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Revisiting Indigenous student engagement and retention

Researchers say the finding that Indigenous university students report high levels of satisfaction and engagement with learning but are also more likely to consider dropping out is a ‘somewhat unexpected anomaly.'

Published in the Journal of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia in July 2014, ‘Exploring anomalies in Indigenous student engagement: findings from a national Australian survey of undergraduates’ finds that while the majority of Indigenous university students do complete their studies, a ‘ burdensome overlap’ of poor health, disability, financial stress, caring for dependents, studying off-campus and other factors has an impact on their non-completion.

Co-authors Dr Christine Asmar, Senior Lecturer at Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development at the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Susan Page, Director of Macquarie University’s Warawara Department of Indigenous Studies, and Ali Radloff, Research Fellow at ACER, review the findings from their 2011 analysis of more than 500 Indigenous student responses to the 2009 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE), which measured students’ self-reported levels of engagement in effective learning practices as well as the extent to which universities are perceived to support students by facilitating their involvement in these activities.

Compared to all non-Indigenous Australian students in the survey, Indigenous students were more likely to be female, of lower socioeconomic status (SES), older, and first in their family to attend university; however, the AUSSE figures also indicate that nearly three-quarters of Indigenous students were not of low SES and that 44 per cent were not the first in their family to attend university.

‘A focus on differences or “gaps” is important but should not lead us to overlook more positive emerging trends,’ the authors note.

Survey responses revealed that Indigenous students experienced similar or higher levels of satisfaction and engagement with learning than their non-Indigenous peers, rated their relationships with other students just as positively and were significantly more likely to report positive relationships with administrative staff.

According to the authors, information on student engagement has been seen as a ‘reliable proxy’ in relation to student outcomes, with the amount of time students spend on academic study and educational activities one of the best predictors of student success.

Due to the link demonstrated between engagement and positive outcomes such as retention, one might expect Indigenous students to report similar levels of early departure intentions to other students; however, this was not the case.

Around 37 per cent of Indigenous students reported that they plan to, or have seriously considered, leaving before finishing their qualification, compared to 29 per cent of non-Indigenous students.

Indigenous students who are older, male, have a self-reported disability, are from a non-metropolitan area, are studying externally or are receiving financial assistance all had higher early departure intentions.

The authors note that these attributes often co-occur among the subset of older students enrolled in Indigenous-specific programs – about one-third of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students enrolled at university – rather than among younger ‘school leavers’ who are studying in a variety of disciplines.

‘This, in turn, prompts us to question whether it is useful to treat “Indigenous students” as a homogeneous cohort, and also to consider the extent to which findings in relation to a particular sub-group may be influencing overall survey results,’ the authors write.

‘Knowing and understanding more about our students’ engagement and experiences is a crucial step towards enhancing Indigenous outcomes everywhere.’ ■

Find out more:
For further information, read the full journal article or download the free AUSSE briefing paper, Dispelling myths: Indigenous students’ engagement with university, at <>

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