Indigenous millennials and education

Indigenous millennials and education

Developing the appropriate settings for the management and access to the Indigenous Estate is critical to enable it to achieve its potential, to generate opportunities and choice and to bring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders benefits and influence on the national stage.

Bernard Salt

Special Adviser, Demographics

The Demographics Group

Indigenous Australian line design

Ruby Langton-Batty, Intern, KPMG Australia

Ruby Langton-Batty

Only 44 percent of the Australian population is expected to be under 35 by 2026.1 The economic implications of Australia’s ageing population for the millennial generation are becoming increasingly clear. Australia’s current youth look set to experience extra tax burdens, budget deficits, and a decline in skilled workers that will halt the pace of economic growth.2

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders differ, as a group, from the rest of Australia. Our population is younger – over 60 percent are under 35.3 Given the huge gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in terms of employment, however, our burden will not come later, as with our peers – it faces us right now. We must become educated to overcome poverty. The Forrest Review showed that Indigenous Australians who are educated to a high level experience no employment disadvantage when compared to non-Indigenous Australians. So, as the review noted, “only employment will end the disparity, and employment is only possible if we remove all impediments to parity in education.”

There are three policy areas where the barriers to Indigenous education can be alleviated.

Boost the high school to higher education pipeline of minds

I am part of the growing ‘middle-class’ of First Australians, who are lucky to be the second generation within their families to attain a university education. For me, not completing university was never an option – my mother would simply not have it.

I have many friends who, like me, come from families that made incredible sacrifices to ensure their education. This is a fact: educated Aboriginal parents make their kids go to school and to university.

But there are many others whose family circumstances did not permit education to be a priority. I recall a recent conversation with a friend of mine who has faced significant adversity since starting her degree. She told me she would do anything to get through university because she did not want her children to experience the hardship she has. The fierce determination in her eyes was familiar to me because I have seen it in my own mother. We are not complacent, but we do face genuine barriers to attaining higher education.

Indigenous Education Units (IEUs) in universities across the country help students and families to overcome these barriers by building relationships with high schools, and providing essential support. Strong relationships between universities and high schools open pathways into higher education. Nura Gili at The University of New South Wales (UNSW), where I am currently undertaking the Juris Doctor in Law, provides stellar examples of where this has been successful.

But education is not free, and these programs cost money. Unfortunately, over the last 24 months, many IEUs and not-for profits working in the area have faced funding cuts.

Quote: Many of my friends have been barred from entering university by the ABSTUDY eligibility test, though I know their family lives in comparative poverty and hardship.

Ensure incentives like ABSTUDY are available and not inappropriately withheld

Housing and the cost of living present major barriers to the prospects of enrolling in and remaining in university. While employers, universities and professional bodies make important contributions, more must be done to provide financial and other support to students through cadetships, scholarships, and bursaries. Universities should offer more scholarships that pay for housing, the cost of living, or on-campus accommodation.

For young Indigenous Australians who are able to earn a wage straight out of school, there are lost opportunity costs to consider when deciding to go to university. Many move straight from high school into a service job, administration, or a trade. Undertaking university becomes an unattractive financial burden.

But while these young Indigenous Australians may have jobs that pay a good standard wage, they are missing out on career opportunities. Job titles like ‘CEO’ or ‘partner’ are unattainable for those without tertiary qualifications.

Going to university gives young Indigenous people self-esteem, because they know their knowledge will now be seen as legitimate. They inspire their peers who come to understand that graduating is possible. University education creates strong networks of highly-educated young Indigenous professionals. Attaining higher education must, therefore, be encouraged.

ABSTUDY is also a good way to incentivise young people to undertake higher education. The purpose of the ABSTUDY scheme is to ‘address the particular educational disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by improving educational outcomes to a level commensurate with the Australian population in general’.5

Yet, the policy today is socio-economically inappropriate, because the cut-off threshold for eligibility is channelling disadvantaged students out of university. For students who are considered dependent on their parents, the ‘Parental Income Test’ is used to tell whether they can financially support them. If their parents’ income exceeds $110,000 per annum they are not eligible for ABSTUDY. This means the children of parents living in rural and remote areas who have taken up employment in the mining industry that may be short-term, are not be eligible.

The means test for ABSTUDY eligibility also overlooks that Indigenous students are often raised in extended communities. Many Indigenous students are raised by a complex network of elders including Aunts and Uncles who are raising multiple children. Looking solely at family units, as defined by non-Indigenous standards, is a poor way to determine eligibility. Many who earn a wage use it to support an extended family and community.

Financial stability on paper does not always translate as stability in the home. Many of my friends have been barred from entering university by the ABSTUDY eligibility test, though I know their family lives in comparative poverty and hardship.

Obviously some form of means testing is desirable for the public good, however the ABSTUDY policy lacks the necessary nuance to achieve its overall aim. When we know poverty is hereditary, when we know education is a proven direct way to get Indigenous people out of poverty, we must make sure every possible barrier is removed.

