Not There Yet: An Investigation into the Participation of Students of Refugee Backgrounds in the Australian Higher Education System
Written by Dr Les Terry, Dr Ryan Naylor, Dr Nga Nguyen & Dr Alberto Rizzo
As a signatory to the United Nations 1951 International Convention on Refugees, Australia continues to accept significant numbers of Humanitarian refugees on an annual basis. Recent global developments in terms of conflict in many countries have exacerbated the issue of ‘forced migration’, with estimates indicating that up to sixty million displaced people are seeking refuge and protection for a variety of reasons at this present time. In this context, Australia has already taken steps to increase its planned annual intake by 12,000 (Syrians) in 2016 – 2017, taking the figure from 13,750 to anticipated 25,750.
Having experienced considerable displacement, including substantial educational disruption, in seeking refuge many of those individuals entering Australia will encounter barriers to their access and participation in the Higher Education system. However, recent researches have highlighted the fact that many of these Humanitarian Program entrants arrive as highly skilled and well-educated persons. While academic preparation is an important factor in success at university level, non-academic factors that refugee background students may possess, such as “grit” or determination, have been shown in several studies (Duckworth et al. 2007; Strayhorn 2015) to improve the chances of success, as well as substantially enriching university communities. Consequently, it is apparent from this research on the issue of participation of refugee background students in Australian universities, that a strengths-based approach provides the best framework for further ‘engagement’ with these individuals and communities.
It is clear from a survey of the enrolment data collected by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training that refugee background students form a small but increasing proportion of the Australian higher education sector. Many come from an English as Another Language (EAL) background and are overwhelmingly located in low SES areas. However, it is argued here that the term ‘refugee’ bundles all communities and individuals into a monolithic group, and while it is the case that there are common barriers faced by these communities in achieving full participation in the higher education system in Australia, it is also apparent that the diverse communities are positioned differently in regard to their relationship with the university sector. Even though the higher education sector, and particularly the public universities, appear to be working to widen participation and ensure that all students have a positive experience, it is the view of the authors of this study that existing university ‘engagement’ programs and strategies could be strengthened through a more focused, community-based rights and capacity building approach. Not only will this have the benefits of fostering links between universities and specific communities that have not been well represented in the enrolment intakes across the higher education sector, but it will also set a base for partnership research projects, as has been found in the experience of the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program since its inception in late 2014 (http://mrsp.unimelb.edu.au/).
The research highlights the fact that selected universities have been active in creating pathways and reforming their curricula, for example, English as Another Language and mentoring support, to be inclusive of refugee background students. It is the view of the researchers involved in this study that the work of these universities, which needs to be encouraged and supported further, provides model strategies and approaches that could also be adopted by other universities, such as those in the Group of Eight (Go8), in which students from refugee backgrounds are still clearly underrepresented.
This report reviews the literature and analyses enrolment data from the Australian Government Department of Education and Training and also refers to Census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), with a view to contributing to discussions about the future directions in policy and action, including the development of targeted outreach and engagement programs for refugee background students.