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Feature article — Learning from the experiences of students from asylum-seeking backgrounds in Australian higher education

Karen Dunwoodie, Luke Macaulay, Kristin Reimer, Mervi Kaukko, Jane Wilkinson and Susan Webb

A key equity group which has missed out on Australian higher education opportunities is people seeking asylum. This is in part due to federal government policies that classify asylum-seekers as international students, thus making the cost of university education prohibitive. Many universities are addressing these concerns by offering scholarships to people on temporary protection visas. However, little is known about these students’ experiences of getting in, through, and beyond higher education.

Since 2018, we—a team of researchers from Monash University, Deakin University and Tampere University (Finland)—have been conducting longitudinal, qualitative research which tracks the experiences of a group of asylum-seeking students across a variety of Victorian universities. The aim is to understand the factors that support this group’s access to, and full participation in, higher education, including successfully completing their degrees.

Our program of research began in 2018 with 22 students from asylum-seeking backgrounds. At the time of our first-wave interviews, the students were studying at seven universities in Victoria.

Our findings suggested the particular circumstances that characterise students from asylum-seeking backgrounds were not being adequately recognised through some universities’ policies and services and/or interactions with staff.

One of the interviewees, Lucy, who had arrived in Australia from Iraq four years prior to the interview, described how there was little understanding from staff about the complexities of her situation as an asylum seeker:

Every time I have to explain to them I came by boat and I couldn’t bring my documents and this is what I have and I explained this several times to them to each of them when I went to the University student services…. I was upset, because I remember all those moments.​

Another interviewee, Nima, who had also been in Australia for four years and had arrived from Iran, mentioned the confusing status asylum-seeking students were ascribed:

We are not domestic and we are not international we are in the middle and they don’t know about us…. I am an asylum seeker, but I am not counted as domestic, I am not counted as international.

This misrecognition can lead to experiences of harm — where students did not feel adequately supported by academic and/or administrative staff and were being retraumatised as they continuously explained their ‘back story’.

In their second year of university, students identified many challenges similar to those experienced during their first year.

Baraz, who had arrived from Afghanistan five years earlier, described the harm caused when students from asylum-seeking backgrounds are not listened to sensitively:

Once I went to art faculty to receive help … before she helped me, before she listened to my challenges, she started lecturing me. She said, ‘Oh … you are not a serious student. Look at you, I can see your record. You have been dropping out.’ … So, she didn’t even let me talk about the situation, the challenges. And I just — I just looked at her, I cried, and I just took my laptop and left. So, I never — I never went to art faculty for help again.

Notably, however, data collected in the second year of studies revealed instances of participants feeling more settled as they built a sense of belonging and support. Students identified particular university practices—such as dedicated support staff—which had helped them.

Mohammed, an interviewee who had arrived from Iran four years earlier, identified the difference a supportive, understanding staff member can make:

She [my student support advisor] has made me very comfortable in terms of I’ve never — I do not feel insecure or ashamed of my sexuality or my background status. She is very open minded and every time I talk to her, she makes me feel very empowered.

Our focus was on the students’ perceptions of their experiences rather than institutional comparisons. Yet, following the students’ educational journeys for four years also highlighted key institutional differences. Students recommended ways that some universities could support asylum-seeking students more effectively and compassionately.

What your institution can do:

  • Appoint a specialist case manager who is the one point of contact for all services, support, advocacy, and referrals​.
  • Appoint an informed and interested academic mentor for each student from enrolment to completion​.
  • Work in collaboration with Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia (EPHEA) members and colleagues across faculties, services, and higher education institutions.
  • Educate staff and students on the plight of refugees (e.g., what is okay or not okay to ask;risks of re-traumatising).
  • Identify opportunities to advocate for students both inside and outside the university​.
  • Stay informed about visa and policy changes, particularly with a change in government — Check Refugee Council of Australia’s online fact sheets; join the Refugee Education Special Interest Group.
  • Formally recognise refugees and people seeking asylum in your institution’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion policy​.
  • Revisit language. For example, use non-labelling names such as ‘sanctuary scholarship’ rather than ‘asylum seeker scholarship’.
  • Invite refugee students to review and contribute to policies, procedures, presentations, guides, etc.​

Thanks to support from the Australasian Spotlight on Equity grant, jointly sponsored by EPHEA and the NCSEHE, we are currently working with data from the 3rd and 4th year interviews. More analysis will be forthcoming.

For further information on this research project, please see:

Webb, S., Dunwoodie, K., Wilkinson, J., Macaulay, L., Reimer, K.E., & Kaukko, M. (2021). Recognition and precarious mobilities: The experiences of university students from a refugee background in Australia. International Review of Education, 1–24.

Dunwoodie, K., Kaukko, M., Reimer, K., Wilkinson, J., & Webb, S. (2020). Widening university access for students of asylum-seeking backgrounds: (Mis)recognition in an Australian context. Higher Education Policy, 33, 243–264.

Reimer, K., Kaukko, M., Dunwoodie, K., Wilkinson, J., & Webb, S. (2019). Acknowledging the head, heart, hands and feet: Research with refugees and people seeking asylum in higher education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 21(2), 190–208.

Webb, S., Dunwoodie, K. & Wilkinson, J. (2019). Unsettling equity frames in Australian universities to embrace people seeking asylum, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 38(1), 103–120.

Posted 22 June 2022 Posted in Culturally and linguistically diverse, General, Migrants / refugees