Shoring up retention and completion

Indigenous students are, on average, half as likely to complete higher education compared to other students. The Indigenous completion rate was 28 percent while the completion rate for the mainstream student body was 59 percent.6

Indigenous leaders are working with the government to implement policies that improve school attendance and educational outcomes. Most notably, Empowered Communities, which is headed by leaders from eight regions across Australia, works tirelessly toward ensuring that Indigenous children ‘succeed in mainstream Australia, achieving educational success, prospering in the economy and living long, safe and healthy lives’.

Organisations such as the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, the Madalah Foundation, the Yalari Foundation, and the Aurora Project are proving pipelines into universities, and providing support that boosts retention and completion. The not-for-profit sector improves educational outcomes by providing scholarships, job opportunities, and mentoring.

An example of support that university faculties can provide comes from my own experience. Earlier this year my clan’s Native Title hearing was scheduled in rural Queensland, on the same day as my final exams. The UNSW Law Faculty ensured that I was able to attend by allowing me to re-sit the exams at a later date. This is the kind of flexibility that every Indigenous student needs in order to maintain their cultural heritage.

There are a growing number of corporates who, as part of the Reconciliation Action Plan, take on Indigenous interns while they are still at university. They provide wonderful opportunities to young people who have for too long been locked out of this sector. Students gain experience that is essential to starting their careers.

Understandably, many students get carried away with the excitement of a new job and the seemingly endless possibilities of the corporate culture. So corporates must support students on a pathway to employment that prioritises educational outcomes above all.

We can see what is working and where tweaks are necessary – we do not need to reinvent the wheel. But long-term commitment to policies that are working are a must.

Mapping a positive path forward for Indigenous millennials demands that we refine and double-down on the efforts that are already being made.

*Ruby Langton-Batty is of Yiman decent (QLD), and has lived in many different places across the country including Darwin and Melbourne. Currently based in Sydney, she is an intern with Corporate Citizenship at KPMG and is completing a Juris Doctor (Law) at UNSW.

Recommendations for improvement of education for Indigenous millennials

Envisioning a better Australia for all Australians

Response to Ruby

Bernard Salt, Head of Demographics, KPMG Australia

Bernard Salt

I am mightily impressed with the story of Ruby Langton-Batty, a young Indigenous woman working as an intern with KPMG Corporate Citizenship based in Sydney. In one sense this is a very personal story of the hardships encountered by Indigenous Australians. But in another sense it is a story of hope for the future. Not for a future that Ruby’s narrative speaks to; but for a future that Ruby herself represents.

Here is youth, ambition, talent and resolute determination writ large. I am often asked which communities within Australia are our most disadvantaged. Is it Melbourne’s Broadmeadows or Sydney’s Claymore or Brisbane’s Riverside which are suburbs dominated by public housing and welfare dependency. My answer is that the most disadvantaged communities on the Australian continent are places most Australians have never heard of let alone been to.

Here are places where unemployment can reach 70 percent. That number is not a misprint. Here are places where income levels are the lowest in the nation. Here are places where teenage pregnancy is rife. Here are places that deliver the barest levels of education. These are of course this nation’s remote Indigenous communities often located on the margins of the outback.

By any range of statistical measures this nation’s Indigenous community is demonstrably different to the balance of the population. The Indigenous community has a lower life expectancy than other Australians. And sadly Indigenous mortality is often effected by preventable means such as suicide, homicide, cirrhosis of the liver and lung cancer. Dementia is not a big killer of the Indigenous community largely because mortality comes too early for this later-life disease to flourish.

But there is more to disadvantage than comparative measures gleaned from the census. And this is where Ruby’s narrative is so compelling, so powerful. It is the context of life and of life’s expectations. If everyone around you is unemployed and poorly educated then there are no role models to show alternative pathways.

Hope for the future

Ruby’s narrative is evidence of hope for the future. One-on-one support, access to education and access to role models in, say, the business community may well deliver outcomes that could not be achieved by other programs. And this is why I am so proud of the work that our firm KPMG and no doubt other big corporates are doing in this space.

An internship, a graduate position and a support program designed to leverage talented Indigenous youth into the business world may be a single step, however it is a significant step in the right direction to a brighter future. And not just for a young Indigenous woman like Ruby but for an inclusive harmonious and above all a more equitable Australia for all Australians.


1 Source: KPMG Demographics based on relevant state population projections.

2 The Australian Government, The Treasury. Australia’s Demographic Challenges.

3 Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Estimated and Projected Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Population, Australia – 2001-2026’.

4 The Australian Government, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Pathways for Indigenous school leavers to undertake training or gain employment Resource sheet no. 2 produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse Boyd H. Hunter June 2010.

5 The Australian Government, Department of Social Services, ABSTUDY Policy Manual Student Payments Policy 1 January 2016.

6 The Australian Government, Department of Education and Training, Higher education statistics.

KPMG Australia acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we operate, live and gather as employees, and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

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