Study-life balance and retention of Indigenous higher education students

Year: 2019

Author: Trimmer, Karen, Ganguly, Rahul, Dixon, Roselyn

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Education for a Socially Just World requires equitable outcomes supported by policy designed and implemented to enhance participation. Retention of Indigenous higher education students is critical to increasing the number of Indigenous graduates and researchers. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education has been a focus of government policy many years, however Indigenous people remain significantly under-represented in Australian universities. The literature indicates clear need for aspiring Indigenous students to be able to connect with higher education programs that align to their own cultural experience in order to better prepare educated people for leadership roles and future workforce needs.

For those Indigenous students who do enrol in higher education there are hurdles that result in high rates of attrition. Barriers to successful completion noted in the literature include personal issues related to work-life balance such as lack of social, financial and personal support structures, and conflict between study and family commitments. There have been numerous studies that point to a need to change university policy and culture in general, to build capacity, to become more inclusive and to provide equitable access to opportunity. For example, recruitment, application, entry and orientation policy and processes have been identified as barriers.

This research takes an interdisciplinary policy-focused approach to build evidence related to retention of Indigenous students in two differing universities, a regional (RUN) university and a larger (ATN) university. A documentary analysis of policy using a framework of factors relevant to work-life balance identified in past studies was undertaken to identify policies that may have differential impact on Indigenous students.

In this context the research aims to do more than identify policy shortcomings and solutions from a Western viewpoint as these may not account for Indigenous understandings and priorities. The complexity of life circumstances being negotiated by Indigenous students in the form of commitments to family, to community and to employers, impinges on their capacity, in the form of time, energy and emotional resilience, to study. Students face additional complexity when they are studying off country, have cultural responsibilities and feel isolated and culturally unsafe. It is recognised that this complex problem requires a complex, multi-layered response over time. Follow up focus groups with a sample of Indigenous students in each institution are therefore planned to test the veracity of the conclusions from the documentary analysis which has provided initial insight into systemic processes influencing retention of Indigenous students.