Students from minority and non-dominant backgrounds often have negative experiences when dealing with higher education systems. In this study we explored Indigenous student’s experiences in mainstream higher education.

Interviews were conducted with 34 participants, systematically selected from a listing of 110 past and present students, about their experiences in mainstream higher education. Participants included people who had successfully completed programs at Curtin University of Technology, those who did not complete courses, and those who were participating in bridging courses at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies (CAS). The qualitative data were analysed for unique and recurring themes using content analyses.

The data showed that subtle and overt forms of racism impact on students’ experiences in mainstream education. Participants mentioned issues associated with conflicts between indigenous and mainstream cultural values that are reflected in course content and levels of support across schools. The CAS was highlighted as a context for the strengthening of cultural identities, providing emotional and tangible support, and providing a link between the community and the university.

Efforts aimed at strengthening of cultural identities need to be supported and the diversity of Aboriginal people must be acknowledged. Research and interventions challenging mainstream norms and structures that maintain social inequality are required. The challenges to affirmative action need to be located in their proper historical context.