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Unintended Consequences in Indigenous Higher Education

by Ken Coates Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, University of Saskatchewan

In a world of unrelenting uncertainty, there is at least one sure thing: post-secondary education has the power to shape lives and shift societies. It is, the standard line goes, good for the student, providing better career and life chances. It is good for the communities, for it provides the skilled and motivated people necessary to staff successful businesses and governments. And it is good for the country as a whole, producing well-rounded, employable and hard-working citizens. If all of these elements hold true for Canadians and the country as a whole, the value of post-secondary education holds even greater benefits for Indigenous people and communities, as they throw off the shackles of a colonial past and reassert control over their lives.
At present, there is a nation-wide push for improvements in Indigenous post-secondary education. Universities and colleges across Canada are rushing to implement indigenization and Reconciliation strategies. Most institutions – colleges, polytechnics and universities – reach out to Indigenous students as part of their recruiting programs; many communities are even visited by these institutions that offer scholarships, bursaries and promises of support and encouragement. Like all post-secondary students, these prospective Indigenous students are offered bold promises that their studies will translate into job offers, great careers, and high incomes. And for future Indigenous leaders, determined to lead their communities to better places, these are heady times, rich with opportunity.
Post-secondary education for Indigenous peoples is, of course, a clear priority agreed upon by Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. The Hon. Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous Affairs, made this point in her April 27th announcement that the Government of Canada was lifting the cap on Indigenous post-secondary funding. Indigenous communities, like other Canadian communities, require great numbers of administrators, tradespeople, researchers, teachers, social workers, other professionals, and business people to become the communities they want to. Educated graduates are a way to get them there. But companies, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations also understand the substantial benefits that come with having Indigenous employees, leaders, and perspectives contributing to the workplace. For an Indigenous student graduating from post-secondary, the decision to return to their home community or pursue other endeavours can be challenging with pressures, expectations, and opportunities often in tension.
Even the most positive developments, like access to education, can have darker sides, typically in the form of unexpected and unintended consequences. So it is with Indigenous engagement in post-secondary. Advanced education does improve career opportunities for Indigenous graduates. Communities do benefit from the availability of well-trained individuals to staff their companies and departments. And Canada certainly gains real value from the addition of highly-skilled individuals who make substantial economic, political and cultural contributions. The question then begs, is there any downside to Indigenous Canadians obtaining a post-secondary education? And, if so, what is it?
The problems often begin with the recruitment processes. Many Indigenous communities have struggled to get their students through high school, although improvements have been made in this regard. Post-secondary institutions, particularly universities, come looking for the best and brightest – the most motivated, the most well-trained and the most capable. And they pull out the stops to recruit to their campus, knowing full well that other institutions are following in their wake.
Consider this process from the other side, from that of the community. A small Indigenous community, eager for skilled and motivated people, watches with highly mixed emotions as post-secondary schools come offering opportunities for their most talented young people. While families and the community want these young pupils to succeed, they also need them at home. But many are attracted away, often with the blessings of family and community leaders, in the hope that they will return to assume prominent roles in their communities.
There are those who do return, but often not as expected. Indigenous students often struggle to complete their studies in non-Indigenous and typically urban institutions. Many come from small towns and relocate to large cities, often to campuses with thousands of students. Many of the students from smaller and remote communities graduate from high schools that do not always prepare students well for advanced study. Furthermore, colleges and universities are culturally-intense places, often with limited appreciation for Indigenous values, transitions and norms. As a consequence, Indigenous students often have difficulty in post-secondary schools. Indigenous drop-out rates of 30 to 40% are standard (they are typically 10 to 25% for the students at large). As a result, Indigenous students often return home early, not as triumphant degree or diploma-holders but instead as academic statistics.
Dropping out from school is a traumatic experience for many students. Indigenous students, however, are often told that they carry the dreams of their family and community to their outside institution. Leaders tell them that the students are expected to come back and fill pivotal roles within local government and business. When Indigenous students fail, they can let down entire communities, a far more serious consequence, perhaps, than merely derailing their personal plans and expectations. These pressures can mount and make an Indigenous student’s journey all the more challenging.
Then there are those students who do persist, overcoming whatever shortcoming there may have been in their academic preparation and the socio-cultural jump facing those who come from their communities to institutions. The transition is a stark contrast for those coming from remote and isolated communities, less so for urban Indigenous peoples, although not absent of challenges. Their achievement is real and does carry personal and national benefits. The issues are more complex for students coming to campus from their home reserves. Many of these graduates do not return to their home community or even their traditional territories. The reasons are many and complex.
Some graduates find partners while at college or university and remain in the community and region that they share in common. Others are quickly offered important jobs with impressive salaries and grab an opportunity that almost all graduates desire. Others compare their home communities to the wealthier, more diverse and better-served communities they have been living in and decide to not to return home.
There are Indigenous students that do graduate and come home. Unfortunately, this graduation/return rate has not been investigated systematically, so a precise number is impossible to provide at present. A guess, based on my experience at post-secondary institutions, would be that this number would be 20% of those who begin at post-secondary and return home. The prospects for the return of Indigenous graduates are much higher to specialized programs, such as those operating in education, social work and nursing, and among those who are educated in their home community or region. Many of these graduates assume important professional and even political roles in their communities and become leaders, innovators and business people that the Indigenous societies count on as they contemplate their future.
These outcomes, which have yet to be explored in full, do not mesh with initial expectations. Those pushing Indigenous students to leave for advanced education do not count on so many returning home with a profound sense that they have let themselves and their community down. Those who graduate gain the personal benefits of a post-secondary education and the country benefits from a more well-educated Indigenous workforce and citizenry. The communities gain indirectly, through the emergence of role models and external advocates, but they miss out on the talent, motivation and contributions of some of the most promising and talented young people produced from their families.
Indigenous peoples can benefit greatly by pursuing advanced education, and, in Canada, the choices of programs and locations are plentiful. There are many college, polytechnic and university opportunities to meet the diverse needs of Canadian students. It seems clear – but not fully documented – that community-based education and training improves both individual outcomes (more graduates) and community benefits (more graduates stay in the community and region). The main message, however, is that even something as clearly beneficial as advanced education carries unexpected consequences. The loss of community talent, and the acceleration of the decline of small Indigenous communities, is of profound importance to Indigenous settlements and people across the country. Post-secondary education, like so many “good” things in life, has a substantial downside that demands both greater awareness of the consequences and deliberate measures to address the challenges and problems that follow alongside improved educational attainment.
This is a troubling issue, and one we need to work on together as Canadians. There are thousands of Indigenous success stories, marked by academic and career achievement, which need to be celebrated. But little attention is given to the students who fail in their studies or who do not return to their communities after they graduate. The frequency that a failed post-secondary journey is reported indicates a clear dissatisfaction from the students’ perspective, and a lack of institutional support for these students.
Higher education can be used as a force to improve communities across the country. But if we want to meet the needs of all Canadians, most notably our Indigenous populations, we need to work with and learn from Indigenous communities to attract, retain, graduate, and support students as they work their way through the pipeline of education. If we are able to do this, graduates will inevitably find ways to contribute to their communities in all sorts of capacities. Education can and should be a force for good, but it can also have damaging and, often, unintended consequences. It will be incumbent upon our institutions to find ways forward with their Indigenous students, leaders, organizations, and communities.

Jul 6, 2017 |