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Cultural dimensions of Indigenous participation in vocational education and training: new perspectives

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5 February 2013

ISBN 978 1 922056 42 9

Description

This study provides new evidence on the inter-relationships between Indigenous Australians' association with their traditional culture and their engagement with vocational education and training. It builds on previous work to develop a 'richer' measure of the concept of cultural attachment. This report discusses the links between cultural identity and current participation in education, and the benefits Indigenous Australians derive from education and training.

Summary

About the research

Using data from the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, this research provides new evidence on the interrelationships between Indigenous Australians' connection with their traditional culture and the nature of their engagement with vocational education and training (VET). The study builds on previous work by the author, Cultural dimensions of Indigenous participation in education and training (2009).

In particular, a more defined measure of culture has been developed, one which identifies four separate dimensions of cultural engagement: participation in cultural events; cultural identity; language; and participation in traditional economic activities. Previous findings relating to past educational attainments and participation in training are reassessed. The links between cultural attachment and current participation in education, as well as the benefits derived from education and training, are also explored.

Key messages

  • Stronger cultural identity appears to promote greater participation and achievement in education and training.
  • Compared with the earlier work, the evidence in this study of a causal effect flowing from cultural identity to outcomes is stronger. However, the extent of other unobserved factors, such as individual motivation and access to resources, is not clear.
  • Regardless of whether individuals live in remote or non-remote areas, and irrespective of their degree of cultural attachment, the results show very strong increases in the likelihood of employment and income with additional years of completed education.
  • Language is an issue: participation in education and training is higher for those without English language difficulties and who do not speak Indigenous languages. Lower income and employment outcomes are observed for those who speak an Indigenous language compared with those who do not, irrespective of gender or remoteness.

The poor outcomes for those who speak an Indigenous language are contrary to international studies of Indigenous culture in Canada and New Zealand.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

This report provides new evidence on the interrelationships between Indigenous Australians' affiliation with their traditional culture and the nature of their engagement with vocational education and training (VET). It aims to enhance our understanding of the causal channels through which culture shapes VET participation and outcomes, and vice versa, and builds on previous work presented in the author's 2009 publication, Cultural dimensions of Indigenous participation in education and training, in a number of ways. Most importantly, richer measures of culture are developed which capture separate elements of the broader concept of 'cultural attachment'. Using these measures and more recent data, previous findings relating to past educational attainment and participation in training are reassessed. Evidence is also presented on the links between cultural attachment and current participation in education and on the benefits Indigenous Australians derive from education and training, conditional upon remoteness and cultural attachment.

A review of international studies of the link between indigenous people's engagement with their culture and socioeconomic outcomes suggests a generally positive influence of stronger cultural attachment across a range of domains. The main mechanism through which this 'enculturation' effect is believed to operate is by encouraging a strong sense of self-identity, or a stronger sense of persistence of self-identity through time, which promotes resilience and guards against the internalisation of the stresses associated with discrimination and past traumas.

An analysis of the questions relating to culture contained in the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) identified four separate elements of 'cultural attachment': participation in cultural events; cultural identification; Indigenous language use; and participation in traditional economic activities. Of particular interest are the results pertaining to cultural participation, as opposed to cultural identity. The single measure of cultural attachment used in previous work closely aligned with cultural participation. Results using this measure are likely to be influenced by reverse causation (higher educational attainment and participation in VET leading to greater participation in cultural events) or omitted variable bias (some common but unobserved factor, such as motivation, affecting both VET and cultural engagement). The measure of the separate cultural identity dimension, which is based on recognition of homelands or traditional country, identification with a clan, tribal or language group and the perceived importance of attending cultural events, is far less susceptible to this methodological challenge. Further, the cultural identity measure closely aligns with the concept of self-identity, which the literature highlights as the key mechanism through which cultural attachment might promote better socioeconomic outcomes.

Cultural participation is found to have strong positive associations with a range of indicators of achievement and participation in VET and in the labour market. For the reasons set out above, it is hard to draw any conclusions from this with regard to causal relationships. Certainly, the results give no credibility to any view that participating in Indigenous culture is somehow incompatible with educational achievement. By contrast, it is argued the results for cultural identity do provide some evidence of a causal, enabling effect. This is most apparent in the case of current participation in education, which will largely be driven by better school retention in remote areas. It also applies to past educational attainment and recent participation in training for females in nonremote areas. Analyses of Indigenous people's fields of study and the types of training undertaken suggest this relationship is not purely a result of Indigenous Australians accessing the VET system for cultural pursuits.

The incentives for Indigenous Australians to undertake education and training are investigated through the association between educational attainment and three labour market outcome variables: labour force participation, the probability of being employed for those participating in the labour market, and income for those working full-time. The results show very strong gains associated with additional years of completed education, irrespective of whether individuals live in remote or non-remote areas, and irrespective of their degree of cultural attachment. Although there is evidence of inferior outcomes associated with some elements of cultural attachment — notably for those speaking an Indigenous language — the estimated returns from each year of education are still very substantial for all groups. Thus, no evidence is found that Indigenous Australians in remote areas or with stronger cultural attachment lack the incentive to participate in vocational education and training due to inadequate returns from gaining higher qualifications.

A major concern for policy is the markedly poorer outcomes for those who speak an Indigenous language. This applies across the spectrum of indicators: educational attainment; participation in education and training; labour force participation; employment propensity; and income. This will be at least in part due to the inability to adequately control for remoteness in the modelling. The 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey allows locations to be classified only as remote or non-remote. This will mean that any positive associations with cultural identity, Indigenous language use and traditional economic activities will be understated and any negative associations overstated. With the exception of the findings relating to speaking Indigenous languages, the results presented in this report are compatible with the hypothesis that stronger cultural identity promotes greater participation and achievement in education and training.

Compared with the earlier work, the evidence of a causal effect transmitted from self-identity to outcomes is stronger. The existing literature suggests these findings may arise through a combination of associations between individuals' cultural identity and their outcomes and associations at the community level, whereby those communities with a stronger commitment to cultural continuity also provide an environment more conducive to participation in education and training. Where it is viable for curricula and models of delivery of education and training to incorporate elements that affirm and accommodate Indigenous people's culture, it follows that such practices are also likely to realise improved outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

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Cultural dimensions of Indigenous participation in education and training 09 October 2009

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