copy the linklink copied!Chapter 1. Building the skills of Indigenous Australians

Skills provide a solid foundation for Indigenous Australians to participate in the labour market and thus a route out of poverty. Given the importance of skills in narrowing employment gaps, this chapter looks educational attainment rates as well as recent participation trends in vocational education and training between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population. Drawing on practices from local case studies, this chapter also outlines key principles for programmes that aim to build the skills of Indigenous Australians.


copy the linklink copied!Recent demographic trends in Australia

The Census is one of the most reliable statistical sources for information about Indigenous Australians. The 2016 Census counted 798 365 Indigenous Australians, an increase of 18% from the 2011 Census. Looking at the State and Territory level, New South Wales and Queensland had the highest number of people identifying as Indigenous. Both states accounted for 486,961 Indigenous Australians, which represents 60% of the overall Indigenous population. The share of a state’s population identifying as Indigenous varies widely across Australia. Only 0.9% of the Victoria population identify as Indigenous. While New South Wales and Queensland have the highest total number of Indigenous Australians, they make-up 3.4% and 4.6% of the overall state population respectively. The Northern Territory has the highest proportion, where 30.3% of the population identify as Indigenous (see Figure 1.1) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016[1]). Due to its remote geography within Australia, many Indigenous communities face unique challenges in accessing basic government services and infrastructure in the Northern Territory. Various studies in Australia have found significant negative effects on education and employment opportunities related to living in rural and remote areas that might affect the populations living there (Kalb et al., 2014[2]) (Gray and Hunter, 2005[3]) (Hunter, 2010[4]).

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Figure 1.1. Distribution of Indigenous Australians by state and territory, 2016
Figure 1.1. Distribution of Indigenous Australians by state and territory, 2016

Note: The Indigenous category includes people who identify themselves as Indigenous, Torres Strait islander or both.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Peoples QuickStats, 2016 Census,

Indigenous Australians represent an increasing source of labour supply

Indigenous Australians are generally younger. The median age of Indigenous Australians is 23 years old compared to 37 years for the rest of the Australian population (see Figure 1.2) (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017[5]). Indigenous Australians make-up a growing share of the labour force, particularly in younger age cohorts (e.g. 24 years or younger). Similar to other OECD countries, population statistics for the Indigenous population are based on self-identification. Indigenous Australians represented 3.3% of the total population in 2016, up from 3% in 2011, and 2.5% in 2006. The Australian Parliament found that more children of 'mixed-couples' identify as Indigenous, a major component of the increase. These individuals may equally well identify as non-Indigenous, or be identified as Indigenous (Parliament of Australia, Social Policy Group, 2019[6]). However, it should be noted that it is difficult to say whether the broadening of the population is having a positive, negative, or neutral effect on the overall socio-economic status and educational outcomes of Indigenous Australians.

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Figure 1.2. Age distribution for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016
Figure 1.2. Age distribution for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016

Note: In the 2016 Australian census, there were three census categories for Indigenous status: Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, “Non-Indigenous”, and “Indigenous status not stated”. 1.4 million Australians were recording in the category Indigenous status not stated in 2016. That category is not included in this figure.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Profile”, 2016 Census of Population and Housing, Catalogue no. 2002.0,

copy the linklink copied!The education and training outcomes of Indigenous Australians

More Indigenous Australians are attaining education and training

Skills play a fundamental role in shaping labour market outcomes: an additional year of completed formal education is associated with an increase in the likelihood of being employed by about 1% and increases wages by 12% (OECD, 2016[7]). Previous OECD research conducted in Australia, Canada and New Zealand highlighted how early childhood education for Indigenous people is critical to establish a strong start and lay the foundation for future success (OECD, 2017[8]).

Data from the 2016 Census shows that more Indigenous Australians are participating in the education system. Between 2011 and 2016, seven percent more 15-18 year old Indigenous Australians have enrolled in secondary education, reflecting earlier entry in education. Fewer Indigenous Australians are also dropping out of school, with 19% of Indigenous Australians aged 25 to 64 years leaving school at Year 9 or below, a decrease of 11 percentage points compared to 2006. While these figures show an encouraging improvement, the share of early school leavers among Indigenous Australians remained higher than that of the overall population in 2016 (19% vs 7% for the overall population of the same age group). The gap in the share of early school leavers between urban and rural areas is 6 percentage points (18% vs. 24%) but rural areas have made significant improvements in the last decade. Between 2006 and 2016, Indigenous Australians also attained higher levels of education, in particular from Year 12 and above (see Figure 1.3). The strongest increase was at Year 12 or equivalent, and at the certificate level, at seven and eight percentage points respectively. When looking at the lower end of the skills spectrum, the share of Indigenous Australians with education level at Year 8 or equivalent nearly halved over the ten-year period from 2006-2016.

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Figure 1.3. Trends in educational attainment for Indigenous Australians, 2006 and 2016
Population aged 15 and above
Figure 1.3. Trends in educational attainment for Indigenous Australians, 2006 and 2016

Note: In the 2016 Australian census, there were three census categories for Indigenous status: Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, “Non-Indigenous”, and “Indigenous status not stated”. 1.4 million Australians were recording in the category Indigenous status not stated in 2016. That category is not included in this figure.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Profile”, 2016 Census of Population and Housing,

When looking only at people who possess non-school qualifications1, slightly less than two thirds of Indigenous Australians attained certificate level education versus less than 40% of the non-Indigenous population in 2016. While the share of people attaining advanced diploma and diploma qualifications is similar between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, non-Indigenous Australians have higher shares of graduate diploma and graduate certificate attainment (30% of people with non-school qualifications for non-Indigenous vs. 13% of people with non-school qualifications for Indigenous Australians). Looking at postgraduate degrees, 3% of Indigenous Australians having non-school qualifications have this level of educational attainment versus 10% for the non-Indigenous population having non-school qualifications. This demonstrates that while more Indigenous Australians are participating in education and training opportunities, there is a gap to be closed for higher-level skills attainment opportunities.

