The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 and over who had completed Year 12 or equivalent increased from 19% in 2002 to 34% in 2018–19
The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 who reported they were either studying at any level or had completed a Certificate III or above, rose from 26% in 2002 to 50% in 2018–19
The rate at which Indigenous adults completed higher education courses rose from 38 per 10,000 in 2001 to 67 per 10,000 in 2018
Why is it important?
Education is well recognised as a key determinant of health and continued learning as an adult is regarded as a powerful tool in achieving better health, education and economic outcomes (Chandola & Jenkins 2014). The employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians declines as the level of educational attainment increases. A university education will not suit the aspirations of everyone, but pursuing post-school qualifications will increase opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. Indigenous Australians with a post-school qualification have improved likelihood of employment (Hunter 1996). The transition from education to work is usually smoother for VET and university graduates, and salary outcomes are higher than for those who enter the workforce directly from school (Lamb & McKenzie 2001).
Indigenous Australians that have graduated from university and transitioned into professional roles are sending an important signal to future Indigenous Australian graduates by highlighting potential career pathways into professions for which Indigenous Australians have been under-represented. Larger cohorts of Indigenous Australians working in the professions will consequently affect Indigenous Australian participation in the mainstream economy (Anderson 2011).
Health outcomes are also influenced by a person’s ability to use a wide range of materials and resources to build health knowledge and support informed health decision making (ACSQHC 2013). Adult learning can indirectly benefit physical and mental health by improving social capital and connectedness, health behaviour, skills and employment outcomes. Further, there is evidence that participation in adult education can have a greater effect on health and social outcomes for people in more disadvantaged groups (Institute of Health Equity 2014). Longitudinal studies show that adults who participate in post-school learning engage in healthier behaviours, including increased amounts of physical exercise, reduced alcohol consumption and smoking cessation, and have improved social and emotional wellbeing (Schuller 2017). While the benefits of adult learning are well known, there is little evidence to assist with distinguishing ‘cause’ from ‘effect’ with regard to better health and better education (Hart et al. 2017).
The recently established National Agreement on Closing the Gap has identified the importance of addressing educational achievement with specific outcomes, targets and indicators to direct policy attention and monitor progress in these areas. Reporting arrangements for the new agreement are being established. The data presented in this report predates the establishment of these targets.
What does the data tell us?
Currently attending an educational institution
In the 2018–19 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (Health Survey), 19% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over reported that they were currently studying at an educational institution, compared with 16% of non-Indigenous Australians. However, for those aged 15–24, Indigenous Australians were less likely to be studying (44%) than non-Indigenous Australians (62%).
The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 15–24 attending secondary school was 24%, compared with 27% for non-Indigenous Australians. For those aged 15–24 and attending TAFE or equivalent, the proportion was higher for Indigenous Australians (11%) than non-Indigenous Australians (8%). However, 7% of Indigenous Australians aged 15–24 were enrolled in higher education institutions compared with 26% of non-Indigenous Australians (Table D2.06.1, Figure 2.06.1).
Figure 2.06.1: Proportion of population currently attending educational institution, by type of institution, age group and Indigenous status, 2018–19
The proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 who reported they were either studying at any level or had completed a Certificate III or above rose from 26% in 2002 to 50% in 2018–19. The proportion for non-Indigenous Australians rose from 52% in 2002 to 74% in 2018–19 (Table D2.06.13, Figure 2.06.2).
In 2018–19, Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 who lived in Major cities were more likely to have achieved a Certificate III or higher-level qualification, or be studying (65%) than those living in Very remote areas (24%) (Table D2.06.12).
The Australian Capital Territory had the highest proportion of Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 who were either studying or had completed a Certificate III or above qualification (73%); the Northern Territory had the lowest (23%) (Table D2.06.11).
Figure 2.06.2: Non–school qualification at Certificate III level or above and/or currently studying, by Indigenous status, ages 20–64, Australia, 2002, 2008, 2012–13, 2014–15 and 2018–19
Non-school qualifications completed
In 2018–19, for those aged 25–64, 57% of Indigenous Australians had a non-school qualification, compared with 75% of non-Indigenous Australians. The largest difference between the two populations was for those with a bachelor degree or above qualification (9% for Indigenous and 36% for non-Indigenous Australians) (Table D2.06.35).
