A shared journey: Understanding why Indigenous Australians choose to undertake research degrees at Australian universities

Year: 2016

Author: Trudgett, Michelle, Page, Susan, Harrison, Neil

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Indigenous Australians represent 2.2% of the working age population, yet account for only 1.4% of all university enrolments. In relation to higher degree research (HDR) students, Indigenous Australians account for 1.1% of enrolments, but only 0.8% of all HDR completions (Behrendt et al. 2012). These disparities become more visible at the doctoral level. This paper reports on findings that emerged from our Australian Research Council funded study which aims to establish a model of best practice for the supervision of Indigenous doctoral students, a significant area of higher education in Australia that remains unexplored (Harrison, Trudgett & Page 2016; Page, Trudgett & Harrison 2015; Trudgett, Page & Harrison 2016). In the context of comparatively low enrolments, policies and strategies are gradually being implemented in order to attract more Indigenous Australian students into HDR programs at Australian universities. Nevertheless, there is limited understanding of the reasons why Indigenous students decide to undertake research degrees. This paper reports on the findings of our study which identified three clear reasons that underpin the decision made by Indigenous students to enroll at a particular institution. One of the key reasons is based on the notion of familiarity as opposed to university status and reputation. This paper explores what this notion of familiarity means to Indigenous HDR students in Australia. It draws on international research and practice to develop a perception of the PhD journey around the ideas of interrelationship and connectedness. While the doctoral process if often presented as largely an individual process bound by self-regulated learning, the participants of this study, some of whom were already highly experienced teachers and researchers in higher education, explained how their existence as a doctoral candidate depended on a relation to others. Importantly, this paper will assist other educators and policy makers to attract more Indigenous Australian students to their institutions. It is essential that Australian universities work collaboratively in order to best increase the current national statistics on Indigenous Australian higher degree research students; a most important and crucial aspect to building the socio-economic fabric of Australia. We will argue that that universities can best improve outcomes for Indigenous HDR students by recognising the onto-epistemological frame that many Indigenous HDR students apply to their everyday relations.