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Figure 1.4. Distribution across level of qualification for those who hold a non-school qualification for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016
Population aged 15 and above
Figure 1.4. Distribution across level of qualification for those who hold a non-school qualification for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016

Note: The percentages are computed as the share of each non-school qualification over the total non-school qualifications. The sum of the five categories is equal to 100% for each population group.

Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples Profile”, 2016 Census of Population and Housing, Catalogue no. 2002.0, available at

Vocational education and training opportunities can smooth the transition from school to work

Across the OECD, many countries are focusing on vocational education and training (VET) to build occupational-specific skills and better link people to quality jobs. In Australia, the employment rate of the working-age population with vocational education was 81% in 2017, well above the overall average employment rate of 61% (OECD, 2019[9]). In 2017, there was an estimated 4.2 million Australians participating in VET. While this number has remained steady in recent years, the total number of programme enrolments declined by 7.6% to 3.4 million between 2016 and 2017. Over the same period, the total programme enrolments decreased across all Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) certificate levels, except certificate III which was up 2.6% to 996 100 (National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), 2018[10]).

Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system involves different layers of government. Table 1.1 summarises the different levels of government and stakeholders involved in the vocational education system in Australia. It is industry-centered because various industry stakeholders identify the required training outcomes (OECD, 2014[11]).

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Table 1.1. Key VET actors at the national, state/regional, and local level


Overall decision-making

Regulation of VET

Industry liaison


Department of Employment, Skills, Small, and Family Business

COAG (Collaboration between the Australian Government and state/territory governments)

Australian Skills Quality Authority

Industry Skills Councils

Vocational Education and Training Advisory Board

Industry Reference Committees


State and territory government departments responsible for skills, education and training

Registration and qualifications authority by state and territory

State/territory training authority

Skills Board or Industry Training Advisory Bodies within state/territory

Local (mostly delivery)

Registered training organisations

Government VET providers (i.e. TAFE)

Community education providers

Source: (Productivity Commission of the Australian Government, 2017[12]) and author's elaborations

Australia’s VET system is led by a council made up of Australian, State and Territory government skills ministers established by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). The Skills Council has streamlined governance arrangements, policy development and the oversight of the performance of the VET sector. As a result, the Australian Industry and Skills Committee was established to provide industry with a formal role in advising the Skills Council on policy directions and decision making in the national training system. Training packages are a key feature of Australia's national VET system. A training package is a set of nationally endorsed standards and qualifications for recognising and assessing peoples’ skills in a specific industry, industry sector or enterprise. The development of training packages follows a consultative approach, where industry are consulted on an ongoing basis to identify skills and training needs.

The Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business is responsible for national policies and programmes for vocational education and training. This Department works alongside the Department of Education who is responsible for national policies and programmes that help Australians access quality and affordable early child care and childhood education, school education, higher education, international education and research. These Departments are responsible for post-school education and training through three distinct, but closely interrelated, areas: 1) providing policy advice and support to the Minister, underpinned by research, analysis and evaluation; 2) national programme management; and 3) working relationships with States and Territories, industry, education and training providers, and other stakeholders. Recognising the importance of VET, there have been a number of reforms to the VET system in Australia since 1974 to make it more responsive to the needs of the labour market (see Box 1.1).

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Box 1.1. The evolution of the VET system in Australia

Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system involves different layers of government where the national common framework is developed together with the State/Territory and Commonwealth governments. Each State and Territory government adopts the common framework into their own VET system. The Australian VET system has a nationally agreed approach for qualifications recognition and quality assurance of training providers. Since, 1974, there have been a number of major reforms of the VET system in Australia, including:

  • 1974 – 1987: The Commonwealth and States/Territories jointly established and fund the Technical and Further Education (TAFE) system.

  • 1987 – 1991: The Commonwealth and the States/Territories agree on the development of a national VET system and undertook a review of future VET needs.

  • 1992 – 1996: The Commonwealth and the States/Territories jointly agreed to establish a national VET system through a new Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) reporting to State and Commonwealth VET Ministers.

  • 1997-2004: The ANTA Agreement was renewed in 1997 and 2001 and it was abolished unilaterally by the Commonwealth in 2004.

  • 2005 – 2007: The Skilling Australia’s Workforce Act was established, which increased the Commonwealth’s role in the national VET system.

  • 2009: The National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (NASWD) comes into effect, creating a new Commonwealth-State relationship where States/Territories have greater flexibility to target funding to address individual state needs and to achieve agreed VET objectives and outcomes. The Commonwealth government also established an income-contingent loan scheme (VET FEE-HELP) to help VET students pay for diploma and advanced diploma qualifications.

  • 2011: Building Australia’s Future Workforce reforms invested funds in improving training quality and provision.

  • 2012: The renewed NASWD is agreed setting 10 aspirational goals for reform across the VET sector, such as increasing industry's engagement with VET, facilitating a more open and competitive market and increasing access to income contingent loans.

  • 2012 – 2013: A National Partnership Agreement on Skills Reform (NPASR) introduced a national training entitlement.

  • 2014 - 2015: The Trade Support Loan Program and the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network (AASN) were introduced.

  • 2017: The VET Student Loans (VSL) replaced VET FEE-HELP and the NPASR ends.

  • 2017: The Skilling Australians Fund (SAF) is introduced which aims to provide ongoing funding support to the training of Australians who seek to do an apprenticeship or traineeship in priority industries and occupations in demand.

  • 2018: The four-year National Partnership on the SAF commences with six state and territory Governments.

  • 2019: Skills Package - Delivering Skills for Today and Tomorrow, to ensure Australians can access the training they need for the jobs of today and prepare for the jobs of the future.

