ITAS disbandment another setback to Indigenous higher education

by Joshua Preece

National ATSI Officer, National Union of Students

When the Prime Minister announced that he hoped to be a “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”, I was optimistic that Indigenous university students could look forward to progressive, or at least not regressive, Indigenous policy.

The Prime Minister’s gaffes have been worrying enough. From his likening of Australia’s British colonisation as “foreign investment…[in] unsettled or, um, scarcely settled” land, to his most recent argument that the arrival of the First Fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent, one would hope that a PM for Aboriginal Affairs would have at least attended a cultural competency course. But it is his government’s Indigenous policy direction that is most concerning.

For twenty years, the Indigenous Tuition Assistance Scheme (ITAS) has supported Indigenous undergraduate students throughout university studies. On September 1, without consultation or notice, it was announced that ITAS would be scrapped. Universities will now have to compete for grants. If Indigenous support units, such as UNSW’s Nura Gili, receive less funding under the new funding arrangement, the consequence will be Indigenous support units having to choose which of their students are most in need of academic support.

The likely outcome is that Indigenous students who are achieving passing grades will be left to fend for themselves while those students “on the cusp” of passing are given priority. The great thing about the current ITAS arrangement is that by catering to all students, those who are achieving credits or distinctions can receive the academic support they need to do even better, while those students who are struggling can be given academic support that focuses on the basics. If stripped of the opportunity for academic support, there will be less high-achieving Indigenous university students and we will lose the opportunity to have more Indigenous thinkers and academic leaders.

Most Indigenous university students rely on ITAS to excel (and in many cases to pass) our subjects. But most of all, I have personally valued the mentoring that ITAS offers. There is a clear academic benefit to having high-achieving students check our assignments and help us with our exam preparations. But it is often overlooked that for many Indigenous students, our ITAS tutors are the most academically successful and ambitious people we know. Having people (especially those who are around our own age) who we can look up to and ask for advice is a benefit of ITAS that doesn’t show up on our academic transcript.

I do not expect the disbanding of ITAS to be the last threat to Indigenous higher education. If deregulation of university fees proceeds, Indigenous students will have another obstacle in our pursuit of higher education. We can’t cut our way to Closing the Gap, and the Prime Minister must be willing to match his pro-Indigenous rhetoric with Indigenous spending. Only then will we have a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.