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Indigenous Higher Education: Current
Issues and Recommended Courses of
Prepared for the First Nations/Indigenous units/departments/services in Ontario's
By Fanshawe College
This report surveys the existing literature on current challenges and innovative practices related to
Indigenous post-secondary education, with an emphasis (where possible) on both Canada and Ontario.
Based on this survey, the report recommends specific courses of action that Ontario publicly-supported
colleges should consider following in order to better attract, retain, graduate and support Indigenous
This report's sections cover the concentrations of knowledge and concern in the existing literature.
Indigenous post-secondary enrollment is increasing (Gordon & White, 2014), and Indigenous youth and
their parents both aspire to youths' post-secondary enrollment at about the same rates as do those in
the non-Indigenous population (Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, 2005, p. 2). Moreover, both
youth and their parents are optimistic about youths' ability to complete post-secondary:
For Aboriginal people between the ages of 16 and 24, 72% say it is likely or very likely that they
will obtain the level of education they desire. Parents are just as likely (70%) to believe that their
children will get the post-secondary education they want. (p. 2)
However, the post-secondary enrollment and completion realities are discouraging. The 2005 Canada
Millennium Scholarship Foundation report found at that time that "only 39% of those [who are
Indigenous] between the ages of 25 and 64 have graduated from some form of post-secondary
education" (p. 3), and a 2010 report states that "the [post-secondary] attainment rates of Aboriginal
people remain significantly lower than those of the overall Canadian population" (R. A. Malatest &
Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 15). Historically in Canada, "about a quarter [of Indigenous students have]
earn[ed] a degree compared to about half of the non-Aboriginal students" (Richardson & Blanchet-
Cohen, 2000, p. 46). Similar problems exist with the Indigenous populations in Australia (Bandias et al.,
2013, p. 11; Nguyen, 2010, p. 10; R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd. 2004, p. 7; Shah & Widin, 2010, p. 28),
New Zealand (R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2004, p. 8), and the United States (Minthorn & Marsh,
2016, p. 5; R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2004, p. 8; Wells, 1997, p. 2).
The College Exception?
Interestingly, the research paints a more optimistic picture of non-university post-secondary success in
Canada for Indigenous students. Gordon & White (2014) claim that, "colleges are relatively successful in
attracting and retaining Indigenous students," and the 2001 census data suggest that, at that time,
Indigenous students' non-university success was close to parity with that of non-Indigenous students
(Mendelson, 2006, p. 10; p. 16). A literature review by the Atlantic Evaluation Group (2010) similarly
notes that "the [postsecondary] gap is shrinking when it comes to completion of non-university ...
credentials" (p. 19). This trend does not obtain in Australia (Bandias et al., 2013, p. 14; p. 26; Nguyen,
2010, p. 9).
Non-public information about contemporary Indigenous student graduation rates from Ontario colleges
suggests that, contrary to the optimistic picture painted by some sources about college completion,
these rates are very substantially below the rates of students' non-Indigenous peers. In Ontario,
Indigenous students show a marked preference for enrollment in the non-university sector (R. A.
Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 15), so determining accurate measures of achievement in that
sector is especially important.
Investigate whether the research claim about achievement parity in the non-university sector still holds
true, and track precise data on Indigenous students' graduation from the Ontario colleges
Unreliable Quantitative Data Sets
Typically, the quantitative components of reports on Canadian Indigenous education rely on data from
the 2006 and 2011 long-form censuses (the Aboriginal results for the 2016 long-form census have only
very recently been released and have not yet been analyzed in the literature, and the long-form census
was suspended between 2011 and 2016). Some sources also use the 2011 National Household Survey
data (Gordon & White, 2014). In addition to being out of date, all of these data sets are seriously
compromised by Indigenous reluctance to participate (R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2004, pp. 9-10;
R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 26; Stonecircle, 2011, p. 19). The only claim that can be made
in favor of census data is that at least it has "a stable methodology over time [with] similar response
patterns" (Gordon & White, 2014).