Source: (Joyce, 2019[13]) (Noonan, 2016[14])

In 2017, the Vocational Education and Training (VET) Information Strategy (the Strategy) launched as the first Australian Government-led, long-term communications strategy raising the status of VET as an equal choice education and career pathway.  The Strategy aims to showcase the multiple training and career opportunities a VET qualification can provide, and is improving national information publically available about the benefits of VET, including Australian Apprenticeships.  Its implementation includes initiatives centred around a unifying tagline for the VET sector, real skills for real careers and promotes a collaborative approach by stakeholders, private and community partners in assisting to elevate the status of this career pathway.  The call to action for the Strategy is for VET consumers to visit an enhanced My Skills web portal (see, which has been redesigned to serve as an authoritative first-stop for VET information. There are a number of national vocational education and training programmes – of which Indigenous Australians have access:

  • National Agreement for Skills and Workforce Development (NASWD) – The objective of this agreement is a VET system that delivers a productive and highly skilled workforce and which enables all working age Australians to develop the skills and qualifications needed to participate effectively in the labour market and contribute to Australia's economic future; and supports the achievement of increased rates of workforce participation. The NASWD is associated with the Skills and Workforce Development Specific Purpose Payment, which provides support to states and territories to fund their VET systems.

  • Skilling Australians Fund (the Fund) – through matched project-based funding with the States and Territories, the Fund supports the uptake of apprenticeships, and traineeships in high demand that currently rely on skilled migration, future growth industries, and rural and regional areas. The Fund is currently managed under a four-year National Partnership to 2022 with six State and Territory Governments.  

  • Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program encourages the continued training and development of a highly skilled Australian workforce. The programme links into the industries and occupations traditionally associated with the apprenticeship system. In addition, the programme targets a broad range of traineeships and apprenticeships in new and emerging industries especially where future skills shortages are projected. In addition to broad-based employer incentives, targeted payments are available to employers of key cohorts such as Indigenous Australians, adult apprentices, apprentices working in rural or regional areas, and apprentices with a disability.

  • VET Student Loans - VET Student Loans replaces the VET FEE-HELP scheme. It offers income contingent loans to support eligible students studying certain diploma level and above vocational education and training qualifications.

  • Pathways in Technology (P-TECH) - P-TECH offers secondary students an industry-supported education pathway to a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related diploma, advanced diploma or associate degree.

  • ABSTUDY aims to encourage Indigenous students and apprentices to take full advantage of available educational opportunities and improve their employment opportunities. ABSTUDY is a means tested payment for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian apprentices. The Commonwealth Department of Social Services is responsible for ABSTUDY policy and the Commonwealth Department of Human Services is responsible for day-to-day delivery of the programme to clients and providers.

Vocational education and training is a shared responsibility between national and state governments

States and Territories in Australia have an important role in managing vocational education and training. Each Australian State and Territory government has a training authority with the main responsibilities of planning and reporting on VET strategies; purchasing training on behalf of their government; administering Australian Apprenticeships and VET in schools; administering funding and financial incentives for VET within the state/territory; supporting training organisations, employers and the community on VET issues; accrediting courses and registering training providers within the Australian Quality Training Framework. About 4 600 registered training organisations deliver VET in Australia through Technical and Further Education (TAFE) institutes, universities, secondary schools, private training providers, enterprises, industry organisations, community-based providers and other government organisations. Many States are pursuing their own Indigenous employment and skills strategies. For example, through its Aboriginal Affairs Strategy, New South Wales is targeting skills outcomes among the Indigenous population on its territory (see Box 1.2).

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Box 1.2. Opportunity, Choice, Healing, Responsibility, Empowerment (OCHRE) in New South Wales

The Ministerial Taskforce on Aboriginal Affairs (the Taskforce) was established by the NSW Government in late 2011 to inform a new plan – OCHRE – to improve education and employment outcomes for Indigenous Australians in NSW and to enhance service accountability to support these goals. Extensive consultations with Indigenous Australian communities, stakeholders and industry gave some 2 700 people the opportunity to contribute to the taskforce’s work. OCHRE aims to support strong Aboriginal communities in which Indigenous people actively influence and participate fully in social, economic and cultural life. To achieve this, the plan aims to teach more Indigenous languages and culture to build people’s pride and identity; support more Indigenous students to stay at school; support more Indigenous young people to get fulfilling and sustainable jobs; grow local Indigenous leaders’ and communities’ capacity to drive their own solutions; focus on creating opportunities for economic empowerment; and make both government and communities more accountable for the money they spend.

Source: (Government of New South Wales, 2019[15])

More Indigenous Australians are participating in the vocational education and training system

The participation of Indigenous Australians in VET remains high relative to the general trend (Windley, 2017[16]). In 2005, there were 73 410 government-funded Indigenous programme enrolments, increasing by 38.6% to 101 775 in 2018. For the non-Indigenous population, government-funded programme enrolments grew from 1 113 940 to 1 157 160 from 2005 to 2018 – an increase of 3.9% (NCVER, 2019[17]).

As of 2017, there were 142 800 Indigenous Australians in VET, which equalled 3.4% of the overall VET student population (NCVER, 2018[18]). The overall VET completion rate was 46.9% in 2016, an increase of about 5 percentage points from 2015. When looking only at government-funded programmes at certificate I and above, data shows a significant increase of completion rates, from 39.8% in 2012 to 49.4% in 2016 (NCVER, 2018[19]) Although improving, these figures sit below completion rates of non-Indigenous Australians, especially for those living in more remote and rural areas. Indigenous Australians living in peripheral areas of a city or region tend to have more difficulties in accessing education and training opportunities (Windley, 2017[16]) (see Box 1.3 for an example from Perth, Western Australia of how distance from an educational centre can impact training opportunities).

