Melanie Saward

Want Indigenous university students to succeed? Here’s how

Recommendations in the Universities Accord reveal a focus on increasing enrolments of under-represented groups including  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. 

Enrolling students is just one part of the piece.  Our research identifies what factors contributed to Indigenous students’ graduating from university. We conducted a study with 308 Indigenous university graduates to understand and identify success factors. Economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics were the most crucial factors that contributed to Indigenous university completions.

Emphasis on financial support

Increasing Indigenous student enrolments at universities  must be accompanied by an emphasis on the financial support and resources needed to ensure both the economic conditions and the social environment at university are fostering success. Financial stability while completing a degree is essential, meaning the financial support offered at universities may need to be reviewed to ensure Indigenous students are having opportunities to access financial support, if needed. There also needs to be a focus on supportive networks and access to counselling.

In our study, we developed the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model which highlights what universities should focus on. Our findings could be used to address the concerns raised in the Accord report.  

What is Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model?

The Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) model is a framework used to investigate the factors that influence the completion of university degrees, specifically for Indigenous Australian students. The model comprises five categories: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. It emphasises the critical role of external factors (economic, physical, and social) as well as individual attributes in influencing student success in higher education. 

Figure 1. Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) Model (Pham et al. 2024)

Effectiveness of the Higher Education Success Factor (HESF) 

We examined five factors: individual characteristics, health and wellbeing, economic conditions, physical environment, and social environment. We found that economic conditions proved to be the most influential factor on Indigenous graduates’ completion, followed by the social environment factor and then individual characteristics. The health and wellbeing factor and the physical environment factor both had less influence on completion compared to the other three factors. 

Importantly, the HESF model effectively identified the economic conditions, social environment, and individual characteristics as critical aspects, emphasising the need for support from educators, peers, and institutional services within Australian institutions. A key element of the economic conditions is the provision of financial support, particularly in the form of tuition and living expenses, to enable students to focus more on their studies and reduce stress, which align with Accord Priority Action 3

Social environment

The social environment cannot be overlooked. It influences the learning environment which needs to be “safe and secure learning” and have “good facilities” for learning to occur.

The study also highlighted mental health issues as significant factors leading Indigenous students to consider withdrawing from their studies. We suggest that university policymakers and educators could use the findings from the HESF model to identify potential weaknesses within their institutions and provide comprehensive support for Indigenous students at all levels of university education. Additionally, we proposed the potential expansion of the HESF model’s application to explore retention and success challenges in diverse settings beyond higher education. This will further enhance its utility and impact. 

The HESF model’s research-based approach provides evidence to support the recommendations made in the Accord report. By demonstrating the effectiveness of addressing specific factors in improving Indigenous students’ success, the model can help build a case for implementing the strategies and initiatives proposed in the report.

Importance of Comprehensive Support for Indigenous Student Success

Our research offered valuable insights into the factors influencing Indigenous student success in higher education and identified challenges faced by Indigenous students in completing their degrees. The findings from the HESF model can guide universities and policymakers in developing targeted support services and interventions to address the specific needs of Indigenous students. For instance, the model underscores the importance of financial support (as part of improving economic conditions), social support networks and mental health services. These areas are not only emphasised in the Accord report as needing attention but are also highlighted as concerns in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance framework.

Last, the HESF model can be used as a tool for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of support services and interventions aimed at improving Indigenous education outcomes. By tracking progress across the five factors, universities can assess the impact of their initiatives and make data-driven decisions to refine their approaches, aligning with the Accord report’s emphasis on accountability and continuous improvement.

From left to right: Thu Pham is a senior research assistant in the Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University. Her research areas include leadership in higher education and Indigenous students’ success. Thu’s doctoral research study focused on leadership to support quality improvement in Vietnamese higher education. She is on LinkedIn.

Levon Blue is an associate professor at The University of Queensland in the Office of the Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Engagement. Her PhD focused on financial literacy education practices in a First Nation community in Canada. She is a member of Beausoleil First Nation in Canada. Her research area includes financial literacy education and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Angela Baeza Pena is a lecturer at Carumba Institute at Queensland University of Technology. She is Diaguita First Nation from Chile. Her PhD focuses on understanding the experiences of teachers and Indigenous community members in providing Indigenous education in rural and remote areas. Her research area includes Indigenous education, teacher professional development and higher education with Indigenous peoples. She is on LinkedIn.

Peter Anderson is a professor and the Director Indigenous Research Unit at Griffith University, Walpiri and Murinpatha First Nations of Australia. His research theorises the understandings of the organisational value of academic freedom in Australian universities and more broadly in the polar south. His research areas include organisational leadership, Indigenous peoples’ education and teacher and academic professional development. He is on LinkedIn.

Melanie Saward is a proud descendant of the Bigambul and Wakka Wakka peoples. She is a lecturer of creative writing in the School of Creative Practice at QUT, a PhD student, and an author. Recently, she has published a Springer Brief titled: “Higher Degree by Research: Factors for Indigenous student success”.