Indigenous females aged 25–64 were more likely than Indigenous males to have a non-school qualification (60% compared with 55%, respectively). Indigenous females were also more likely to have a higher level of non-school qualification than their male counterparts, with 10% compared with 8% having a bachelor degree or above (Table D2.06.35, Figure 2.06.3).
Figure 2.06.3: Proportion of population aged 25–64 with a non-school qualification, by type of qualification, Indigenous status and sex, 2018–19
Highest school year completed
The ABS Census is the primary data source for measuring the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) target to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment or equivalent between Indigenous and non-Indigenous 20-24 year-olds. The Census data showed that nationally, the proportion of Indigenous 20–24 year olds who had achieved Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) has increased from 47.4% in 2006 to 65.3% in 2016. This resulted in a narrowing of the gap by 12.6 percentage points (from 36.4 percentage points to 23.8 percentage points) (PM&C 2018).
Between 2002 and 2018–19, the proportion of Indigenous adults aged 18 years and over who had completed Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) increased from 19% to 34%. For non-Indigenous Australians, 61% of adults aged 18 years and over had completed Year 12 in 2018–19, up from 44% in 2002 (Table D2.06.9, Figure 2.06.4).
Figure 2.06.4: Highest level of school completed, by Indigenous status, persons aged 18 and over, 2002, 2008, 2012–13, 2014–15 and 2018–19
In 2018–19, Indigenous adults living in Remote and Very remote areas (25%) were less likely than those living in Non‑remote areas (36%) to have completed Year 12 or equivalent (Certificate II or above) (Table D2.06.8).
In 2015, a lower proportion of Indigenous young people achieved an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank sufficient for university entry than non-Indigenous young people (SCRGSP 2016).
Vocational education and training
In 2018, Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over completed 19,720 Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses. A higher proportion of Indigenous Australians (3.6%) completed VET qualifications than Other Australians (1.6%) in 2018. From 2003 to 2018, the proportion of Indigenous Australians completing VET qualifications increased from 1.7% to 3.6%, and rates peaked at 4.1% in 2012, 2015 and 2016. For Other Australians, the proportion increased from 1.5% in 2003 to 2.8 in 2012, then declined to 1.6% in 2018 (Table D2.06.17, Figure 2.06.5) (Other Australians includes non‑Indigenous Australians and those whose Indigenous status is unknown).
Figure 2.06.5: Proportion of population aged 15 and over who completed government-funded VET qualification/s in the year, by Indigenous status, 2003–2018
The load pass rate is a way of calculating completion rates. In 2018, the overall VET load pass rate for Indigenous students aged 15–64 was 77%, compared with 83% for Other students. The VET load pass rate for Indigenous students increased significantly (by 18%) from 2005 to 2018 (from 66% to 77%), compared with 7% for Other students (from 79% to 83%) (Table D2.06.30).
Indigenous VET students were less likely than non-Indigenous students to have completed higher level qualifications, such as Certificate IV, diploma or higher (18% of all VET completions compared with 29%) (Table D2.06.15, Figure 2.06.6).
Figure 2.06.6: Proportion of government-funded VET course completions at each certificate level, by Indigenous status, 2018
Of VET qualifications that were completed in 2018, Indigenous Australians in Major cities (22%) completed a greater proportion of higher level certificates, such as Certificate IV, diploma or higher, than those in Regional (17%) or Remote areas (10%). The national proportion for Indigenous Australians was 18% (Table D2.06.31, Figure 2.06.7).
Figure 2.06.7: Proportion of government-funded VET course completions at each certificate level, by remoteness region, Indigenous Australians, 2018
- there were 18,062 Indigenous higher education students, making up 1.8% of the higher education student population.
- 7,273 Indigenous students commenced a higher education course.
- 2,865 award courses were completed by Indigenous students (Table D2.06.24).
Between 1996 and 2018, Indigenous students as a proportion of all domestic students rose from 1.2% to 1.8%—an increase of 38%.
The number of Indigenous students commencing in higher education more than doubled, from 3,624 students in 1996 to 7,273 students in 2018. The rate of commencing Indigenous students aged 20–64 increased by 37%, from 148 per 10,000 in 2001 to 170 per 10,000 in 2018.