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Box 1.3. Spatial barriers to participation in training

Existing research has pointed to the spatial barriers facing Indigenous Australians in accessing education and training opportunities. This spatial barrier can be seen when looking at attaining a driver’s licence and using public transportation to go to school. In New South Wales (NSW), it is estimated that Indigenous Australians comprise 0.5 % of licensed drivers despite comprising 2% of the eligible population at the time the research was conducted (Cullen et al., 2016[20]). Figure 1.A. looks at the Perth Greater Capital City Statistical Area (GCCSA) as an example of how ownership of motorized vehicles can substantially change the opportunities for prospective students living in a city. Each map demonstrates what a commute of zero to thirty minutes looks like, with motorized vehicles illustrated on the left and public transportation on the right. Access to only public transport limits an individual’s options in terms of commuting to different educational and training options within a city.

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Figure 1.5. Distances to Government of Western Australia Department of Training and Workforce Development Campuses in the Perth GCCSA
Motorized vehicle vs. public transport
Figure 1.5. Distances to Government of Western Australia Department of Training and Workforce Development Campuses in the Perth GCCSA

Note: The scope of these maps refers to the Perth GCCSA. The calculations for these maps were conducted by the Government of Western Australia Department of Training and Workforce Development.

Source: Australian Department of Training and Workforce Development

Increased participation in training can narrow employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians

Looking at data from the National Student Outcomes Survey, participation in training is positively correlated with labour market outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Slightly less than half of the participants in training who were not employed before found a job after training completion (see Figure 1.6). Training also contributed to improve the employment status for 59% of participants regardless of their previous employment situation. While non-Indigenous Australians performed better than Indigenous Australians on this indicator in 2016, the difference between the two groups was negligible in 2018, indicating that participation in training has a positive impact on narrowing employment gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

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Figure 1.6. Outcomes from training participation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016 and 2018
Figure 1.6. Outcomes from training participation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, 2016 and 2018

Source: NCVER, 2018, Australian vocational education and training statistics: VET student outcomes 2018

Indigenous Australians tend to be over-represented in lower-level qualifications, which does not align with future skills demand

The most common qualification obtained after participating in training for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is Certificate level III (see Figure 1.7). The share of participants at this level is 35% for Indigenous and 40% for non-Indigenous men. It is 37% for Indigenous women relative to 34% for non-Indigenous. Looking at other qualifications, there is a significantly higher share of Indigenous Australians attaining lower level qualifications, such as Certificate level I and II while non-Indigenous Australians attain certificate IV and above. This is particularly imbalanced when considering gender characteristics within the Indigenous Australian population. In 2017, 12% of Indigenous women attained a “diploma or above” qualification compared to 4% for Indigenous men.

In looking at the future demand for skills, the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business has produced employment projections by qualification level from 2018-2023. The Department estimates that jobs requiring a Bachelor degree of higher qualification will see the strongest growth, projected to be 10% or 400 000 jobs (see Figure 1.8). Employment growth within jobs requiring Certificate IV or III (including at least two years of on-the-job training) are expected to grow by 3.8%. Jobs requiring Certificate II or III are projected to see grow of 7.9%. These projections reflect an evolving labour market in Australia, where a premium is being placed on higher levels of skills.

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Figure 1.7. Qualification level by Indigenous status and gender, Australia, 2017
Figure 1.7. Qualification level by Indigenous status and gender, Australia, 2017

Source: NCVER 2017, Australian vocational education and training statistics: total VET students and courses 2017

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Figure 1.8. Projected employment growth, 2018-2023
Values in thousands (left scale) and percentage change (right scale)
Figure 1.8. Projected employment growth, 2018-2023

Source: Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business Projections

Apprenticeships and traineeships can help Indigenous Australians access higher level skills opportunities

Within the VET system, apprenticeships combine both workplace and classroom-based learning. Apprenticeship and traineeship programme contribute to improving the skills and the outcomes of the overall workforce. The work-based training component in particular helps young people develop soft skills, such as communication skills, problem solving and conflict resolution (OECD/ILO, 2017[21]). By providing skills relevant to the industry and labour market demands, apprenticeship and traineeship programmes can increase people’s employability and productivity, contributing more broadly to economic growth and prosperity (OECD, 2014[22]). In Australia, apprenticeships can take anywhere between 3-4 years, whereas traineeships are generally a few months to a year. Apprenticeships tend to be more focused on employment outcomes within sectors, such as construction, automotive, and engineering. Traineeships tends to be focused in service-based sectors, such as hospitality, hairdressing, and beauty therapy.

In 2018, there were 13 550 Indigenous Australian apprentices and trainees. The age distribution of participants in apprenticeships and traineeships reflects the younger age composition of Indigenous Australians. Forty three percent of female Indigenous Australian apprentices and trainees were 19 years or under, and 33% of male Indigenous Australian apprentices and trainees were also in this age group. Indigenous Australian men aged 20-44 years represent 43% of all Indigenous apprentices and trainees (see Figure 1.9),

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Figure 1.9. Apprentices and trainees by age and sex, Indigenous vs Non-indigenous, 2018, Australia
Figure 1.9. Apprentices and trainees by age and sex, Indigenous vs Non-indigenous, 2018, Australia

Source: NCVER, National Apprentice and Trainee Collection, unpublished.

Figure 1.10 shows the occupational distribution by gender for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians participating in apprenticeships and traineeships. For both, the vast majority of men work as technicians and trade workers while women mainly as community and personal service workers as well as clerical and administrative workers. For clerical and administrative workers, the share of Indigenous women participating in apprenticeship training is much higher than Indigenous men and non-Indigenous people. In occupations that are typically associated with lower-skilled jobs, such as machinery operators and drivers as well as labourers, Indigenous males have a higher prevalence of apprenticeship participation than the non-Indigenous population

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Figure 1.10. Apprentices and trainees by occupation and sex, Indigenous vs Non-indigenous 2018, Australia
Figure 1.10. Apprentices and trainees by occupation and sex, Indigenous vs Non-indigenous 2018, Australia

Source: NCVER, National Apprentice and Trainee Collection, unpublished.

