News & Events

New research: Redefining ‘one-size-fits-all’ university support for humanitarian migrants

A new report recommends Australian higher education policy and practice recognise refugees and people seeking asylum as a distinct equity group, to address unique areas of disadvantage and disproportionately poor outcomes.

The research, led by Associate Professor Francisco Perales from The University of Queensland and funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), found targeted support would particularly benefit humanitarian migrants with limited English-language skills and educational experiences.

“An important channel for humanitarian migrants to successfully integrate into mainstream society is participation in the local education system, especially in higher education,” Associate Professor Perales said.

“Our research found individuals from humanitarian-migrant backgrounds face multiple and unique barriers to education participation and success, over and above those faced by other migrant groups.”

New analyses of recent data sources showed humanitarian migrants were approximately half as likely as Australian-born individuals to have a university degree, a third as likely as family migrants, and a fifth as likely as skilled migrants.

“These results suggest that the Australian approach to equity in higher education should be revised: humanitarian migrants should be separated from the Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) category and consideration should be given to positioning them as a standalone equity group,” Associate Professor Perales said.

Engagement with higher education amongst humanitarian migrants in Australia is modest — university courses made up just 14.2 per cent of course enrolments for humanitarian migrants (excluding English-language courses), while only 7.6 per cent of all completions represented a higher education qualification.

Limited English-language proficiency and prior educational experiences were identified as core barriers to education participation and success — more prominently among some humanitarian migrant groups.

“Certain subpopulations of humanitarian migrants require additional support, including migrants from certain origin countries (e.g., Iraq), whose English-language proficiency is low and who enter Australia with low, or no, education credentials,” Associate Professor Perales said.

“Our results bear important lessons to inform equity policy and practice. They indicate that humanitarian migrants experience unique barriers to participation and success in the Australian education system and should be the focus of policy attention.”

A nuanced understanding of individuals within recognised equity groups provides the foundation for effective student equity policy and practice, NCSEHE Director Professor Sarah O’Shea said.

“This research illustrates the diversity of backgrounds, strengths and challenges across the NESB equity group,” Professor O’Shea said.

“Associate Professor Perales and his team propose a new approach to supporting humanitarian migrants which certainly warrants consideration, in light of the evidence provided in this progressive report.”

Read the full report, Understanding access to higher education amongst humanitarian migrants in Australia.

Notes to Editor:

Based at Curtin University in Perth, the NCSEHE aims to inform public policy design and implementation and institutional practice to improve the higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people.

The Centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Media Contact:

Nina-Marie Thomas
NCSEHE Media and Communications Officer
Tel | +61 8 9266 3721 / 0488 436 235
Email |

Posted 9 March 2021 Posted in