Claire Field calls on HE and VET to do more to Close the Gap


They should also be active, visible supporters of First Nations people as the country moves towards fulfilling its future promise 

Last week the Prime Minister kickstarted the public conversation on a referendum on a Voice to Parliament. In the same week the latest Closing the Gap report was released and there seemed to be little discussion of it within the tertiary education sector. In a nutshell, both higher education and VET have a huge amount still to do.

While the higher education sector is to be congratulated on achieving a 10 per cent increase between 2016 and 2020 in the number of First Nations students enrolling in undergraduate degrees, completion rates remain a significant concern. In 2019, 22.8 per cent of First Nations students did not return in their second year, and fewer than half of the students who commenced in 2012 had completed by 2020.

In VET meanwhile there has been a decline in First Nations students aged 34 years and under commencing a qualification at Certificate III and above – 33 411 in 2020 down from 39 740 in 2016. And the Productivity Commission projects that fewer than four in ten qualifications commenced by First Nations students in this age group in 2019 will be complete in four years – despite most VET qualifications taking one year or less of full-time study.

While the Job-ready Graduates package included funding for a guaranteed place for every First Nations student from regional Australia, it is clear that even as higher education participation rates increase more needs to be done to improve completion rates, yet the Indigenous, Regional and Low SES Attainment Fund is not due to commence until 2024.

In VET it is deeply concerning that almost the only recommendations which the last government chose not to accept and implement from Steven Joyce’s Expert Review, were those encouraging more First Nations’ ownership of RTOs and more VET being taught in Indigenous languages in culturally appropriate settings.

Returning to the referendum – I am an educator not a lawyer – but as a migrant to Australia from another Commonwealth country, it is remarkable that in 2022 we could seriously be arguing about the need for and importance of a Voice to Parliament. The Voice is a critical first step if we are to properly acknowledge Australia’s history, provide redress, and embrace a confident, inclusive future.

The higher education and VET sectors need to do more to Close the Gap. They should also be active, visible supporters of First Nations people as the country moves towards fulfilling its future promise.

Claire Field is an advisor to the tertiary education sector