According to the National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER), the term “higher-level apprenticeships” has recently entered the lexicon as part of the government’s apprenticeship training options (NCVER, 2019[23]). The National Partnership on Skilling Australians Fund defines higher apprenticeships as a programme of structured on-the-job training with formal study, with the study component leading to the award of a VET qualification at the Australian Qualifications Framework level 5 (diploma) or level 6 (advanced diploma) (Australian Department of Education and Training, 2018[24]). Some research has pointed to the potential for higher-level apprenticeships to build bridges between the VET and higher education sectors in Australia (NCVER, 2019[23]). While the concept is still in its early stages of development in Australia and will need further evaluation, there is a clear opportunity to look at how to encourage Indigenous Australians to participate in this training pathway. The evidence in this chapter demonstrates that Indigenous Australians are increasingly participating in VET but primarily in lower level qualification programmes. While training is important in linking Indigenous Australians to a job, it is also necessary to look at how to increase access to higher skills development opportunities. This is especially important within the context of the future of work, where labour markets across the OECD are becoming increasingly polarised between high and low-skill jobs (OECD, 2019[25]).

Higher education programmes targeted to Indigenous Australians

While vocational education and training remains the most popular educational pathway among Indigenous Australians, a number of national programmes and policies have been introduced to provide greater access to higher education opportunities, including:

Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program

The Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP), which commenced in 2010, provides funding to higher education providers to improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, as well as improving the retention and completion rates of those students. In 2017, 33.6% of all undergraduate Indigenous higher education students were from low SES backgrounds (using a first address measure). There were 144 404 undergraduate students from low SES backgrounds (using a first address measure) enrolled in Australian universities in 2017, of which 4 852 (3.4%) were Indigenous Australians.

The Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME)

The government is supporting the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience through three grants of AUD 150 000 each to Western Sydney University, Deakin University and the University of Wollongong. The aim of the grants is to assist recipient universities establish new AIME sites to deliver the AIME model of structured educational mentoring to Indigenous secondary students from SES backgrounds in areas where AIME does not already operate.

Indigenous Student Success Programme

Indigenous Student Success Programme (ISSP) provides funding to universities to assist Indigenous students to access higher education and to succeed in their studies. Universities can use the funding on activities such as scholarships, tutorial assistance, mentoring and other personal support. The ISSP scholarship assistance is prioritised towards financially disadvantaged Indigenous students to ensure that finances are not a barrier to succeeding in higher education. The ISSP supports eligible students at all levels of study.

Support for Indigenous higher degrees by research

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) review of Australia’s research training system, released in 2016, highlighted a number of areas for improvement, including increasing Indigenous participation in higher degree by research (HDR), which is postgraduate university degree involving a unique supervised research project. Usually, these degrees are either at Masters or a Doctoral degree. To address ACOLA’s findings, a cross sector-working group has developed the Research Training Implementation Plan (the Plan), which is being delivered by the higher education sector in collaboration with government, industry and community stakeholders. A key priority of the Plan is to better support Indigenous students, including the promotion of Indigenous HDR training best practice within universities, as well as improved data collection, monitoring and analysis to inform future action by the sector and government.

copy the linklink copied!Programme principles emerging from case studies at the local level

This section of the chapter highlights some programmes principles that have emerged from local case studies developed to understand the implementation of national programmes and how service delivery organisations are working with Indigenous Australians in Sydney, New South Wales and Perth, Western Australia to match them to better quality jobs and improve their access to skills training.

Employer engagement in skills development opportunities is critical

One key principle emerging from the case studies was the importance of reaching out to employers and having them take a leadership role in implementing training. From a service provider perspective, many of the case studies have designated employer outreach officers who are actively communicating and working with local employers to identify job opportunities for Indigenous Australians and arranging the necessary training.

Considering the role of employers, feedback from the case studies notes that it is critical for senior leadership within a firm to promote a vision of a work environment that embraces Indigenous values and diversity. As much as Indigenous Australians need to prepare for work through training programmes, employers should make efforts to ensure that their workplaces meets the needs of all employees. Feedback from the case studies suggests that there are still large gaps in employers’ knowledge about the integration of Indigenous members of staff.

In Perth, both the Wirrpanda Foundation and AtWork Australia are marking active efforts to engage local employers. For example, after identifying that many employers lacked sufficient cultural awareness training policies, the Wirrpanda Foundation initiated their consultancy services which works with local firms to develop Reconciliation Action Plans (RAPs). The goal of the RAPs is to discuss the ways in which employers can make their organisations more inclusive. They schedule regularly “breakfast meetings” with local companies to discuss new and emerging job opportunities in the community as well as key issues that these firms face when employing Indigenous job seekers.

AtWork Australia prefers to focus on working with a small group of employers so that they can build sustainable relationships and trust. In interviews conducted for this study, AtWork Australia noted that some employers do not have clear and tangible ways for employed individuals to take on more responsibilities over time within their company. AtWork Australia actively works with local firms to provide mentoring opportunities to change mind-sets and perceptions around employing an Indigenous job seeker.

In Sydney, Olympus Solutions seeks to work with employers who are committed to Indigenous employment. Olympus Solutions focuses on providing job-specific training for their clients in culturally appropriate workplaces. To help their clients sustain employment over the long-term, they work with the individual and firm to provide post-placement job support.

Yarn’n Employment Service has a dedicated employer relations officer who does active outreach to identify job vacancies in their local labour market. They regularly meet with senior private sector leaders to discuss how companies can improve their human resources policies to support Indigenous employment opportunities.

Taking a sector-based approach can ensure training meets future demand

Feedback gathered through case study work for this project has emphasised the importance of developing training programmes in areas of growing skills demand. Each case study noted the importance of ensuring Indigenous Australians participate in training programmes that will lead to a job. There is an opportunity to target skills training to sectors that have the potential to face skills shortages in the future, such as Health Care and Social Assistance.