The rate at which Indigenous Australians aged 20–64 completed higher education courses rose from 38 per 10,000 in 2001 to 67 per 10,000 in 2018, an increase of 68% (Table D2.06.25, Figure 2.06.8).
Figure 2.06.8: Higher education course completion rate (per 10,000), Indigenous Australians aged 25–64, 2001–2018
In 2018, there were more Indigenous females engaged in higher education than Indigenous males. Of Indigenous higher education students, twice as many were female (12,043 compared with 6,019 for males). There were twice as many commencing female than male Indigenous students (4,901 compared with 2,372, respectively) (Table D2.06.28, Figure 2.06.9).
Figure 2.06.9: Number of commencing students, current students and award course completions, Indigenous higher education students, by sex, 2018
The number of higher education course completions was twice as high for Indigenous females than Indigenous males (1,952 compared with 913, respectively) (Table D2.06.28, Figure 2.06.9). For non-Indigenous higher education students, there were about 1.5 times as many course completions by females (133,262) as by males in 2018 (89,854) (Table D2.06.28).
The top three fields of study for Indigenous students in 2018 were society and culture (34% or 6,172 students), health (23% or 4,169 students) and education (14% or 2,448 students) (Table D2.06.27).
The proportion of Indigenous higher education students who did not complete their course of study was the same in 2005 and 2017. In 2017, the higher education attrition rate for Indigenous students was 35%, up from 31% in 2016. The higher education attrition rate for non-Indigenous students was 23% in 2017, up from 20% in 2005 (Table D2.06.29).
Among Indigenous students who had seriously considered leaving university before graduating, financial difficulty was the most commonly reported reason (44%) (Edwards & McMillan 2015).
In 2018, 25% of Indigenous students were aged 25–34, and 24% were aged 35 and over, compared with 21% and 18% of non-Indigenous students. A similar age difference was also seen in course completions (Table D2.06.28, Figure 2.06.10).
Figure 2.06.10: Proportion of current higher education students and award course completions in selected age ranges, by Indigenous status, 2018
In 2018–19, Indigenous Australians aged 15–64 who had a non-school qualification were more likely to be employed (61%) than those without a non-school qualification (38%) (Table D2.06.33).
In 2014–15, 53% of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over reported that they intended to study in the future (Table D2.06.18). One-quarter (25%) said they had wanted to study in the past 12 months, but for various reasons had not. Of those who wanted to study but did not, just under 1 in 5 (19%) cited financial reasons, and under 1 in 6 (17%) cited personal or other family reasons (Table D2.06.19).
What do research and evaluations tell us?
There is evidence that adult learning can increase skills, which in turn can lead to employment, promotions or wage increases. This can have flow-on benefits for physical and mental health, and the effects can be greater for more socially disadvantaged groups (Chandola et al. 2011; Institute of Health Equity 2014).
Research has identified some important factors for consideration in developing strategies to improve post-school education participation that reflect both academic performance and educational expectations of Indigenous young people.
Mahuteau and others (2015) found that if Indigenous and non-Indigenous students reach the same level of academic achievement by the time they are 15, there is no significant difference in subsequent educational outcomes, such as completing Year 12 and participating in university or vocational training (Mahuteau et al. 2015).
Research by Biddle and others (2012) shows that differences in higher education participation may have compounded from differences in academic achievement at younger ages (Biddle et al. 2012). However, once Indigenous students received a tertiary admission rank, they were as likely as non-Indigenous students to go to university, albeit with lower tertiary admission scores (on average). Further research on understanding why Indigenous students have lower test scores in school would help direct policy attention to improving academic achievement throughout secondary education, which would lead to broader opportunities post-school (Biddle et al. 2012). (See measure 2.04 Literacy and numeracy).
Pathways from school to VET and from VET to university education are convoluted. VET can be seen as a pathway to higher education. However, because VET has a focus on skill development, whereas university has a greater focus on critical thinking, which is a different type of educational pursuit, this pathway may not necessarily be straightforward for students. Universities also need to be supportive enough for Indigenous students to be able to navigate and have the confidence to achieve and complete university education (Frawley et al. 2017). This requires addressing aspirations and achievement earlier in schooling to build self-efficacy among Indigenous students. Several Australian universities have programs with Indigenous Australian school students to build aspiration and highlight the opportunities higher education can offer.
