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Understanding completion rates of Indigenous higher education students from two regional universities: a cohort analysis

Final report for Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program 2017
Higher education First Peoples education

Data shows that Indigenous higher education students have lower access, participation and completion rates compared with non-Indigenous students. Indigenous students from regional and remote areas face additional challenges and barriers in accessing and participating in higher education and are further under-represented in the national Indigenous higher education student population. They are likely to belong to multiple equity groups, attracting significant educational disadvantage when the appropriate systems are not in place to support them.

There have been numerous calls for an improved evidence base to inform better policy and practice to support increased Indigenous participation and success in higher education (e.g. Anderson et al. 2008; Behrendt et al. 2012; Frawley et al. 2015). This, coupled with statements from the Commonwealth Government asking for greater transparency and accountability around indicators of student success and student attrition[1], provides the impetus for more targeted research. This report investigates the higher education outcomes of Indigenous students enrolled in two regionally based universities—the Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Central Queensland University (CQUniversity)—bringing together quantitative and qualitative analysis.

In comparison to the national domestic student population, the CDU/CQUniversity Indigenous student profile shows they are:

  • generally from regional and remote Australia and from low socioeconomic status (SES) classified areas
  • likely to be studying externally (including online and distance learning)
  • likely to be female
  • likely to be mature-aged (25 years and over)
  • more likely to have an identified disability but less likely to identify a non-English speaking background
  • likely to be admitted through pathways other than secondary school
  • highly likely to be the first in their family to enrol in university
  • likely to be enrolled in a limited number of study areas (society and culture, education or nursing) and unlikely to be enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects if they are female.

Student enrolment data collected by universities are complicated, reflecting the often complex nature of student engagement with higher education. Students can discontinue and re-enter degree courses over time, exit with a different degree type, change their study discipline, change universities within their degree, and change their study intensity between full and part-time, and study modality between internal and external. These factors influence the length of time it may take to complete a degree and relative success and completion rates.

Main findings:

When compared to the national Indigenous student population, Indigenous students from CDU/CQUniversity are less likely to complete a higher education award. However they have comparable levels of persistence and commitment, and around six per cent are still engaged with their study 10 years after enrolment. Student and study characteristics are associated with successful completion in similar as well as different ways to the national DET all-student cohort analyses, with many of the characteristics inter-related. Compared to men, more Indigenous women are participating, and they are successfully completing at much higher rates. Results also point to full-time study intensity and a multi-mode design (combining both internal and external elements of course work) being associated with higher award completion success. Remoteness is compounding issues around access and participation, with barriers related to communication, technology and financial support all identified as significant in student and staff interviews that investigated factors contributing to Indigenous student success.

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