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: Indigenous Achievement in Higher Education and the Role of Self-Efficacy: Rippling Stories of Success

Jack Frawley, Robyn Ober, Millie Olcay and James A. Smith


Indigenous students could be better supported in their transition, participation, retention and success in higher education with an increased emphasis on emotional support. This research recommended the supplementation of existing academic support programs with equity strategies that recognise the importance of community and family engagement, a sense of belonging and identity, and the development of self-efficacy amongst Indigenous students.


This research originated from the 2015 National Forum on Indigenous pathways and transitions into higher education, hosted by Charles Darwin University (CDU) and funded through the Higher Education Participation and Partnership Program (HEPPP) by the Australian Government. The forum was an opportunity to launch a national project report led by Steven Kinnane, Can’t be what you can’t see: The transition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students into higher education. In this report Kinnane et al. viewed success as a ‘ripple of many small successes’ and identified the vital roles that individual, family and community have for an Indigenous student’s successful transition into higher education and for the development and provision of effective targeted pathway programs.

Throughout Australia there have been many ‘small successes’ of Indigenous individuals who have completed higher education, but these stories are largely absent from the literature. There has, instead, been a strong focus on the barriers and challenges to Indigenous participation.

Objectives and methodology

Self-efficacy as a key element of Social Cognitive Theory proposes that learning occurs within a social context. This review compared and contrasted key findings on self-efficacy and academic success, and singled out the most effective approaches in promoting a strong sense of self-efficacy in the higher education context.

Researchers undertook an integrative literature review on self-efficacy and academic success with a particular focus on Indigenous higher education students and documented narrative accounts of Indigenous student success in higher education studies by accessing YouTube videos in which students presented their higher education experiences. A data analysis frame was developed, informed by the four sources of self-efficacy—performance accomplishments and academic self-efficacy; vicarious experience; verbal persuasion; and physiological states—and an evidence-base generated and documented the most effective approaches for supporting Indigenous pathways and transitions into higher education and successful completions of studies.

Key findings and recommendations

The results from this research show that while the self-efficacy sources of vicarious experience and performance accomplishments in determining success are significant, these sources are less important in determining Indigenous student success in higher education than physiological states.

The research also signals an emerging subset of the latter source, one in which a student’s emotional motivation to succeed is in order to give something back to family and the community, and is linked to cultural norms such as the spirit of giving, reciprocity, relationships and responsibility.

The recommendations from this research were:

  • Academic support programs are important and would be significantly more effective if they were supplemented by emotional support provided by culturally capable counsellors.
  • The provision of culturally safe spaces for students can support wellbeing, a sense of belonging and identity. Where these don’t exist within Universities, they should be established and adequately funded.
  • Equity strategies and initiatives should be based on a foundation of community engagement with families and others who have a role in community-based initiatives.
  • Further research would assist in understanding how cultural norms such as the spirit of giving back, reciprocity, relationships and responsibility influence and modify self-efficacy theory.
  • Further research aimed at examining self-efficacy in the context of Indigenous student participation in higher education would be useful for advancing existing program investments and supports in this sector.
  • Self-efficacy should be a key consideration in programs that aim to support Indigenous students in higher education, such as the Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP) currently administered by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Research findings from this report could be used to provide greater flexibility in program delivery during any further revisions of the current guidelines and implementation process associated with ISSP.

Conclusions and considerations for policy

This research identified several areas for further work especially in regards to policy, practice and research. Providing physical and emotional wellbeing support is largely absent from government policy and initiatives and this needs to be addressed as a matter of priority. The Commonwealth Government could increase support through Indigenous Student Success Program (ISSP) funding as a contribution towards improved educational outcomes for Indigenous higher education students as set out in the goals of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy and the recently released Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy. Targeted programs focusing on strengthening self-efficacy could include expanded Indigenous student support services provided by universities as well as community outreach programs for Indigenous students from low socio-economic backgrounds that could be funded through the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) initiative.

Read the full report here.

Frawley, J., Ober, R., Olcay, M. & Smith, J.A. (2017) Indigenous Achievement in Higher Education and the Role of Self-Efficacy: Rippling Stories of Success.  National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), Curtin University: Perth.