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: Interrogating relationships between student support initiatives and Indigenous student progression

Bep Uink1, Rebecca Bennett1, Braden Hill2, Chanelle van den Berg1, Justine Rolfe1

Executive Summary

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (henceforth Indigenous ) students are enrolling in university degrees at historically high rates; however, the majority of these students are not completing their qualifications. The latest available national statistics show that the national average six-year Bachelor completion rate for Indigenous university students is 41 percent. This is compared to 63 percent for non-Indigenous students and 56 percent for Low SES cohorts, not separated by Indigenous indicators (DET, 2019). This statistical discrepancy thus signals a substantial gap between intention and achievement of a university degree for Indigenous students. This enrolment-completion gap leaves open the questions as to what supports are available to Indigenous undergraduate students, and how likely are they to access them? While previous research has examined individual characteristics of Indigenous students in relation to degree completion rates (e.g., Shalley et al., 2019), this project shifts focus from individual students to universities to explore the efficacy of the support services that universities offer in terms of Indigenous student success.

In efforts to address the significant enrolment-completion gap amongst Indigenous cohorts and to work towards education equity, universities across Australia offer Indigenous students a variety of extra-curricular support programs. These include general university services such as learning and teaching support centres, Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS), Peer Assisted Coaching (PAC), student advisor networks, student guilds, medical and counselling services, and equity and diversity offices. Some universities offer targeted pre-university bridging courses specifically for Indigenous students – while others transition Indigenous students into university through whole-of-university bridging programs (Behrendt et al., 2012). Whole of university support programs are often supplemented by Indigenous-specific support administered through Indigenous Higher Education Units (IHEUs) and funded by the federal government’s Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP). However, institutional strategies for Indigenous student support can vary widely across institutions. This project focused on two universities that administer the majority of Indigenous-specific support initiatives through centralised IHEUs – also known as Aboriginal Centres.

IHEUs offer practical, social, emotional, cultural, and infrastructural support, including kitchen and recreation facilities; computer terminals, stationery and printing services; academic and wellbeing support, and social events to promote cultural safety and a sense of belonging on campus (Behrendt, 2012). IHEUs can also administer needs-based financial scholarships and one-to-one tutoring (Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme; ITAS) funded through the ISSP (Uink et al., 2021). In terms of efficacy, prior research suggests that accessing IHEUs, supports Indigenous student retention and success (Barney, 2013; Uink et al., 2021); however, not all Indigenous students are aware of, or choose to, access Indigenous-specific assistance or IHEUs. In this case, research recommends that it is important that whole-of-university academic support programs (such as ITAS or PASS) be “supplemented with equity strategies that recognise the importance of community and family engagement, a sense of belonging and identity, and the development of self-efficacy” (Frawley et al., 2017) if they are to effectively cater to Indigenous student needs. However, there is little comparative evidence to understand how Indigenous students interact with – and perceive of – the full suite of support available to them during their degree studies. This project begins to address this gap.

Finally, in 2020, Indigenous-specific and whole-of-university institutional support initiatives moved to online formats as universities transitioned online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (Pulver, 2020). This rapid shift to online learning and support threatened Indigenous students with cultural and digital isolation (Bennett et al., 2020). As such, this study also considered Indigenous students’ perceptions of transitioning institutional supports online.

Research Aims

With an overall motivation to understand and reduce the enrolment-completion gap for Indigenous university students, this study was designed in response to two broad research aims:

  1. To map Indigenous students’ use of Indigenous-specific, and whole-of-university support services.
  2. To assess relations between Indigenous students’ engagement with institutional support initiatives and their degree progression.

To achieve this, the project design was guided by three research questions (RQs):

  1. What is the pattern of Indigenous students’ use of extra-curricular support services over a ten-year period?
  2. What is the relationship between Indigenous student progression (as assessed by pass rates) and access of university support services?
  3. How do successful Indigenous university students:
    • Engage with student support services (both Indigenous-specific and whole-of university)?
    • View the relationship between student support services and degree progression and/or completion?
    • Experience the transition of support services online in response to COVID-19 lockdowns?


Utilising a mixed-methods approach, this project collated pre-existing quantitative data, and collected Indigenous student testimonials, from two medium sized universities in WA to determine relationships between institutional support and Indigenous student progression. In the quantitative study (Study One), data from targeted Indigenous, and broader university, student support initiatives over a ten-year period were collated, cleaned, and analysed, using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software to determine: the proportion of Indigenous students that engaged with institutional support services across a ten year period (RQ1) and whether individual differences in service use were associated with individual differences in pass rates (RQ2). The qualitative study (Study Two) was comprised of two yarning circles and two one-to-one yarns, with a total of ten successful Indigenous university students, across the participating universities. In this context, ‘success’ was defined as having completed a university degree or being in the final year of a university degree. Yarning circles (Bessarab & Ng’Andu, 2010) offered a culturally endorsed and empowering method of data collection whereby the Indigenous student-participants were invited to lead conversations about the roles that student support played during their studies, guided by prompts to encourage the conversation to address the three parts that comprised RQ3. Yarning was facilitated by one Indigenous researcher and one non-Indigenous researcher. The yarning data was audio-recorded, transcribed, and analysed for thematic repetition and narrative significance in terms of Indigenous students’ perception and experience of support during their degree studies.