As an example, the Yarn’n Aboriginal Employment Service delivers programmes in Sydney focusing on training programmes in the health sector (Yarn'n Aboriginal Employment Service, 2019[26]). Recently, their project “Health Jobs Connect,” providing training and employment, places 150 Indigenous Australians into health sector employment. Yarn’n has also developed a traineeship programme for known as Trainee Assistant in Nursing (Acute Care). The initiative develops new recruitment processes that address the challenges faced by Indigenous Australians in accessing employment, leading to a streamlined recruitment of candidates. Yarn’n’s approach to training in the health sector includes job-focused candidate preparation, employer-centred recruitment initiatives and processes, as well as outcome-focused partnerships with reliable and skilled registered training organisations.

Replay has developed and delivered a number of training programmes for more than 14 years in the Northern Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria. Looking at Replay’s services in Sydney, they assist Indigenous jobseekers to get into a career in two industries: i) Early Childhood Education and Care, which can lead to other jobs in the Education industry; and ii) Aged Care, which can lead to jobs in other areas of the Health industry (Replay, 2019[27])

Delivering training in a workplace setting has the potential to better link Indigenous Australians to a sustainable job

Similar to the principle of promoting employer leadership, a key takeaway from the case studies was ensuring that training is delivered in a manner that simulates a workplace setting. In many cases, Indigenous Australians may not have previous work experience therefore training is most successful when it provides employability skills in addition to occupational-specific training.

Looking at the local case studies, Replay’s training arm, the Australian Centre for Workplace Learning, delivers accredited, workplace-based, face-to-face classroom learning in an Indigenous friendly-environment. This is an essential part of the programme as having an accredited qualification supports employment after completing training. Replay utilised an innovative model, aiming to connect students with employers from the beginning of the course. Students were able to learn in the workplace and apply their theoretical knowledge immediately once hired. The model is accessible for participants with different levels of education because the course moves in vertical steps, allowing students to become comfortable with each module before progressing to the next. Their work placements mirror the classroom, with their responsibilities increasing as they obtain the knowledge required for each role. This allows employers to also create a healthy work environment for employees that enables career mobility opportunities for students and professional development within the organisation. By initiating relationships between employers and the participants from the start, each of the employer and indigenous employee can gradually learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the other. This allows the participants to identify early where they need further support while they are still connected to the programme’s resources.

Embedding mentoring into skills development opportunities is critical

Mentorship opportunities constitute another important factor for a successful transition from training to work. All of the case studies had a strong focus on embedding mentoring into the delivery of training. Culturally appropriate mentoring programmes can be successful in attracting, training and placing Indigenous Australians into employment. Within an Indigenous community, there are likely to be leaders who can champion education and training opportunities. Furthermore, once individuals have completed a programme, they are often well-placed to act as a mentor and work with people entering the programme to advise them on the value of training. According to feedback from the case studies, any person undertaking a mentor role with an Indigenous employee should either be Indigenous or should undertake extensive training about Indigenous cultures, values and customs.

The Wirrpanda Foundation is based in Perth and delivers a number of Indigenous-centred employment and training programmes. Wirra Club is the organisation’s longest running training programme, engaging over 14 000 children since it began in 2005. Wirra Club emphasizes building family and community capacity, developing and strengthening family and school relationships and delivering sessions aimed at improving self-esteem, confidence, education and leadership.

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Box 1.4. Mentorship programmes at the Wirrpanda Foundation

The Wirrpanda Foundation employs identified role models with a focus on local Indigenous people living in the community and works collaboratively with key community-based organisations. Wirra Club is a healthy lifestyle and rewards-based programme aimed at increasing the retention of Indigenous Australian students in school. Wirra Club assists primary school aged participants with their schoolwork, a healthy snack and physical activity up to three times per week.

Wirrpanda also delivers Industry Specialist Mentoring for Australian Apprentices (ISMAA) which provides intensive support to apprentices and trainees in the first two years of their training in industries that are undergoing structural change. Industry Specialist Mentoring for Australian Apprentices (ISMAA) complements other Australian Government support for apprentices, trainees and their employers through the Australian Apprenticeships Incentives Program, Trade Support Loans and the Australian Apprenticeship Support Network.

Delivering services in Sydney, Olympus Solutions provides several services to increase the educational attainment of Indigenous Australians. The organisation helps job seekers with career planning and comprehension of their professional networks. As candidates approach the organisation, Olympus Solutions identifies their baseline needs and connects them with mentors. These mentors provide support by helping candidates overcome the fear of failure and obtain more leadership skills. These mentors also assist with employer compatibility, matching candidates with opportunities based on their skills.

Replay also provides 24/7 mentoring and assistance for all students, not just for academic issues but also personal issues. Replay positions itself as an inclusive organisation that seeks to create an approachable, considerate and empathic experience for all participants. To help achieve these goals, Replay has also sought to employ Indigenous Australians who have been through the programme. Since some participants struggle with lower literacy levels or find the classroom setting to be intimidating, the programme’s pedagogy focuses on oral teaching and incorporation of culturally relevant perspectives. Replay also extends course learning and support to the workplace through on the job training and mentorship. In groups of 10-15, students participate in a peer-mentoring cohort. These cohorts try to reduce barriers for students by allowing peers and more senior participants to relate to each other. Former participants stated that this was an important piece in making the programme more accessible. To ensure knowledge is applied appropriately to the workplace, staff assess one student per day at the end of the workday. A teacher comes in-person to a student’s employers to assess the student. Along with students’ progression through the course, Replay also monitors success through its employment placements. Currently, the programme places about 100 participants per year into jobs. One of Replay’s key partners is the University of Technology Sydney, where Replay’s programme provides a potential pathway for entrance into the university. The partnership was formed more than a year ago and more than 30 students have graduated with a diploma.

