The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Building the evidence to improve completion rates for Indigenous students

Bronwyn Fredericks1, Katelyn Barney1, Tracey Bunda 1, Kirsten Hausia2, Anne Martin3, Jacinta Elston4, Brenna Bernardino1, Daniel Griffiths1

Executive summary


This research project has focused on success factors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university completion rates. While the number of Indigenous students participating in higher education continues to grow, Indigenous student completion rates remain very low relative to non-Indigenous students. The national data indicates that, while Indigenous students typically can take longer to graduate, the nine-year completion rates for Indigenous students remain around 47 per cent — significantly below the 74 per cent for non-Indigenous students (Universities Australia, 2020, p. 24). Some universities have higher Indigenous student completion rates than the national average. However, research-based evidence of these universities as “success models” is limited.


The project involved a mixed-methods approach (combining qualitative and quantitative methods) to identify and analyse the multifaceted dimensions and range of strategies used at four Go8 (universities A, B, C, D) and one non-Go8 university (university E) to support Indigenous student completions. In compliance with ethical clearance, the universities are not identified within this report. The five universities were chosen because of their high completion rates compared to the national average. Through collaboration with an expert Indigenous reference group and staff at universities, the project involved documenting evidence to demonstrate success factors that support Indigenous student completions at these five universities and to highlight areas to strengthen Indigenous student completion rates at universities more generally. Working closely with staff at the selected universities, qualitative data was collected from Indigenous graduates. The project additionally involved interviews with Indigenous and non-Indigenous staff who support Indigenous students and with non-completed Indigenous students to explore their perspectives on what works and what can be improved to support Indigenous student completions. A total of 66 interviews were undertaken. Quantitative data was obtained through direct request to the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE). Enrolment and student outcome data aggregated from the five selected universities was also analysed.

Key findings

Key findings from the project were:

  • Indigenous centres/units at universities are key for building a sense of community and belonging for Indigenous students.
  • The physical space of Indigenous centres/units is particularly significant to provide a space where Indigenous students can connect with each other, with staff and with their own cultural identities.
  • ITAS (Indigenous Tutoring Assistance Scheme) is an important strategy to assist Indigenous students to complete their degrees.
  • Faculties need to collaborate further with Indigenous centres to support Indigenous students to complete their degrees.
  • More Indigenous perspectives in the classroom are needed to support Indigenous students’ learning outcomes and to provide examples of engaging with Indigenous knowledges and cultural contexts in teaching and learning.
  • Indigenous students experience racism in the classroom and more work needs to be done to address this.
  • More cultural competency training of staff and students is needed to ensure faculties and classrooms are culturally safe spaces for Indigenous students.
  • Non-completed students reported a range of factors influencing their decisions to leave university, including negative experiences living at college, mental health concerns and “burnout”, poor fit of the degree with their interests and a lack of a cohort of Indigenous students.
  • Compared to national Indigenous enrolments, the selected institutions enrolled higher percentages of Indigenous students who were younger, studying internally, studying full-time, from metropolitan postcodes, from high SES postcodes, admitted on the basis of their secondary education, and/or studying in the Society and Culture or Natural and Physical Sciences broad fields of education. They were more likely to disclose their ATAR and, when they did, their ATAR was likely to be higher.


An output of the project was an online, national roundtable to share the findings from the project and receive feedback on the proposed strategies and conceptual model of best practice to strengthen Indigenous student completions. The project findings have also established strategies that can be adopted by all universities across Australia to strengthen and improve completion rates of Indigenous students.


The findings of this project inform eight high-level recommendations under the following two broad categories:

  • Key stakeholder recommendations
  • Australian Government recommendations.

Key stakeholder recommendations

  1. University leadership needs to ensure more cultural competency training opportunities for academic staff, professional staff, and students.
  2. University academic staff should ensure their classrooms are strongly anti-racist and address any issues of racism within the classroom.
  3. University leadership and Indigenous centre staff should work together to ensure strong scholarships are in place for Indigenous students.
  4. University faculties and academics should work collaboratively with Indigenous centre/unit staff and Indigenous academics to ensure Indigenous perspectives are strongly embedded in course curricula.
  5. University Indigenous centre/unit staff should continue to develop and strengthen strategies that build a sense of belonging and connection for Indigenous students within the university.
  6. University leadership should ensure there are targets and initiatives in place to continue to grow the number of Indigenous academic staff within universities.

Australian Government recommendations

  1. The Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) could test the feasibility of including a separate analysis of the national Indigenous student population in the annual cohort analysis of higher education students.
  2. The Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) could extend the timeframe reporting of Indigenous student higher education award completion to a minimum of 10 years in order to optimise the opportunity to capture data on successful completion and better acknowledge and reflect the familial, cultural, social and employment obligations that Indigenous students face.

Read the full report: Building the evidence to improve completion rates for Indigenous students

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1The University of Queensland
2The University of Melbourne
3Australian National University
4Monash University

Expert Review

Professor Maria Raciti
Indigenous and Transcultural Research Centre
University of the Sunshine Coast

This research, led by Professor Bronwyn Fredericks, is commendable and a must-read for policy makers, equity practitioners and scholars. The project focused on developing an evidence base of success factors that uplift Indigenous students’ completion rates. The report outlines that while the number of Indigenous students participating in Australian higher education has grown, completion rates remain low. The robust design of this project generated pragmatic, on-the-ground recommendations that have been proven to work.

The research was conducted during COVID-19 and includes evidence of successful practices during this time which makes the findings not only contemporary but translatable to the current sector context. The strengths-based approach is refreshing with the ‘success framing’ perspective incredibly important to student equity discourse as it represents a growing shift away from the deconstruction of deficits and the tyranny of low expectations that, unfortunately, remains the default position for much Indigenous related policy, practice and research. In particular, the Australian Government recommendations are very exciting. The idea of including separate analysis of the national Indigenous student population in the annual cohort analysis of higher education would be incredibly helpful to the sector; as too would be the recommended extension of completion rates reporting timelines to a minimum of 10 years for Indigenous students. The predominantly Indigenous research team used a wide array of literature from Indigenous scholars which make this report a powerful exemplar of Indigenous excellence, extending its value well beyond the achievement of the project aims.

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