Aboriginal students in higher studies at university

Aboriginal students choosing higher studies are a minority, and likely to be older than their peers. Experts want to see universities tap into the potential of Aboriginal organisations to increase student numbers.

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Selected statistics

Percentage of Aboriginal students who completed their bachelor degree in 2006 (non-Aboriginal students: 73.9%).
Percentage of Aboriginal students who complete a university degree.
Percentage of Aboriginal students who complete a PhD.
Number of Aboriginal people with a university degree in Australia in 2014 . Same figure in 2010: 25,000 ; in 2006: 20,000; in 1991: 3,600.
Number of Aboriginal students enrolled in universities in 2015 (1.6% of domestic enrolments).
Average annual growth of Aboriginal enrolments.
Percentage of Australian university staff who was Aboriginal in 2022; figure from 2011 to 2019 : 1%.
Growth of Aboriginal students in higher education between 2001 and 2011.
Increase in Aboriginal students attending university compared to 2008; same increase for non-Aboriginal students: 37%.
Percentage of Aboriginal Australians who have a post-school qualification. Same figure for New Zealand Maori: 85%, for US Native Americans: 65%.
Number of university applications from Aboriginal students in 2011; in 2010: 888.
Percentage of Year 12 Aboriginal students who were eligible for university; figure for non-Aboriginal students: 46%.
Percentage of Aboriginal students in the top NAPLAN quartile who want to go to university; figure for non-Aboriginal students: 72%.
Increase in the number of Aboriginal students graduating each year since 2010; increase for non-Aboriginal students: 21%.
A group of young Aboriginal students.
Aboriginal students in tertiary studies are growing in numbers but are still underrepresented at universities. Their share is only around 1.3%. Photo: mexikids,

Aboriginal students in higher education

Statistics about the total number of Aboriginal students participating in higher studies vary significantly depending on the agency that's gathering the data and due to restructuring and shifting responsibilities.

As a result, data is inconsistent, and sometimes missing, even from major sources of Aboriginal higher education data. Political and racial values of statistical gatherers and framers of questions further influence the data gathered.

There is agreement however that enrolment, retention, and completion rates are significantly lower than those of non-Aboriginal students, with Aboriginal students making up only 1% of university enrolments in 2013, way below the 3% population rate.

The total number of Aboriginal students has increased by 20.8% from 2001 to 2011. But because rates for non-Aboriginal students have also increased, their proportion of total university students has remained at only about 1.3%.

A government report found in 2006 that only 4.9% of Aboriginal people aged 20-24 years attended university, a fifth of the rate of non-Aboriginal students (23.9%).

Numbers are also low because in relation to higher education specific groups of the Aboriginal populations are under-represented, such as women as primary carers, students living in remote locations, young men, people in the prison system and people with disabilities. In addition, some students choose not to identify as Aboriginal for a range of reasons, for example to avoid racism.

Parents can play a major role in helping their children make it through university. Parental encouragement can be "a major force driving gains in education" when parents set cultural and educational goals for their children.


The first Aboriginal Bachelor degree student graduated in 1966.

Uni degree opens doors

Despite the challenges, completing a university degree has great benefits for Aboriginal students.

A degree or other high level qualification increases their chances of being employed by 50%, more than twice the percentage for non-Aboriginal students (20%). Graduates also get the same employment outcomes as their non-Aboriginal peers.

It also puts Aboriginal students on par with their non-Aboriginal peers and into a position of strength where they can make their own decisions rather than being led.

Aboriginal students leaving university can go on to become leaders and mentors for their peers as well as role models for younger generations.

We have found from all the evidence that Aboriginal students who make it through university pathways have been successful and hold their own with non-Indigenous Australians.

— Ken Wyatt, Indigenous Affairs Minister

Once [Aboriginal students] do their degree, a lot of us feel more confident going into the workforce, knowing that you’ve got the same degree that everyone else has.

— Tetei Bakic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student
Aboriginal students at university
GenderTotal number of studentsCommencing universityCompleting university

Figures shown for 2013.

As the table above shows, Aboriginal students experience a one-in-three dropout rate from university, compared to one-in-five for all domestic students, and overall completion rates are 22% less than for non-Aboriginal students.

Aboriginal enrolment in NSW universities
UniversityTotal Aboriginal enrolmentTotal student enrolmentAboriginal share
Charles Sturt University90839,0932.3%
Macquarie University26538,7930.68%
Southern Cross University47914,3693.3%
University of New England56720,9122.7%
University of Newcastle91436,4482.5%
University of NSW38152,3260.73%
University of Sydney36654,3060.67%
University of Technology, Sydney25237,6380.67%
University of Western Sydney58041,8641.4%
University of Wollongong32130,5541.1%

Figures shown for 2014.

Story: The only one

Tania Major, 2007 Young Australian of the Year, was the only person in her school class to go to university. She's from Kowanyama in Queensland's Cape York, and remembers her class.

"I'm also the only girl in my class who did not have a child at 15.

Of the boys in my class, seven have been incarcerated, two for murder, rape and assault.

Of the 15, there are only three of us who are not alcoholics.

And one of the saddest things I must report is that four of my classmates have already committed suicide."

