People seeking asylum in Australia: Access and support in higher education
Dr Lisa Hartley and Associate Professor Caroline Fleay, Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University
Dr Sally Baker, University of New South Wales
Dr Rachel Burke, University of Newcastle
Rebecca Field, Curtin University
My study is the purpose of continuing my life.
(Student from an asylum-seeker background: Individual Interview)
Accessing higher education is critical for many people seeking asylum; not simply as a means of acquiring the qualifications necessary for employment, but as essential to living a meaningful life. The opportunity to undertake study is also seen by many as an important tool for developing the capacities and knowledge to sustain their livelihoods and to contribute to their communities and to society. However, the findings of this first Australia-wide study into access to higher education for people seeking asylum highlight that most continue to face enormous barriers in doing so. These barriers are largely due to the restrictive Federal Government policies that are imposed on them. While many universities and community organisations have responded to this situation by offering initiatives and supports to enable more than 204 people seeking asylum around Australia to access higher education, they continue to face significant challenges throughout their studies, and there are many others who remain without such access.
For much of the past six years, approximately 30,000 people seeking asylum have resided in “community detention” or lived in the community on temporary Bridging Visas while they await the processing of their claim for refugee status. These are people who arrived in the country by boat either before 13 August 2012 without having their protection visa application finalised as at 18 September 2013 or those who arrived on or after 13 August 2012 and were not sent to offshore detention on Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. If they are deemed eligible for protection in Australia, they are issued with one of two temporary visas: a three year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a five year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). In this report, the term “people seeking asylum” is used to refer to people who are awaiting the outcome of their refugee application and living in the community on a Bridging Visa or in community detention, or those already found to be a refugee and granted a TPV or SHEV.
The current research project provides a nationwide map of the policies and practices affecting people seeking asylum and is the first of its kind to evaluate university and community supports for these students. It draws on the findings of a national symposium held in November 2017 that explored these issues. The symposium brought together 25 people seeking asylum both currently enrolled in higher education programs as well as prospective students, and 40 representatives from universities and community organisations. This research project also draws on the findings of a national online survey of 67 representatives from 25 Australian universities and 21 community organisations, individual interviews with 11 students with lived experience of seeking asylum either studying or wanting to study at university, interviews with 11 university representatives from nine universities in five Australian states, and six representatives from community organisations in New South Wales and Victoria.
The findings highlight that people seeking asylum face complex and specific challenges and barriers to higher education access and enrolment. A major barrier is that their only pathway to accessing higher education is being granted admission as an international student given the temporary nature of the visa they are issued. This means they are ineligible for Federal Government programs designed to assist students with financing tertiary study, including the Higher Education Loans Program (HELP), Commonwealth Supported Places, and concession rates. Therefore, for most, this entry-point is financially prohibitive. Further barriers given their temporary visa status include difficulty in accessing enabling courses and, for many, lack of access to affordable English language courses and student or other income supports. People seeking asylum are also forced to endure a policy landscape that is not only hostile but changeable with very little, or no warning, which creates considerable stress and confusion.
In recent years, a number of Australian universities have responded to the restrictive federal policies by implementing mechanisms to support access to higher education such as offering scholarships that cover full tuition fees coupled with community sector advocacy and support. This study highlights that these efforts have resulted in more than 204 people seeking asylum studying in 23 universities across the country on scholarships that meet their full tuition fees. Some of the universities also offer a living allowance. However, our research finds that there are many other people seeking asylum who have not been able to access a scholarship and/or meet the university entry requirements.
It is clear that university scholarships for people seeking asylum that meet full tuition fees, coupled with living allowance and other supports, have enabled access to higher education for more than 204 people across Australia. The determination and commitment of these students to their studies─while living in situations of extreme uncertainty and receiving minimal supports compared with most other students in Australia─is clearly evident and needs to be lauded. The university and community organisations responsible for the scholarships and other supports are also to be commended.
However, further measures are needed to be provided by many universities to ensure these students receive supports that are necessary for their retention, participation, and success in their studies. In addition, the Federal Government policies underpinning the most significant barriers that people seeking asylum face in accessing higher education need to be addressed, including the need for permanent protection visas to be issued to all who have been recognised as refuges. Efforts directed at realising this are critical.
Federal Government Recommendations
- Grant permanent visas to all people currently on TPVs and SHEVs.
- Expedite the processing of refugee claims for those yet to be finalised.
- Ensure that all people seeking asylum and refugees have access to income and student supports on par with other Australians.
Policy and practice development
- Provide opportunities for people with lived experience of seeking asylum to inform policy and practice.
- Allocate one staff member as a central point for students from asylum-seeking backgrounds.
Full fee-paying/fee-waiver scholarships
- Until permanent protection visas are issued, establish and continue to expand the number of full fee-paying/fee-waiver scholarships to people seeking asylum.
- Offer scholarships that allow people seeking asylum to study postgraduate studies.
- Offer part-time and flexible options for scholarship holders.
- In the absence of access to government-funded income support, include supports for meeting living expenses in scholarship offerings.
- Offer subsidised accommodation for students who receive scholarships.
- Provide opportunities for students for employment on campus, such as paid workplace experience, to help establish networks and enable access to employment after university.
Alternative entry pathways and transition supports
- Offer alternative entrance pathways, such as enabling programs or diploma pathways, to facilitate access to undergraduate programs.
- Tailor services and supportive pathways through the provision of mentoring.
- Offer the opportunity for students to apply face-to-face rather than fully-online.
- Train university staff with roles relating to scholarships, equity, and admissions on the specific needs of students seeking asylum.
- Collaborate and coordinate with other universities to streamline the application process across institutions and ensure parity of information shared with potential applicants.
- Avoid requiring applicants to disclose their financial situation to access scholarships and/or living allowances.
- Avoid requiring applicants to demonstrate that they will be able to complete their qualification due to their temporary visa status.
Academic and language support
- Offer tailored academic support (for academic language, literacies, and cultural navigation) for people seeking asylum.
- This support should consider whether students have had established careers and qualifications in their country of origin or completed schooling after arriving in Australia.
Support for people with disability, mental health issues, ongoing health challenges, and family responsibilities
- Provide on-campus refugee-specific mental health support and counselling services.
- Provide training for all frontline staff on issues dealing with people seeking asylum.
- Implement official structures to support such students.
- Offer people seeking asylum with young children access to affordable childcare.
- Collaborate and coordinate with other universities and community organisations to advocate for Federal Government policy change to ensure that people seeking asylum recognised as refugees are given permanent protection visas, and all people seeking asylum access appropriate income supports.
Community Organisation Recommendation
- Collaborate and coordinate with other community organisations and universities to advocate for Federal Government policy change to ensure that people seeking asylum recognised as refugees are given permanent protection visas, and all people seeking asylum access appropriate income supports.
Read the full report here.
 A small number of people seeking asylum in Australia are released from immigration detention into “community detention” without a bridging visa. This allows them to live in the community without the right to work. They are effectively barred from higher education because they are not issued with any form of visa while they wait for their refugee claim to be finalised.