Key Findings

Study One (Quantitative):

  • Data on Indigenous student progress was regularly compiled and assessed at the cohort level; data on Indigenous student use of services has been inconsistently collected and assessed
  • Most Indigenous students did not access institutional support programs, be they Indigenous-specific or non-Indigenous specific programs
  • Use of institutional support programs were inconsistently related to pass rates with the most consistent relation found between pass rates and receipt of scholarships

Study Two (Qualitative):

Narrative findings. Participant narratives suggested alternative conceptualisations of support and success, comparted to those first initiated in this study and those mobilised in terms of ISSP funding.

  • Rather than viewing student support in terms of functions or departments, participants conceptualised support as interpersonal relationships.
  • Rather than viewing success through quantitative metrics, such as grades, units passed or degree completions, participants conceptualised success as quality of experience.

Narrative and thematic findings combined. Five overarching themes were identified in the yarning circle data. These were:

  1. Positive interpersonal relationships, which referred to individual staff both within and outside of the IHEU and peer-to-peer support.
  2. Individual attributes and experiences, which referred to students attributing their ability to progress through degrees to completion as being self-driven, as opposed to university supported.
  3. Sense of belonging, which referred to feeling – or wishing to feel – connected to Indigenous students and staff through the IHEU community; a desire for connection to culture and Country at university and wanting to be more visible within the broader university.
  4. Instrumental support, which reaffirmed previous findings in the research as to the challenges of financial insecurity, delays in academic and scholarship support – and the importance of pre-university preparation activities, units, and courses. It also highlighted a gap in support regarding transitioning out of university, once a degree is complete.
  5. Responses to forced online learning in COVID-19, which generated nominal mixed responses and did not appear to be of great significance to participants as lockdowns in WA were short and had occurred months prior to data collection.

Recommendations for practice

  • Universities should consider investing in data management solutions which allow for regular integration of student case management data with student course progress data. This integration will allow universities to easily assess relations between student interactions with institutional support service teams and their course progression to assess whether intervention is associated with better course outcomes.
  • Universities should regularly disaggregate Indigenous student data and link this data to student support service usage. This will allow for streamlined assessment of relations between Indigenous student pass rates and service usage.
  • Universities should ensure appropriate gender identifiers (e.g., woman, man, non-binary, agender) are available for students to complete at enrolment.
  • Prioritise and nurture interpersonal relationships between academic and student support staff and Indigenous students as key support mechanisms. Importantly, these support relationships should not only be the responsibility of Indigenous staff members but all academic and support staff who interface with students. Institutional support in terms of providing workload allocations for student support within academic job roles should co-occur with this recommendation.
  • Ensure Indigenous students access financial and academic supports early in the semester.
  • Consider basing financial subsidies on the cost of unit materials, as opposed to issuing a blanket sum to all students.
  • Professional development and workload attribution to front-line teaching staff to formalise and embed important extracurricular support functions and referral processes within the teacher-student relationship. Or ensure there are visible non-academic support roles, embedded into disciplines, to supplement academic teaching with wellbeing supports. This recommendation should not come at a cost to existing Indigenous academic staff. Instead, institutions should consider employing Indigenous academic staff in roles specifically dedicated to advise on effective teacher-student relationships or account for this advisory role in existing Indigenous academics’ workloads.
  • Appoint holistic, Indigenous student support Coordinators who prioritises individual student needs, personalised care, and whole-of-life support to Indigenous students.
  • Intentionally create a community of practice in IHEUs which validates the diversity of the student cohort, with sensitivity to the experiences of students studying off-Country.
  • Clarify the role of Elders in terms of student support.
  • Provide multiple and ongoing opportunities for Indigenous university students to network and socialise, within and between universities.
  • Consider the role of wellbeing in the relationship between support service access and academic outcomes.

Recommendations for research

  • Apply longitudinal (within-person) analysis to Indigenous student course progression and support service use data to examine the impact of service use patterns on student success trajectories across their university careers and to examine time lagged effects of service utilisation.
  • Similar to existing work with post-graduate students (e.g., Chirgwin, 2015), run qualitative studies with early-degree, at-risk and withdrawn Indigenous undergraduate students to understand perceptions and experiences of support amongst less ‘successful’ students.
  • Consider how to measure students’ interactions more accurately with university supports, not bound by ‘service program’ but governed by the level of interpersonal support students received.
  • Conduct research with Indigenous students in states and territories in Australia that experienced extended periods of forced online learning, due to COVID-19 lockdowns, to understand Indigenous student support needs over this time.

Recommendations for policy

  • Universities should benchmark Indigenous student service use data against that of other equity groups as well as non-equity student groups. Universities should also consider setting targets for Indigenous student participation in extra-curricular support services.
  • Ensure Indigenous centres are fully engaged in critical discussions relating to the use of relevant Commonwealth funding streams e.g., Indigenous Student Success Program funding, Indigenous Regional Low SES Attainment Fund.
  • Provide opportunities for interaction between IHEUs and the broader university community at events, market-days, and club-days.
  • Visibly acknowledge Traditional Owners in artwork, dual naming, and signage throughout the university campuses.
  • Mandate professional development of non-Indigenous academic staff, teaching units with Indigenous and/or cross-cultural content in terms of Indigenous cultural awareness and sensitivity.
  • Conduct regular Indigenous-led audits of Indigenous and cross-cultural curriculum content to ensure it is culturally safe.
  • Ensure universities have an Indigenous employment strategy that effectively increases recruitment and retention of Indigenous professional and academic staff. Increased Indigenous staff at universities is crucial to enable the above recommendations and ensure that existing Indigenous staff, particularly academic staff, are not over-burdened with demands for capacity building for non-Indigenous staff.

Read the full report: Interrogating relationships between student support initiatives and Indigenous student progression

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

1Murdoch University
2Edith Cowan University

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