A critical survey of Indigenous education outcomes, 1986-96

Author/editor: Gray, MC, Hunter, B, Schwab, RG
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 170


Indigenous education policy in Australia today has evolved alongside an awareness of the need to improve Indigenous educational outcomes in order to secure the future prospects of the Indigenous population. This paper provides a summary and overview of Indigenous people within the education system. A cohort analysis of changes in educational participation and the level and type of educational qualification over the last three censuses for the Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations provides a basis for considering ways to improve educational and other Indigenous economic outcomes.

Intercensal changes in Australian education, 1986-96

  • While an increasing proportion of Indigenous teenagers were staying at school longer, the absolute difference in the percentages at school between Indigenous and non-Indigenous teenagers increased for all age groups.
  • The proportion of Indigenous males of working age attending an educational institution increased from 17.6 per cent in 1986 to 19.2 per cent in 1996, in contrast to the non-Indigenous male population who had a fall in the educational participation rate from 16.6 per cent to 15.5 per cent. The proportion of Indigenous females of working age attending an educational institution increased from 19.2 per cent in 1986 to 20.3 per cent in 1996 in contrast to the non-Indigenous female participation rate which remained almost constant at around 16.2 per cent.
  • Indigenous males and females were more likely to be attending a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institution than their non-Indigenous counterparts. The participation rate of both Indigenous males and females at TAFE increased over the period 1986 to 1996. For Indigenous males the participation rate increased from 7.0 per cent in 1986 to 8.3 per cent in 1996 and for Indigenous females the participation rate increased slightly from 8.5 per cent to 8.8 per cent. In contrast both non-Indigenous male and female participation rates at TAFE fell.
  • While the participation rates at universities increased for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous males and females, the Indigenous populations remain at a severe disadvantage and over the period 1986 to 1996 there was negligible relative improvement.
  • Cohort analysis reveals that, for younger age groups, the non-Indigenous population has a higher participation rate in post-secondary education than the Indigenous population. This situation is reversed for older age groups where the Indigenous population are more likely to be attending post-secondary education than the non-Indigenous population.
  • While there have been absolute increases in the proportion of the Indigenous population with a post-secondary qualification there have also been increases for the non-Indigenous population. Both Indigenous males and females remain severely disadvantaged in terms of post-secondary educational qualifications. Relative to non-Indigenous males, Indigenous males just hold their position and Indigenous females experience a small decline relative to non-Indigenous females.
  • The degree of inequality in educational attainment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous males and females increases with qualification level, although between 1991 and 1996 there has been a significant closing of the gap for several educational levels.

Constraints on educational participation, 1986-96

The need to raise literacy levels among Indigenous Australians has been recognised for many years. While the census provides no direct data on literacy levels, it does provide a useful glimpse of spoken English proficiency among Indigenous Australians which is clearly related to literacy.

  • Over the ten years from 1986 to 1996, a slight improvement in the level of spoken English was observed among Indigenous people, though the extent to which individuals expressed some difficulty in speaking English remained positively associated with age.
  • For younger Indigenous males and females the proportion of the population with some difficulty in speaking English is relatively low and appears to be converging with the levels in the non-Indigenous population.

Reflections on Indigenous education

  • The implications for labour market success of an absolute improvement, but relative decline, in Indigenous education outcomes depends upon the role increased educational attainment plays in improving labour market outcomes. However, it is clear that the Indigenous population will fall further behind the non-Indigenous population's labour market outcomes and there may well be an absolute worsening of the Indigenous labour market position.
  • Indigenous Australians in rural areas have very low levels of educational attainment, compared both to Indigenous Australians in urban areas and compared to non-Indigenous Australians in rural areas. On the other hand, very little difference is observed for the non-Indigenous population, between education attainment levels in rural and urban areas.
  • ABSTUDY, the Aboriginal Study Assistance Scheme, has provided greater program and administrative flexibility than has been possible under AUSTUDY or the Youth Allowance scheme to meet the special cultural needs of Indigenous students. Incorporating ABSTUDY into the Youth Allowance scheme is likely to reduce that flexibility and there is serious concern that Indigenous participation in education at every level may be impeded.

ISBN: 0 7315 2605 8

ISSN:1036 1774

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