Access to basic literacy and numeracy training can help to build good employability skills

Indigenous Australians tend to be over-represented when looking at adults who have low levels of language, literacy, and numeracy proficiency. These are often foundation skills, which are essential in preparing people for work. There is often a positive relationship between higher proficiency and labour force participation and employment. Individuals with higher levels of proficiency in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments have greater chances of participating in the labour market and of being employed, and less chance of being unemployed than individuals with lower levels of proficiency, on average. Looking at results from the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills (e.g. PIAAC), some 82.3% of Australian respondents scoring at Level 4/5 in literacy are employed, while only 56.8% of those scoring at or below Level 1 are (OECD, 2016[28]).

The case studies in Sydney and Perth consulted for this OECD study emphasised the importance of assessing a job seeker’s basic skills proficiency before focusing on placing them in employment. As an example, when a job seeker walks into AtWork Australia, the candidate is not always prepared for employment. Sometimes, they have other needs that have to be addressed to pivot them as an ideal candidate for work. As such, AtWork Australia provides a number of services to address the holistic needs of each programme participant. Firstly, the programme determines whether a participant needs assistance with any fundamental skills, such as literacy and numeracy. After an assessment, participants can access Indigenous literacy training and standard TAFE training if needed.

copy the linklink copied!What can Australia learn from other OECD countries?

Creating Indigenous-led institutions can increase trust with the education and training system

Lower levels of skills and workplace experience have led to persistent labour market disparities between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations across many OECD countries (OECD, 2018[29]). As shown in this chapter, building up those skills is fundamental to promoting greater success in obtaining and remaining in employment. There are some international examples in which Australia may wish to look for future policy opportunities. In Canada, there have also been strong efforts to promote Indigenous-led vocational and higher education institutions. Box 1.5 provides more information of an Indigenous-led vocational education and training institution based in the province of Saskatchewan.

Another promising example can be found in the province of British Columbia. The Aboriginal Community-Based Training Partnerships Program (ACBTP) focuses on building partnerships between Indigenous communities and public post-secondary institutions to improve access to education and training (Government of British Columbia, 2017[30]). ACBTP is funded by the Province of British Columbia and the Government of Canada and is managed by the B.C. Ministry of Advanced Education. Application for programme funding must be jointly submitted by a public post-secondary institution and an Indigenous community. All programme participants must be Indigenous.

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Box 1.5. Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT)

Established in 1976, the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) is one of the four Saskatchewan educational institutions with credit granting authority. First Nations leaders and representatives from across the Province govern the Institute. SIIT offers certificate and diploma programmes in the trades and industrial areas, business and technology, health and community studies, and adult basic education to over 2 400 students annually. Programming is delivered through three principal campuses in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, plus eight Career Centres and a number of learning centres located throughout the province. SIIT also operates the Saskatchewan Aviation Learning Centre at the Saskatoon airport. SIIT strives to be the institute of choice for First Nations learners. Approximately 93% of current students are indigenous, First Nations, Metis or Non-Status Indian. SIIT is also committed to building and maintaining strong relationships and partnerships involving a growing range of provincial and national industry leaders, professional associations and academic institutions.

Source: (OECD, 2016[31])

Indigenous adult education programmes need to be designed to respond to the future of work

The world of work is changing and new technologies have the potential to further exacerbate disadvantaged people in the labour market. This requires strong efforts to work closely with Indigenous communities to promote skills development programmes, which provide digital literacy training and ensure Indigenous people have continuous opportunities to update their skills.

As an example, the Joint Economic Development Initiative (JEDI) is an Indigenous organisation dedicated to working with partners to foster Indigenous economic development in New Brunswick, Canada. Founded in 1995 as a tripartite partnership between local Indigenous communities, the Government of Canada and the Government of New Brunswick, JEDI provides a variety of programmes and services to support workforce development of Indigenous People in New Brunswick. These include among others the Indigenous Adult Learning & Literacy (IALL) programme, which aims to link Indigenous People to opportunities to obtain their General Equivalency Diploma (GED), master workplace essential skills and enhance computer skills (Joint Economic Development Initiative, 2017[32]). JEDI builds capacity within First Nations communities by offering two Train-the-Trainer programmes, Workplace Essential Skills and Digital Literacy, with the goal of establishing Community Adult Learning & Digital Literacy Labs. The Labs help ensure that there is better access to learning opportunities for Indigenous People in New Brunswick. They are being designed to create a safe learning environment where learners can become work-ready by learning or enhancing their essential skills, literacy, technological skills and soft skills.

Promoting access to higher education opportunities narrows employment and income gaps

Increasing access to and completion of higher education among Indigenous youth is a priority across many OECD countries. Nevertheless, Indigenous people continue to fall behind when it comes to higher educational attainment rates. For instance, when looking at the share of the population with a postsecondary education, gaps in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations can be seen in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States (OECD, 2018[29]).

There are some promising examples that could inform policy development in Australia. In New Zealand, the Te Kāhui Amokura was formed in 2004 aiming to promote the collective interests of New Zealand’s universities in improving outcomes for Māori students (“tauira”). It brings together the Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori, Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori or Pro-Vice Chancellor Māori from the eight universities in New Zealand. The Te Kāhui Amokura Strategic Work Plan endorsed in 2015 identifies key priority areas for improving outcomes for Māori and Pacific Islanders. It also presents good practice examples of initiatives being taken by universities in New Zealand targeting Māori students. These include the Tuākana Learning Community programme (Te Kāhui Amokura, 2018[33]).

Developed by the University of Auckland, the Tuākana Learning Community programme aims to enhance academic success of Māori and Pacific Islander students attending the university. Funded through the Tertiary Education Commission Equity Funding, managed by the University Equity Office, the programme is based on the principles of the Tuākana-Teina relationship model, an integral part of the Māori society. It is a buddy system where an older or more experienced person (Tuākana) helps and guides a younger, less experienced, one (Teina). The Tuākana are highly visible role models selected by their faculty, paid to be mentors and tutors. They are also supported through trainings and orientation. Most faculties within the university offer small group learning, seminars and academic learning skills workshops. The university makes considerable efforts to reach out to first year Māori students to provide them with a first point of contact. This liaison enables them to quickly access a support network.

