We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the Land in which the campus of The University of Melbourne resides. We would also like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to all other Indigenous Australians.
The substantial disadvantages and inequities Indigenous Australians face compared to other groups in Australia have resulted in significant gaps across numerous wellbeing indicators. Addressing gaps in areas such as health, economic opportunity, and treatment in the justice system are crucial steps Australia needs to take in order to achieve a just and equitable society. This gap is both a legacy of colonialism (Cassidy, 2003) and a function of ongoing bias and marginalisation (Cruwys et al, 2013), thus creating complexity and necessitating an approach that incorporates several relevant stakeholders and government involvement. This is the rationale behind the Close the Gap initiative, which initially aimed to reduce inequity with goals across education, employment, and health. However, these goals were not broad enough and failed to encompass the myriad of ways in which Indigenous Australians face disadvantage and discrimination. Fortunately, the Federal Government and the Coalition of Peaks, a representative body for over 50 community-led Indigenous Australian organisations, have recently formed a much improved National Agreement that encompasses 16 distinct socio-economic targets. Of these targets, education is of particular significance to focus on as it correlates with a lot of the other targets and is essential to breaking the poverty cycle within a generation.
The World Health Organisation states that education and health are known to be highly correlated, that is, more education indicates better health and vice versa (Evans, 2019). Hence, in order to minimize health discrepancies amongst the Australian population, equal and accessible education seems to be the best alternative to building a sustainable and long-lasting change.
It is important to contextualise governmental education programs with a recognition of history so that Close the Gap initiatives don’t inadvertently recreate the wrongs of the past. Many aspects of the authoritarian Mission system and Stolen Generation (Australian Human Rights Commission, 1997) policies were enacted by government organisations under the guise of “civilising” and “assimilating” Indigenous Australians and denying their autonomy. This colonial approach has resulted in a legacy of displacement, intergenerational trauma, as well as fostering an educational attainment gap that persists to this day.
As of the 2020 Close the Gap Report, Australia is on track to achieve 95% enrollment in early childhood education by 2025 and to halve the gap in secondary school attainment among 20-24 year olds. However, Australia failed to meet its 2018 targets for reading, writing, numeracy, and school attendance and has either failed or is not on track to achieve any non-education targets. This represents a mostly negative result with some successes and room for further improvement.
Below is a table with a state-by-state breakdown of progress towards each goal:
It is also worth noting that the 2020 report does not feature the newly established goals formed by the National Agreement.
Learning from the errors and mixed results of Close the Gap thus far, there is hope that a partnership with the Coalition of Peaks in the new National Agreement will facilitate improved results through genuine efforts at community engagement. The outcomes of this agreement are based on the principles of shared decision-making, building the community-controlled sector, improving mainstream institutions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led data, and the achievement of various socio-economic outcomes.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the government devoted to ensuring “the full participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their representative bodies in all aspects of addressing their health needs”(Australian Human Rights Commission, 2021).
Essentially, the Government is aiming to alleviate the health and educational problems faced by Indigenous people through promoting community-engagement programs and funding local support services operated by Indigenous organisations.
One such organisation, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), offers vocational education and health training for Indigenous communities (VACCHO, 2021) – this includes several accredited courses that address required skills and knowledge demanded by industry (VACCHO, 2021). Guidance, support, cultural mentorship and supervision are just a few of the benefits experienced within these programs (VACCHO, 2021), all of which have remained prominent despite the social impacts of COVID-19.
Another identified area of improvement is uplifting the presence of role models within isolated Indigenous communities. More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Initiative (MATSITI) is a specialised group that explicitly works on increasing the volume of Indigenous role models around Australia, particularly teachers and education academics. Perhaps the most tangible display of progressive intent was an A$8 million grant approved by the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 2011, with the specific intention of attracting, supporting, and retaining Indigenous teachers (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2021). Since then, 57 projects have been completed at MATSITI with some notable achievements including:
Following on from this data, a more recent survey suggests that between 2011 and 2016 there has been a 30% increase in the economic participation of Indigenous people, chiefly those involved in business and self-employed sectors (Ketchell, 2018). This growth was catalysed by the Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) introduced in 2015, which exclusively intended to encourage Indigenous entrepreneurship through preferential procurement procedures (Ketchell, 2018). Although this is not direct Government intervention with regards to educational systems, it does stipulate that Government portfolios must actively seek the participation of Indigenous business in their procurement activities, thus providing enhanced potential for the employment of Indigenous individuals.
In summary, these results indicate a distinct correlation between community-level initiatives and the progression of education and health amongst Indigenous people. Whether this change is happening at an acceptable rate is another question itself, nevertheless, there seems to be some form of measurable success.
Similarly, despite the partialities discussed above that are encountered by Indigenous Australians, it should be acknowledged that advancements in Indigenous education have materialised since the establishment of the Closing the Gap Partnership Agreement in 2019 (Closing The Gap, 2021). These improvements are evident within the various forms of investments and financial support implemented for Indigenous students, effectively setting the path for achieving the targets outlined within the initiative (Closing The Gap, 2021).
Effective examples which resemble progress for Indigenous education include a provision of the Youth Education Package which supplied $200 million in promoting mentorship for Indigenous Secondary students in 2019-20, along with an investment of $2.1 billion to financially assist the Melbourne Indigenous Transition School (National Indigenous Australians Agency, 2021). Nevertheless, despite the ongoing support provided, indications of hesitation within the government’s endowment must not be understated. The enduring signs of scarcity in education advocacy for Indigenous Australians located in rural areas and an inherent shortage in Indigenous teaching representation all epitomise contemporary obstacles which require long-term unabating support from society (Malezer, 2021).
Overall, whilst recent progressions have been made to support the Closing the Gap Initiative and provide sustenance for Indigenous education, it is crucial to recognise that the current efforts may be insufficient to substantiate a stimulating environment for continuous target attainment. In particular, there are still signs of reluctance displayed by the government which raises the issue of definitive commitment. As a result, the prevailing inequities faced by Indigenous Australians may still remain in the short-term and hence, necessitates both the government body and society to undertake action to a greater extent. Consequently, to prevent further failures in achieving the designated targets and to abolish the “Gap”, Australians should demand dedication and lasting reforms to ensure that appropriate support for Indigenous programs is being actively encouraged.
The CAINZ Digest is published by CAINZ, a student society affiliated with the Faculty of Business at the University of Melbourne. Opinions published are not necessarily those of the publishers, printers or editors. CAINZ and the University of Melbourne do not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of information contained in the publication.
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