.64), and are thus particularly salient for indigenous access/ best practice. Authors argue this could be example of ‘radical pedagogy’ which moves away from dominant and hegemonic curricula and pedagogies. Hall (2015) offers an example of a learner-centred enabling course (Preparation for Tertiary Success program at Bachelor Institute) and shows how recent changes to the design of the course have resulted in higher numbers of completion, and higher levels of autonomy and confidence on graduation.

A consistent focus in this literature is the challenges that Indigenous students face. From Bandias, Fuller & Larkin’s (2013) research, the major barriers to participation and completion for Indigenous students in higher education are a lack of social support, language issues, and constraints on access. For Rahman (2013), the limitations that Indigenous students face in higher education can be (partly) explained by the impact of the ‘hidden curriculum’ at school - hegemonic elements of the school curriculum that reflect white dominant culture values, practices and worldviews (p.660). Rahman (2013) argues that the hidden curriculum dilutes Indigenous students’ enthusiasm for school, which can result in lower engagement and participation (and success). Mainstream schooling is too inflexible to accommodate the needs and experiences of indigenous students. Indeed, the research reported in Mahuteau et al. (2015) substantiates these concerns, illustrating significant (“very substantial”) differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students at age 15 based on academic performance (PISA/NAPLAN data), a sizeable part of which is ‘unexplained’. Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) concur with Rahman’s argument, contending that the mainstream - or, from Indigenous standpoints, the ‘whitestream’ (Andersen 2009; p.942) – works to promote deficit views through its curricula and pedagogies. Such curricula marginalisation is amplified when coupled with a commitment to the neoliberal agenda, resulting in the working notion of equity shifting from cultural recognition to increases in student numbers/ presence, and where responsibility for equity has shifted to individuals rather than peoples. Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) strongly contend that equity for Indigenous peoples is  “gravely limited” because it works against notions of collective and community through their promotion of individualistic agendas; Indigenous people are ‘communitarian’ and have stronger connections to community, kin, country and the land than ‘whitestream’ but universities “have not been hospitable places for either Indigenous communitarian ways of being, or collaborative sharing of alternative Indigenous knowledges” (p.950).

A further issue proposed in the literature that complicates equity for Indigenous students is the lack of parity in the appointment and treatment of Indigenous staff. Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) note that in 2008, only 1.1% of the Australian university workforce was Indigenous, which is similar to Indigenous student proportions (1.38% in 2011; see Gale & Parker, 2013), and significantly lower than their 2.5% representation in the Australian population (see also Fredericks et al., 2015 who note the lack of generosity, ‘lack of receptivity’ and unequal power dynamics from non-Indigenous colleagues). Bunda, Zipin & Brennan (2012) make the case that the pressure of trying to educate non-Indigenous staff adds significantly to their workload; to ameliorate this inequity, Bunda, Zipin & Brennan argue that universities need to examine the culture of power that works to diminish and ignore Indigenous ontologies, epistemologies, cultures and perspectives in universities.


Asmar, C.; Page, S.; & Radloff, A. (2015). Exploring anomalies in Indigenous student engagement: findings from a national Australian survey of undergraduates, Higher Education Research & Development, 34(1): 15-29.

Bandias, S.; Fuller, D. & Larkin, S. (2013). Vocational education, Indigenous students and the choice of pathways. NCVER: Adelaide.

Bunda, T.; Zipin, L.; Brennan, M. (2012). Negotiating university ‘equity’ from Indigenous standpoints: a shaky bridge, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 16(9): 941-957.

Day, D. & Nolde, R. (2009). Arresting the decline in Australian indigenous representation at university Student experience as a guide, Equal Opportunities International, 28(2): 135-161.

Fredericks, B., Kinnear, S., Daniels, C., CroftWarcon, P. and Mann, J. (2015). Path+Ways: Towards best practice bridging and Indigenous participation through regional dual-sector universities. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.

Hall, L. (2015). What are the key ingredients for an effective and successful tertiary enabling program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students? An evaluation of the evolution of one program. Australian Journal of Adult Learning, 55(2): 244-266.

James, R.; Anderson, M.; Bexley, E.; Devlin, M.; Garnett, R.; Marginson, S.; & Maxwell, L. (2008). Participation and equity: review of the participation in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people. Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne.

Mahuteau, S., Karmel, T., Mavromaras, K. & Zhu, R. (2015). Educational Outcomes of Young Indigenous Australians. Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Australia. National Institute of Labour Studies (NILS), Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Rahman, K. (2013). Belonging and learning to belong in school: the implications of the hidden curriculum for indigenous students. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 34(5): 660-672.

Wilks, JL & Drew, N (2015). Developing a culturally appropriate data quality framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher education statistics: final report. Office for Learning and Teaching, Sydney, NSW.

Willems, J. (2012). Educational resilience as a quadripartite responsibility: Indigenous peoples participating in higher education via distance education. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 16(1): 14–27.

Dr Sally Baker is a lecturer for the School of Education at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Sally’s research primarily focuses on equity in higher education, with her main interests being education policy, experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and educational transitions. She is currently the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group and the educational focal point in the Forced Migration Research Network at UNSW.

The thematic organisation of the open access annotated bibliographies (OAABs) does not reflect the intersecting and complex overlaps of the various foci in the literature, so please keep in mind that this is an interpretive exercise and one that could easily be reworked by another set of authors. An important note to make is that these resources should not be read as ‘the reading’ of any piece — rather they reflect the interpretive lens of a small number of people and should therefore be used as a ‘way in’ to the academic and grey literature. Hyperlinks have been provided to each entry (where possible) so that you may be able to access the original texts (although many of these will be hidden behind pay walls, which we cannot override for copyright reasons).

Furthermore, it is important to note that these resources are not a ‘finished product’; rather, they are reflective of an on-going, iterative engagement with the inter/national literature that critically engages with issues relating to equity in education. As such, there are unintentional omissions in these resources — if you see a gap in the literature, please feel free to make this clear, or offer an entry for inclusion. This annotated bibliography will be updated every six months for the first year, and annually thereafter.