Trends in Indigenous participation in health sciences education: the vocational education and training sector, 1994-97

Author/editor: Schwab, RG, Anderson, I
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 179


While there is evidence in recent years of increasing levels of participation in post-secondary education by Indigenous students, until now it has been unclear to what degree that trend has carried over into the health field. This paper reports the results of an exploratory study of recent (1994-97) Indigenous participation in health sciences education and training in the vocational education and training (VET) sector.

Data sources and key variables

The data reported in this paper refer to institutions offering education and training through five distinct avenues: publicly funded Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutions, community-based providers, private providers, enterprises, and secondary schools. In this paper, data on Indigenous students enrolled in courses of study in the field of ëhealth, community servicesí are presented according to six key variables: field of study, State/Territory, qualification level, gender, enrolment type and provider type.


  • Indigenous student numbers in the health, community services field of study between 1994 and 1997 increased from 1,769 to 4,332, a rise of 145 per cent. There was a corresponding 122 per cent increase, from 62,923 to 139,467, among all Australian students.
  • In 1994, 69 per cent of all course enrolments were in the field of study community, family, personal health but by 1997 an increased diversification in enrolments was evident and only slightly over half the enrolments (56 per cent) were in this field of study.
  • Between 1994 and 1997, growth in the fields of dental services, medical science, medicine and rehabilitation services were relatively flat. Enrolments in health support services more than doubled and health sciences and technologies enrolments increased more than three-fold.
  • The steady increase in enrolments in health, community services between 1994 and 1997 was not evenly distributed among the States and Territories. The largest increases were in Queensland (757 per cent) and Victoria (177 per cent) while enrolments remained very low in the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania with minimal increases of 21 and 29 per cent, respectively. South Australia was the only State to show an overall decline (31 per cent).
  • Increases in enrolments between 1994 and 1997 were distributed across all qualification levels though most enrolments (nearly 68 per cent) in 1997 were for lower level courses leading to a certificate level qualification. Only about 13 per cent of course enrolments in 1997 were at the higher levels (advanced diploma or diploma).
  • Health, as a field of study in the VET sector, attracts more Indigenous female than male students. In 1997, 35 per cent of Indigenous enrolments were by male students compared to 30 per cent for all Australians.
  • The primary mode of enrolment is part-time study for four out of five Indigenous students, a pattern that is becoming more pronounced over time.
  • Indigenous students in health, community services courses in the VET sector are more likely than other Australians to enrol at TAFE institutions.

Implications for policy

  • Given the diversity of training in the VET and higher education sectors, we believe there could be significant value in mapping the occupational category 'health worker' in the Indigenous context as a mechanism to identify gaps in education and training.
  • We suggest it is important for education and health policy makers to explore the development of alternative pathways to higher education by way of the VET sector.
  • The continuing lack of enrolments aimed at higher qualifications suggests a vacuum and skill deficit may already exist and may be perpetuated if qualified managers and policy makers are not produced by the post-secondary system.
  • We believe there is a need to implement a system for routine performance monitoring of Indigenous student participation in health sciences education and training in the VET sector.
  • It appears that there are now significant opportunities to attempt to steer students toward health fields, such as dental services, which have low Indigenous enrolments but are of particular health concern for Indigenous communities.
  • The predominance of female students has significance for Indigenous health care provision where cultural constraints surrounding interaction between the sexes may affect the willingness of Indigenous men to seek out health care.
  • A high proportion (78 per cent) of Indigenous enrolments in health, community services programs are part-time students, a pattern that is becoming more pronounced over time; the relationship between levels of support for part-time students and outcomes such as qualification level needs further examination.

ISBN: 0 7315 2614 7

ISSN:1036 1774

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