The University of Auckland has also introduced a new initiative in 2017, within the Faculty of Science, where research programmers and the computer science department have developed a mobile App assisting Māori and Pacific Islander students access up-to-date information, including on tutorial times, news and events. The programme has been successful in delivering positive outcomes for Māori and Pacific Islander students within the university, including increased retention (from 69% to 85% in 2010) and post-graduate participation rates (from 15% in 2005 to 17% in 2010).

Among the key success factors of the programme, the university stresses the high quality of training for mentors, as well as its focus on ensuring that both mentors and students benefit from their involvement in the programme. Programme flexibility has also allowed faculties to take a different approach based on their specific needs. A Tuākana database allows faculty co-ordinators to access historical data to support analysis and communication. Finally, a model where faculty financing is based on achievement and evaluation reports helps the accountability and financial sustainability of the programme.

Lastly, in Mexico, around 10% of the population reports themselves as Indigenous, and among these, around half speak one of the 62 Indigenous languages. Indigenous students perform historically below the average in Mexico. Indigenous participation and outcomes are also generally relatively low in tertiary education. To address this underrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples in tertiary education, new higher education institutions have been established to foster more networks between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students (see Box 1.6 for an example).

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Box 1.6. Universidades interculturales in Mexico

Universidades interculturales (intercultural universities) were formed to increase Indigenous participation in tertiary education and to foster further unity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. These universities have been established within Indigenous communities, but are open to the participation of non-Indigenous students as well. Inter-cultural universities in Mexico have a quota for enrolment: about 70% of the student body is composed of Indigenous Peoples and at least 20% comes from a mestizo (or mixed) background. These institutions integrate basic principles of the local Indigenous communities skills to compose classroom content and pedagogy, including Indigenous “philosophies, cultures, languages and histories”.

Source: (OECD, 2017[34])


[5] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2017), 2016 Census shows growing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, Census: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population,[email protected]/MediaRealesesByCatalogue/02D50FAA9987D6B7CA25814800087E03?OpenDocument (accessed on 9 July 2018).

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), “Community Profiles”, (accessed on 6 September 2018).

[24] Australian Department of Education and Training (2018), National Partnership on the Skilling Australians Fund,

[20] Cullen, P. et al. (2016), “Challenges to driver licensing participation for Aboriginal people in Australia: a systematic review of the literature”, International Journal for Equity in Health, Vol. 15/1,

[30] Government of British Columbia (2017), Employment Services and Supports: Aboriginal Community-Based Training Partnerships Program, (accessed on 2 April 2019).

[15] Government of New South Wales (2019), OCHRE Plan – NSW Government Aboriginal Affairs Strategy,

[3] Gray, M. and B. Hunter (2005), “The labour market dynamics of Indigenous Australians”, Journal of Sociology, Vol. 41/4, pp. 386-405,

[4] Hunter, B. (2010), “Revisiting the Relationship Between the Macroeconomy and Indigenous Labour Force Status”, Economic Papers: A journal of applied economics and policy, Vol. 29/3, pp. 320-332,

[32] Joint Economic Development Initiative (2017), Indigenous Adult Learning & Literacy Program — Joint Economic Development Initiative Blog, (accessed on 2 April 2019).

[13] Joyce, S. (2019), Strengthening Skills: Expert Review of Australia’s Vocational Education and Training System, (accessed on 23 April 2019).

[2] Kalb, G. et al. (2014), “Identifying Important Factors for Closing the Gap in Labour Force Status between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Australians”, Economic Record, Vol. 90/291, pp. 536-550,

[10] National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) (2018), Australian vocational education and training statistics: Total VET students and courses 2017.

[17] NCVER (2019), Government-funded students and courses 2018, (accessed on 14 August 2019).

[23] NCVER (2019), Higher apprenticeships in Australia: what are we talking about?,

[18] NCVER (2018), Total VET students and courses 2017.

[19] NCVER (2018), VET program completion rates 2016, (accessed on 14 August 2019).

[14] Noonan, P. (2016), VET funding in Australia, (accessed on 23 April 2019).

[9] OECD (2019), Engaging Employers and Developing Skills at the Local Level in Australia, OECD Reviews on Local Job Creation, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[25] OECD (2019), OECD Employment Outlook 2019: The Future of Work, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[29] OECD (2018), Job Creation and Local Economic Development 2018: Preparing for the Future of Work, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[34] OECD (2017), OECD Skills Strategy Diagnostic Report: Mexico, (accessed on 2 April 2019).

[8] OECD (2017), Promising Practices in Supporting Success for Indigenous Students, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[31] OECD (2016), Employment and Skills Strategies in Saskatchewan and the Yukon, Canada, OECD Reviews on Local Job Creation, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[7] OECD (2016), Skills Matter: Further Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[28] OECD (2016), Survey of Adult Skills, Australia Country Note,

[11] OECD (2014), Employment and Skills Strategies in Australia, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[22] OECD (2014), Skills beyond School: Synthesis Report, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[21] OECD/ILO (2017), Engaging Employers in Apprenticeship Opportunities: Making It Happen Locally, OECD Publishing, Paris,

[6] Parliament of Australia, Social Policy Group (2019), Indigenous Socioeconomic Indicators,

[12] Productivity Commission of the Australian Government (2017), Report on Government Services 2017, (accessed on 3 May 2018).

[27] Replay (2019), About Us,

[33] Te Kāhui Amokura (2018), Tauira Māori Initiatives – Sharing good practice in New Zealand universities, (accessed on 2 April 2019).

[16] Windley, G. (2017), Indigenous VET participation, completion and outcomes: change over the past decade Image to be supplied, (accessed on 2 May 2019).

[26] Yarn’n Aboriginal Employment Service (2019), A VTEC Approach,


← 1. According to the Census definition, non-school qualifications are defined as those qualifications awarded for educational attainments other than those of pre-primary, primary or secondary education.

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Chapter 1. Building the skills of Indigenous Australians