Province- and institution-specific data sets also tend to be poor quality. There have been consistent calls
going back to 1995 for better tracking of Indigenous students (Richardson & Blanchet-Cohen, 2000, p.
14), without significant results. Many institutional attempts to collect this data rely on Indigenous self-
identification, which Indigenous students may be reluctant to do (R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2004,
pp. 9-10; R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 51), and institutional data collection methods are
site-specific (Stonecircle, 2011, p. 13), which makes aggregating their results and/or generalizing from
them challenging. Coordinating data collection methods across Ontario institutions is further
complicated by "the historically independent nature of the relationship between [post-secondary]
institutions and the provincial government" (p. 15). Indigenous-controlled post-secondary institutions in
Ontario similarly "lack formal tracking of service outcomes" (R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, pp.
34-35), and Indigenous student services programs at institutions typically do not have even informal
evaluation procedures (R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 74). Claims have been made that
Indigenous access programs have more formal evaluation procedures (p. 50), but these procedures can
consist merely of the typical instructor evaluations that students fill out, and that are notoriously
These data problems also exist at the elementary and secondary levels of education. School boards, like
post-secondary institutions, rely on self-identification and site-specific data collection methods, which
makes it very difficult to track students across the transition from secondary to post-secondary
education (Stonecircle, 2011, p. 16).
Furthermore, because of the inconsistent data collection methods of school boards and post-secondary
institutions, disaggregated samples from one particular school/institution are sometimes "too small to
be statistically meaningful" (p. 17).
This data problem is not unique to Canada; both Australia (Bandias et al., 2013, p.8; Oliver et al., 2013,
p. 53; R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 35) and the United States (Minthorn & Marsh, 2016, p.
4; Wells, 1997, pp. 1-2) face similar deficits.
Unreliable Qualitative Data
Much of the available qualitative data is anecdotal, and it is typically not gathered in ways that provide
reasonably objective assessments of Indigenous post-secondary programs and services. The following
quotation from R. A. Malatest & Associates Ltd.'s 2004 report is applicable to many of the qualitative
studies in this field:
Throughout the site visits and interviews, stakeholders frequently noted the limitations of
government funding and educational infrastructure, but they rarely singled out existing
practices or initiatives as unsuccessful attempts to improve Aboriginal participation. While it is
possible that all existing practices and initiatives have been successful, the methodological
limitations ... suggest the need for more comprehensive studies that would include a larger
statistical tracking element. (p. 10, original emphasis)
The Ontario Native Education Counselling Association's 2011 report Aboriginal Student Transitions
Project is a useful example of a qualitative study that has little to offer, since it merely provides a list of
focus group opinions without rigorous analysis. Decision-makers must therefore bear in mind the fact
that anecdotal stakeholder evidence is weak (Atlantic Evaluation Group, 2010, p. 41; R. A. Malatest &
Associates Ltd., 2010, p. 59) and may be biased.
Create a shared, consistent methodology for quantitatively tracking Indigenous student outcomes
throughout Ontario institutions, and design high-quality qualitative studies that account for stakeholder
1 Deer et al. (2015) make the baffling, contrary claim that most of the relevant data is quantitative in nature, and
that we consequently need more qualitative studies, not quantitative data-gathering and analysis (p. 9). Their
report is based on a very large literature review, however, and it appears that reviewed articles include ones on
Indigenous peoples in general and worldwide, although a complete bibliography of the reviewed articles does not
seem to be available. In any case, the vast majority of sources from Canada, Australia, the United States and New
Zealand all agree that there is a serious dearth of quantitative data; these sources' claims are consistent both
historically and in very recent publications.
What is the biggest problem in higher education? Education models need to reflect the demand for lifelong learning to cope with the technological and social changes brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Skills not degrees may be the reality of the future. Start-ups and new business models are disrupting traditional educational institutions and operating models.
Title: Indigenous Higher Education: Current Issues and Recommended Courses of Action
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