May.6.2019

Taken for a ride? How the education vehicle breaks down for First Nations people

By John Guenther

The ‘education is the key’ mantra is often used as a metaphor in remote First Nations communities to indicate the importance of learning to achieve some measure of socio-economic advantage. It is fair to say that First Nations people have bought into education and training ‘vehicle’ with enthusiasm. The Year 12 completion data coming out of Closing the Gap Report in 2019 suggest that gaps are closing. The rates of people holding certificate qualifications in remote communities are also increasing at a fast pace.

But the vehicle appears to break down as it heads along the road towards jobs, economic participation and income. I have been using Census data to research the impact of First Nations students completing Year 12, with a special focus on income and what I found is disturbing.

My research extends the work of projects conducted by the Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation (now called Ninti One) between 2011 and 2016, in which I was  I was also involved.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Remote Economic Participation projects

The CRC-REP projects confirmed that education is important for First Nations people living in remote communities, but not necessarily because of jobs and careers. Education is important because it helps keep language and culture strong. It assists young people maintain a connection with Country and ensures that they have a strong identity. At the same time the projects confirmed the importance of education, they also raised questions about the efficacy of education and training as the key to economic participation by First Nations peoples.

Back in 2013 it was assumed there is a connection between going to school regularly, completing Year 12, getting a job and living a happy and successful life. It was often argued as common sense. For example, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in 2013 stated “…you need to have an education if you’re going to take advantage of… this wonderful economic nirvana…”

A slightly more sophisticated argument sees benefit from education in terms of human, social and identity capital. But is that economic nirvana being realised for First Nations students from remote communities, particularly for those who have completed Year 12? One could expect so, given the public investment in boarding and scholarship programs designed to give remote First Nations people a quality education and complete their secondary education.

My research on Census data

In the last three Censuses there is evidence of strong growth in Year 12 completion rates for those First Nations people who speak an Indigenous language, as shown in the table below.

The number of Year 12 completers among language speakers increased by 362% in ten years. For English speakers, the growth was also a healthy 85%, compared to non-Indigenous growth of just 28%. If the common sense logic is right, we would expect that growth to take people to jobs.

And the good news is that jobs for year 12 completers have grown, but, as the table shows, the total number of jobs for First Nations people has not changed in 10 years.

So the net impact of all this education in terms of jobs for First Nations people is nil.

Meanwhile for non-Indigenous people there were more than an extra 4000 jobs for those working in very remote parts of the country.

But surely there is some economic benefit to attaining year 12?

I put that question to the test by comparing the median incomes of year 12 completers based on their status as First Nations people or non-Indigenous and whether they speak English only or another language as well. The table below, based on 2016 Census data shows what I found.

This table explains why the education vehicle has not lived up to its expectations for First Nation people. Some might say it has broken down altogether.

To be fair, First Nations Year 12 completers do get a relative income benefit compared to their Year 11 completer counterparts, around $300 per week if they speak English only, but the benefit dwindles to nothing for those who do not speak English very well.

By contrast, non-Indigenous people who speak another language appear to not lose out to the same extent because of their second language. Indeed the highest income earners in this table are non-Indigenous people who also speak a language other than English. There is also apparently no meaningful income benefit from stepping up from Year 11 to Year 12 either, for this group.

So what is going wrong?

Far from arriving at economic nirvana, First Nations people who have invested in their Year 12 education vehicle, have broken down well short of this glorious place. The income differentials are shocking. But why is this so?

In the CRC-REP research, we proposed several reasons for the differences. One reason we offered was related to agency. People make choices about the kind of work they want to engage in, and it isn’t always based on money. But this new data is somewhat disturbing as it suggests that some languages are treated more favourably than others, which may raise questions about racism and assimilation’s continuing role in educational institutions. The data shows that English has a higher value than Indigenous languages. But being able to speak another language that isn’t an Indigenous language is potentially more valuable than speaking English alone.

Just as disturbing is the evidence emerging from several studies that boarding and scholarship programs can have a detrimental impact on First Nations young people’s wellbeing. The large income differential offers another explainer as to why First Nations people in remote communities don’t bother to get on board the Year 12 vehicle. It just doesn’t pay!

John Guenther is currently the Research Leader—Education and Training for Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education, based in Darwin. His work focuses on learning contexts, theory and practice and policies as they connect with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Between 2011 and 2016 he led the Remote Education Systems project with the CRC for Remote Economic Participation. More detail about John’s work is available at remote education systems.

Image is by John Guenther

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