Gaps in Participation and Attainment Rates of Minority & Indigenous Populations

The education deficit for the world’s minority and indigenous peoples begins at the primary and secondary levels. Of the 101 million children out-of-school and the 776 million adults who cannot read and write, the majority is from ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities or indigenous peoples [1]. “Numerous states are violating international laws and standards by failing to provide adequate education for minorities. The costs of failing to provide education for all are massive, holding back economic growth and potentially sowing the seeds for conflicts. Yet the international community – governments and aid donors alike – has still not fully woken up to the need to address inequities in education, and specifically the needs of minorities and indigenous peoples. “[2]

The developing countries with the largest number of children out of school – Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan – all have large minority populations who enjoy far less access to schooling than majority groups. In Nigeria, for example, estimates are that 54 per cent of all out-of- school children are Hausas from the predominantly Muslim north of the country. In India, around 41 per cent of those out of school are from the ‘scheduled castes’ (‘Dalits’, previously known as ‘untouchables’) or from the ‘scheduled tribes’ (‘Adivasis’).

A 2006 analysis noted that of the 60 million girls not in primary school (based on 2002 figures showing 115 million children then out of school), a full 70 per cent came from ethnic minorities and other excluded groups.

Indigenous peoples confront particular obstacles to education and tend to face discrimination that excludes them from access to schools or else attempts to assimilate them into mainstream culture. In Guatemala, for example, only 54 per cent of indigenous girls aged 7 are in school compared to 75 per cent of non-indigenous girls. In Laos, 46 per cent of poor, rural non-Lao-Tai girls aged 6–12 attend school compared to 70 percent of poor, rural Lao-Tai girls. Indigenous children are often deprived of schooling in their mother tongue while teaching downplays or ignores their community’s history or traditional knowledge, meaning the school curriculum is often far removed from their cultural practice.

The overall quality of schools in the areas in which indigenous children live – often more remote, poorer areas – is also usually lower. The result is that indigenous children tend to drop out of school more frequently. In Ecuador, for example, indigenous children are 30 per cent more likely to drop out of schools in rural areas than non-indigenous children, while in Bolivia the primary school completion rate of indigenous children is 55 per cent compared to 81 per cent for non-indigenous children. Overall literacy rates among indigenous communities also tend to be lower: in Ecuador, the literacy rate for indigenous groups is 72 per cent, compared to the average of 91 per cent; in Vietnam the rate is a staggering 17 per cent for minorities compared to a national average of 87 per cent. [3]

Although the majority of children out of school are in developing countries, there are also significant disparities in educational provision and attainment in the developed world. In the EU, for example, although some EU member states report a narrowing of the gap in educational attainment between the majority and minority communities, attainment gap ‘has remained at a significant level’ and most member states do not know how well minorities are performing at school compared to the majority due to a lack of official statistics. Only two of the EU’s 27 member states (the UK and Netherlands) have comprehensive monitoring systems registering performance differences among minorities in education. Reports highlight the treatment of the Roma community in several EU countries, among them Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, where Roma children are subject to segregated, Roma-only classes or units within schools. [4] In Canada, the gap persists in educational outcomes for indigenous children and youth at all levels; 2006 statistics from Statistics Canada showed the university participation gap as widening[5].

Australia’s Indigenous population also remains underrepresented in the university system. According to the Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Indigenous People Comprise 2.2 per cent of the overall population, but only 1.4 per cent of student enrolments at university in 2010, including only 1.1 per cent of higher degree by research enrolments. Staffing levels are also low, with 0.8 per cent of all full-time equivalent academic staff and 1.2 per cent of general university staff in 2010 being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Reports note the “poor recognition given to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander studies, the lack of visibility of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and knowledge on many campuses, and the low levels of participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in university governance and management. The most important factors identified as leading to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ premature withdrawal from studies included financial pressures, social or cultural alienation caused by the academic demands of study, and insufficient academic support.”[6]



[1] Minority Rights Group International, Education Special: State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples (2009). Available at: (last accessed September 3, 2015).

[2] Ibid, 2009.

[3] Ibid, 2009

[4] Ibid, 2009

[5] Statistics Canada, 2006 Census as reported in Universities Canada

[6] Universities Australia, Indigenous Higher education, January 14, 2014. Available at:

(last accessed September 4, 2015).



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