Why Aboriginal children aren't choosing university

A large-scale longitudinal study by University of Newcastle in 2017 found that high-achieving Aboriginal children are less likely to want to go to university.

While 72% of non-Aboriginal students in the top NAPLAN quartile aspired to go to university, only 43% of Aboriginal students in the same quartile said they wanted to go. Numbers in the other quartiles were about the same for both groups.

On top of the challenges every young person faces when entering university, for example costs, there are some which are unique to Aboriginal students:

  • Connection to land. While the majority of Aboriginal children live in major cities and regional areas, those who do live in remote communities are often reluctant to leave because their connection to land is very important and they are deeply committed to their family and community.
  • Financing university life. A high proportion of Aboriginal people come from a low socio-economic background. Being able to pay for their accommodation, fees, textbooks and general living is a big ask for many students. Many Aboriginal children also have significant financial obligations in their family. And finding supportive programs or scholarships can be a challenge in itself.
  • Fear of being a minority. It is clear to many Aboriginal youth that if they decide to go to university they will be part of a minority group which might be exposed to racism and discrimination.
  • Learned low expectations. Because many Australians carry the myth that that Aboriginal students achieve less, or fail, students themselves made this thinking their own. Some call it an "aspirational impediment" which makes students believe they couldn't get into the best universities in Australia, but the reality is they can and they succeed.
  • They are the first. Entering university, or in some cases even secondary school, is often a first experience for the families of Aboriginal students. This means there is no family or community experience to guide them which makes the prospect of going to university very daunting.
  • Immediate work is more rewarding. When Aboriginal students have to decide whether to go to university a prospect of immediate paid work, or studying at TAFE, might appear more appealing, especially if these are available locally.
  • Not trusting government institutions. Aboriginal students may have a deep distrust of any government institution, including universities.

Aboriginal students pick relevant courses

Aboriginal students tend to pick courses that are relevant to their lives as Aboriginal people.

"If Indigenous students study, they tend to study a course they see having direct benefit to their communities such as law, health or education," says Dr Chris Matthews, an applied mathematician from the Griffith School of Environment.

His statement is confirmed by the university courses with the highest completion numbers for Aboriginal students: Society and Culture, Health, and Education.

Dr Matthews also remembers how a student commented that science education "didn't talk about how Indigenous people have knowledge of animals. They make it sound as though white people discovered everything". Students feel that current science education disregards more than 40,000 years of valuable Aboriginal knowledge.

Course completion rates are lower

Despite increasing course enrolments and commencements Aboriginal students completed less courses, the report said. In 2009 Aboriginal students had an overall degree completion rate of less than 50% , while 72% of their non-Indigenous peers completed their studies.

Most Aboriginal students cite financial and academic reasons for leaving university. "Indigenous students are more likely to be female, to be of lower socio-economic status, and to be older," explains a survey . Many also have children which in turn increases financial pressures.

I wasn't the brightest student, but I was determined to push through to Year 12. When I got there, there were only three of us left.

— David Peachey, National Rugby League star

Further findings of the government report include:

  • Of the total 813,896 domestic students enrolled in 2009, 10,440 identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
  • Aboriginal students were more likely to be over 20 years of age than non-Aboriginal students.
  • The largest single group of Aboriginal students enrolled was women aged over 25 years (39.8% of Aboriginal student enrolments).
Graph showing gap between completion rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students widening as they move into higher classes.
Year 9 to university progression rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students. While most Aboriginal students progress from Year 9 to Year 10, only 71.8% complete Year 12 and just 10% progress from Year 12 to university.

Diverse access to higher studies

Aboriginal higher studies students enter university in a variety of ways. Some do "because they knew someone else who did it".

Non-Aboriginal students, by contrast, enter university mainly based on their secondary or previous higher education attainment (82%, compared to 46% of Aboriginal students).

Aboriginal students were just as satisfied with their overall university experience as other students.

Universities should tap into community knowledge

Asked how to improve student enrolment numbers, Aboriginal lawyer Prof Larissa Behrendt believes that "there's a role universities could be playing in going more deeply into schools at earlier years and building up capacity around literacy, numeracy and science". Literacy rates among Aboriginal people generally are very low and lowest in remote communities.

Behrendt suggests that universities target people involved in Aboriginal community organisations. Their skills set could be complemented, or their work taken as a pathway to help Aboriginal students move to higher education.

Cultural load at university

When First Nations people take on staff roles at university they are often approached to help with work that is outside of their job description as universities need their assistance with tasks that are part of their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP).

This could be giving an Acknowledgement of Country, organising events or joining working groups and committees.

In many cases First Nations people are not reimbursed for this additional work, which is why some education unions have started requesting compensation for this "cultural load".

"You can end up doing a lot more service work than research work," says Dr Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, a First Nations business school lecturer at the University of Queensland. This service work is a double-sided sword: It is important to do but can exhaust those who give it repeatedly to the non-Aboriginal community.

When we have a bright kid [we see] people say 'Go for a traineeship' where they could say instead 'you're good at science, you could be an engineer'.

— Prof Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal lawyer

Batchelor Institute is Australia's only dedicated Aboriginal tertiary institution. It offers higher education courses to students from around Australia.


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Cite this page

Korff, J 2022, Aboriginal students in higher studies at university, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

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