The UniCamps program run by the University of South Australia in partnership with the Mimili Anangu School in remote South Australia attempts to build the aspirations of Indigenous students and raise awareness of wider opportunities beyond their community. Students spend time living in student accommodation and doing activities to give a taste of the university experience. Students who did not aspire to tertiary study now see it as an option in the future (Thomas et al. 2014).
A scoping review identified many barriers to pursuing and accessing higher education for Indigenous adults. A central theme was a lack of career guidance and knowledge about further education, and geographic location was identified as a physical barrier for Indigenous Australians from rural and remote areas (Gore et al. 2017). Limited opportunities to participate in higher education on Country requires many Indigenous students wishing to further their education to relocate. A relatively high proportion of Indigenous university students come from regional and remote areas, and housing and relocation costs are often an additional burden. Students who relocate may experience further challenges such as isolation from being away from their families and communities (Behrendt et al. 2012; Gore et al. 2017).
Noting a lack of high-quality, robust and comprehensive evaluations in Indigenous program and policy contexts across Australia in general, a recent report explored ways of strengthening evaluation in the Indigenous higher education context. The report identified 14 enablers and drivers that can strengthen evaluation in Indigenous higher education and explained how they intersect with three domains of control: Indigenous, government and university. Indigenous control (including Indigenous leadership, valuing Indigenous knowledge and sovereign rights), government control (including increasing funding and resources, leading innovative policy development) and university control (including investing in cultural transformation and improving Indigenous student outcomes) can interact to have a profound effect on evaluation within higher education contexts in Australia. The report presented 17 recommendations for strengthening evaluation in Indigenous higher education that cover research, policy and practice settings. The first recommendation is the prioritisation of ‘the development of a National Indigenous Higher Education Performance and Evaluation Strategy’ that is Indigenous-led and appropriately resourced (Smith et al. 2018).
A 2012 review examined the role of higher education in closing the gap and reducing Indigenous disadvantage. The review, focusing mainly on universities, found that Indigenous Australians are significantly under-represented in the higher education system and that this contributes to the social and economic disadvantage they experience. A range of sources (such as program-based monitoring data) were used to monitor progress and assess overall success; however, the review noted that there was a lack of independent evaluations to draw on. Consequently, a recommendation of the review was for the Australian Government to work with universities to develop a monitoring and evaluation framework for assessing progress in achieving outcomes for Indigenous Australians in higher education (Behrendt et al. 2012).
The review outlines some of the barriers that are preventing Indigenous Australians from achieving successful higher education outcomes, including low numbers of Indigenous students completing Year 12, a lack of awareness about how to transition, a lack of support from families and communities, and a lack of financial support and flexible work arrangements from government and employers. The review panel proposed a collaborative approach with universities, governments, communities and professional bodies working together to improve higher education outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Specific recommendations included that universities develop strategies to recruit and retain Indigenous staff; develop frameworks that reflect the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge within curriculums and teaching practices; and build stronger relationships with schools to better support Indigenous pathways (Behrendt et al. 2012).
Concerted efforts to increase Year 12 attainment are positively contributing to increased numbers of Indigenous students enrolling in and completing VET and higher education. However, significant numbers of Indigenous young people aged 15–24 are currently not engaged in further education, training or employment (see measure 2.07 Employment).
Understanding of pathways for Indigenous young people from school into employment would benefit from research using longitudinal data following individuals over time (Hunter 2010). Longitudinal data is needed to understand what specific interventions will encourage an Indigenous youth who would otherwise drop out of school or post-school study to attend and complete school (Biddle et al. 2012).
Ensuring that young Indigenous Australians are supported throughout their secondary schooling to make successful post-school transitions is critical to improving their employment prospects and, subsequently, their health and other outcomes. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in higher education is linked to factors such as the cost of higher education, non-completion of schooling, low academic achievement, expectations, motivations (Gale et al. 2010; Hunter 2010), and factors affecting educational choices (for example, access to information, educational aspirations, and awareness of how to transition) (Behrendt et al. 2012; Parker et al. 2013). These barriers, as well as those affecting retention and completion rates of Indigenous students in higher education, should inform policies and initiatives aimed at the increasing participation and attainment of Indigenous adults in higher education.
