There has been an increase in Australian Indigenous students enrolling in university in the past 10 years. While this is good news, there has also been a high drop out rate among first year Indigenous students.
How universities address retention rates
Universities address student drop-out rates through retention policy initiatives such as peer to peer mentoring programs. Faculties or schools develop further retention strategies appropriate to their cohort. One successful support strategy for Indigenous students that is already in place and effective according to students and higher education bodies, is the Indigenous Tertiary Assistance Scheme (ITAS).
ITAS has been around for 28 years, providing tutors for Indigenous students. I have worked as an ITAS tutor for 25 of those years, and have conducted interviews with many students who engage with the program. Working with the students and observing their progress suggests that ensuring all students have a tutor (especially in their first year) would lower the drop-out rate.
ITAS is funded directly from the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as part of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, introduced in 2014. The cost of extending ITAS would be absorbed by the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and outweighed by higher student retention and an increase of university fees. A greater number of Indigenous students gaining degrees has the advantage of lowering Indigenous unemployment figures, since statistics show that graduates are able to find work very quickly.
The first year is challenging
University can be a daunting place at first for anyone. Many Indigenous students say university culture is like a foreign culture, and those from rural and remote communities in particular have difficulty adjusting to it. 44% of the students surveyed cited the reason for dropping out as financial. However, feedback suggests that stress, workloads and study/life balance, mentioned by the wider student cohort, need to be addressed. With appropriate support, the academic and personal challenges faced by students can become manageable. The current drop-out rate –twice that of other first years – disempowers both Indigenous communities and Australia as a whole.
Larger institutions such as Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, with cohorts of 400 to 600 Indigenous students, usually have 80 or more tutors available to work with students for two hours per academic unit per week. A larger number of tutors and more flexibility in how tutor hours are allotted would be beneficial.
Many students readily see the advantage of working with a tutor, but others attempt to go it alone. Students who come late to ITAS often regret not using the scheme earlier. One commented:
A good tutor can switch a student on to studying.
Students credit tutoring sessions with enhancing their ability to negotiate academia and successfully complete degrees. ITAS tutoring offers both academic assistance and mentoring. One student told me:
The feedback and support helps me feel more confident. It stops me from doubting myself.
I appreciated having someone to listen to my ideas, challenge me and support me.
Students may not have a clear understanding of exactly what is required of them. A student said he was exposed to skills he never knew he needed, and another commented on needing time-management skills, and help staying focused.
Students place importance on learning to “code switch”: having the ability to change between everyday speaking and writing, to academic language. Indigenous students may speak Aboriginal English, Kriol, and an Aboriginal language. Often they speak all three. Effective code switching bridges the gap and provides the student with the tools to understand the requirements of an assignment and how to complete them successfully.
The learning environment provided by ITAS tutor sessions is quite different from that of a seminar or lecture, apart from the one-on-one aspect. ITAS tutors don’t teach course content. They facilitate strategy development, help assignment planning, and suggest ways of working. Sessions focus on a student’s area of need, and draw on their strengths such as verbal competence, creativity or life experiences.
Strategies such as “yarning” are effective when working with Indigenous students – and indeed, all students. Many tutors instinctively use these practices. The informality of yarning, or sharing information, establishes relationships and inspires collaboration. In tutor/student relationships, this leads to mutual respect and builds a learning space for discussing problems, sharing ideas and engaging with the intellectual rigours of a degree. One student said:
Spending time with my tutor provided time to question academic theories, practice critical thinking and work on my research skills.
Effective tutoring encourages students to challenge themselves. A Master’s student explained:
It’s not just about passing the units; I want to own the skill set. Own my work.
The yarning-style sessions, offer a learning space that fosters intellectual growth, benefiting students beyond the years at university.
The Indigenous Advancement Strategy, states:
The positive impact that education has on the future success of individuals, families and communities is clear. Children who go to school have better life outcomes.
We need to ensure that Indigenous students who earn the right to be at university can take full advantage of the opportunity. Tutoring, if available to more students, especially first years, can play a vital role in preventing the drop out rate. ITAS tutors offer academic tuition and mentoring and, according to students, are uniquely positioned to help them reach their full potential.
Lesley Neale works at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University, WA, as an ITAS tutor.
She has been an ITAS tutor for 25 years, both at Curtin and Edith Cowan University, WA.
She has previously been a lecturer in Indigenous Education at Curtin and the University of Western Australia.