Education targets aim to close gap

INCLUSION THE KEY: A new strategy by Australian universities aims to make higher education a reality for our Indigenous communities.
INCLUSION THE KEY: A new strategy by Australian universities aims to make higher education a reality for our Indigenous communities.

Spreading opportunity fairly is an imperative for Australian universities. I want to share with you the story of Karlie Noon.

She's a young Kamilaroi woman from around Tamworth. Karlie was the first in her family to go to university when she began a combined maths and physics degree at the University of Newcastle eight years ago. She's been working ever since to identify and understand more about the sophisticated scientific knowledge embedded in indigenous astronomy.

Karlie has sifted through early European settler accounts of indigenous stories about moon haloes. For the first Australians, those rings around the moon were storm predictors.

In her area of expertise – published for wider Australia to share – Karlie is teaching us more about the history of our own country. And, she has an important message for other young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"You're a natural scientist," she tells them. "Don't ever doubt that. It's in you. It's in your culture. We are so special. And we are so unique. Be proud of that. Do whatever you want." What a powerful message of inspiration and cultural pride.

Universities Australia has launched a new indigenous strategy. And we will honour some of the many trailblazers who forged a path into universities for Australia's first peoples.

The late Dr Margaret Williams-Weir; the very much still living Lloyd McDermott; the late, great, Charles Perkins, and many others. The goal of this strategy is to drive further gains in university participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Crucially, we embark on this commitment in partnership with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Consortium.

For it is only through indigenous and non-indigenous Australians working side-by-side, in genuine partnership, that we can make real headway. And progress is sorely needed. Just two weeks ago, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull delivered the annual Closing the Gap Report. As a reflection on how we are tracking in redressing shocking disparities in health, education, employment and life expectancy, it makes for sobering reading.

On some measures, heartbreakingly, we have gone backwards. One point, however, gave cause for optimism.

"The higher the level of education," the Prime Minister noted, "the smaller the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous employment." Even more encouragingly: "For tertiary-educated indigenous people," he remarked, "there is no gap."

This statistic affirms something that most of us know instinctively: education transforms lives.

Australian universities now have 74 per cent more indigenous undergraduate students than in 2008. And yet while indigenous people make up 2.7 per cent of Australia's working age population, they account for only 1.6 per cent of university students. As a matter of both equity and excellence, Australia needs to draw on the talents of all its people.

Our member universities will commit to expand their contributions to practical measures which: close the gap in disadvantage; lift the visibility of Indigenous expertise, excellence and contributions to Australia; acknowledge and support the rights, languages and cultures of Indigenous communities; tackle racism; and promote equal opportunity and outcomes for all Australians.

We will set ourselves clear targets to achieve some very specific goals. The objectives are clear. We will maintain an indigenous student growth rate that is at least 50 per cent above the growth rate of non-indigenous enrolments and we will implement measures to ensure that by 2025, indigenous students achieve the same success rates by field as domestic non-indigenous students.

  • Professor Barney Glover, Chair of Universities Australia and Vice-Chancellor, Western Sydney University