In line with recommendations of the 2012 Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, all Australian universities have strategies in place for improving Indigenous Australians’ access to, and outcomes from, higher education (Behrendt et al. 2012).
However, the lack of rigorous evaluation of efforts to improve educational participation means there is little robust evidence of what works.
The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was developed in partnership between Australian governments and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations. The Agreement has recognised the importance of addressing educational outcomes and achievement by establishing the following outcomes and targets to direct policy attention and monitor progress:
- Outcome 6 — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students reach their full potential through further education pathways.
- Target — By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-34 years who have completed a tertiary qualification (Certificate III and above) to 70 per cent.
- Outcome 7 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are engaged in employment or education.
- Target — By 2031, increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth (15-24 years) who are in employment, education or training to 67 per cent.
The policy context is at Policies and strategies.
- ACSQHC (Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care) 2013. Consumers, the health system and health literacy: taking action to improve safety and quality. Sydney: ACSQHC.
- Anderson I 2011. Indigenous pathways into the professions. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.
- Behrendt L, Larkin S, Griew R & Kelly P 2012. Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: Final Report. Canberra: Department of Education and Training.
- Biddle N, Cameron T & National Centre for Vocational Education R 2012. Potential Factors Influencing Indigenous Education Participation and Achievement. Research Report. National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER).
- Chandola T & Jenkins A 2014. The scope of adult and further education for reducing health inequalities. If you Could Do One Thing...82-90.
- Chandola T, Plewis I, Morris JM, Mishra G & Blane D 2011. Is adult education associated with reduced coronary heart disease risk? International journal of epidemiology 40:1499-509.
- Edwards D & McMillan J 2015. Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? Melbourne: Australian Council for Educational Research
- Frawley J, Smith JA, Gunstone A, Pechenkina E, Ludwig W & Stewart A 2017. Indigenous VET to Higher Education pathways and transitions: A literature review. International Studies in Widening Participation 4:34-54.
- Gale T, Hattam R, Comber B, Tranter D, Bills D, Sellar S et al. 2010. Interventions early in school as a means to improve higher education outcomes for disadvantaged students. National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.
- Gore J, Patfield S, Fray L, Holmes K, Gruppetta M, Lloyd A et al. 2017. The participation of Australian Indigenous students in higher education: a scoping review of empirical research, 2000–2016. The Australian Educational Researcher 44:323-55.
- Hart MB, Moore MJ & Laverty M 2017. Improving Indigenous health through education. The Medical Journal of Australia 207:11-2.
- Hunter B 1996. The determinants of Indigenous employment outcomes: the importance of education and training. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), Australian National University.
- Hunter BH 2010. Pathways for Indigenous school leavers to undertake training or gain employment. (ed., Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & Australian Institute of Family Studies). Canberra: Closing the Gap Clearinghouse.
- Institute of Health Equity 2014. Local action on health inequalities. London.
- Lamb S & McKenzie P 2001. Patterns of success and failure in the transition from school to work in Australia. ACER.
- Mahuteau S, Karmel T, Mavromaras K & Zhu R 2015. Educational Outcomes of Young Indigenous Australians. Adelaide: National Institute of Labour Studies.
- Parker PD, Bodkin-Andrews G, Marsh HW, Jerrim J & Schoon I 2013. Will closing the achievement gap solve the problem? An analysis of primary and secondary effects for Indigenous university entry. Journal of Sociology 51:1085-102.
- PM&C (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2018. Closing the Gap Prime Minister's Report 2018. (ed., DPMC). Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
- Schuller T 2017. What are the wider benefits of learning across the life course? (Foresight Future of Skills and Lifelong Learning Project). Government Office for Science.
- SCRGSP (Steering Committee for the Review of Government Services Provision) 2016. Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage: Key indicators 2016. Canberra: Productivity Commission.
- Smith J, Pollard K, Robertson K & Shalley F 2018. Strengthening Evaluation in Indigenous Higher Education Contexts in Australia: 2017 Equity Fellowship Report. Perth: National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education.
- Thomas K, Ellis B, Kirkham R & Parry L 2014. Remote Indigenous students: Raising their aspirations and awareness of tertiary pathways. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education 24:23-35.