Sally Baker

Refugee Week: Why universities could – and how they should – offer refuge

Every year, a fraction of the world’s forcibly-displaced people get the opportunity to resettle in one of the main refugee-resettling countries, including Australia.  Refugees escape war and violence and search for a place to rebuild their lives. Access to and success in higher education supports refugee integration. However, while access to higher education is around 40 per cent on average globally, among refugees, it is only six per cent.

There is much universities can do to address this challenge! 

This week (June 18 to June 24) is international Refugee Week and its theme is Finding Freedom. Freedom is more than the absence of suffering and persecution; genuine freedom entails having the opportunities to be and do what one has reason to value. For refugees, having real freedom means being able to make their own decisions, engage meaningfully in society, and achieve their goals and aspirations. 

In this piece we reflect on education as a means of freedom and the role of universities in helping refugees find freedom.

Globally, universities engage in humanitarian work in many ways. Universities, as public goods, can facilitate integration opportunities through their role in society. Firstly, as sites of higher learning, universities can offer hope and pathways to individual, community development and tools for economic participation and future nation-rebuilding. Secondly, as key brokers between students and professions — through liaison with community, employers, and professional associations — universities can push for more postgraduate opportunities and shift employer and societal attitudes towards more positive welcome for forced migrants. Thirdly, universities have a role to play in creating more durable solutions to refugee resettlement through the development of educational migration refugee pathways.

Universities Can and Should Play a Bigger Role in Supporting Refugees

In a recent book, entitled The Good University, sociologist Raewyn Connell highlights five key features of a good university. For Connell, a good university is democratic, engaged, truthful, creative, and sustainable,“fully present for the society” that supports it. An engaged university is a responsive and responsible university. A good university produces socially relevant knowledge for addressing pervasive issues (e.g. environmental catastrophe and humanitarian crises). An engaged university deals with difficult societal issues such as injustice, racism, domination, and exploitation.

A good university is not simply an economic machinery; it does not aspire just to contribute to knowledge economy. A good (and engaged) university is committed to building a knowledge society that is just, caring, democratic, and sustainable. 

In our collective response to humanitarian crises, universities have three critical roles to play. The most common strand of engagement concerns widening access to teaching and learning in higher education. Universities can offer special consideration to admit forcibly displaced people, including offering online access to courses to people in displacement contexts, such as this example from the University of Leicester in the UK. Many universities in Australia and internationally also offer financial assistance in the form of scholarships.  

The second form of humanitarian response is research and training. Universities generate knowledge on causes, consequences, and potential solutions of humanitarian crisis. Humanitarian training focuses on equipping leaders in emergencies with evidence-based knowledge and skills. Examples include the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and Deakin University’s Centre for Humanitarian Leadership.

The third example of university responses to humanitarian crisis is advocacy. University staff and students in the Global North engage in awareness raising activities and campaigns. The efforts range from mobilising financial resources and engaging in public consultation to organizing seminars and panel discussions on humanitarian issues. National examples of coordinated advocacy include the Universities of Sanctuary movement in the UK and the Welcoming University initiative in Australia. The Refugee Education Special Interest Group is an example of a grassroots activism network in Australia that works to advocate for better educational opportunities and outcomes for students from forced migration backgrounds. At the institutional level, the Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS is an excellent example of a university that is leveraging its resources to advocate at the local level, as well as using its networks to amplify its own and other advocates’ messages nationally.

Policy Invisibility of Refugees

Policy invisibility is a major issue in Australia. Despite being a signatory to major global refugee-related initiatives, including the Refugee Convention (1951) and the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants (2016), Australia has failed to ensure that refugees are consistently included in educational policies. Major national inclusion initiatives (for example, the Multicultural Access and Equity Guide and the Alice Spring Educational Declaration) recognise refugees as targets of policy action. However, when it comes to the higher education sector, refugees are invisible. They are subsumed under other equity groups such as Non-English Speaking Background or low Socio-Economic status group. None of these grouping recognise unique educational needs of refugees.  Policy invisibility at sectoral level means, universities have little or no financial incentives to support students with forced migration backgrounds. 

What can be done

In a report to the Commonwealth government, Peter Shergold and colleagues stressed: “Investing in refugees, investing in Australia”.  That is true.  High educational attainment enables refugees to actively participate in the economic, social, and cultural lives of the host society.  It supports integration. Conversely, low educational attainment means a loss of human capital, which in turn may diminish national economic productivity and competitiveness. This is particularly the case, given the majority of refugees are young and eager to rebuild their lives. 

In their journeys to, through, and out of higher education, refugees and asylum seekers in Australia can face many challenges associated with English language proficiency, navigational resources, and ongoing academic support. 

Facing similar challenges, the German government managed to enrol tens of thousands of refugees into higher education by (a) funding an independent agent that could assess educational levels and qualifications of refugees, (b) supporting refugees to study in special academic preparatory colleges, and (c) providing funding to universities  enable them to provide ongoing academic support to refugee students.

We believe we can learn a lesson from the coordinated approach to refugee education in Germany. This requires policy recognition as a formally identified equity cohort; it necessitates sustained ‘Welcoming Refugees Universities’ coordination; and it demands a greater shared responsibility between students, staff, institutions, and governments to make sure that the challenges we have been writing about for nearly 10 years become action points, rather than points of perennial concern. 

What matters is that educational opportunities help refugees find freedom. The importance of freedom and education for refugees cannot be overstated. For refugees, freedom means more than just the absence of physical confinement. It also means the ability to live a life of dignity and autonomy. Education is a key enabler of this kind of freedom. 

A free and fair society should ensure that all qualified members have access to quality and relevant higher education. By providing refugees with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, education empowers them to build a better future for themselves, and their families. 

From left to right: Dr Tebeje Molla is a Senior Lecturer and ARC Future Fellow in the School of Education at Deakin University, Australia. Dr Sally Baker is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at UNSW. The Hon. Prof. Verity Firth is Pro Vice-Chancellor (Social Justice & Inclusion) and Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice and Inclusion at UTS.

First nation-wide research of how people seeking asylum in Australia are affected by our higher ed policies

In the last few years, great strides have been made regarding access to higher education for people seeking asylum in Australia. Advocates have worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the educational aspirations and needs of this vulnerable and frequently overlooked cohort of learners. Scholarships and fee-waivers have been introduced at many institutions, and our research shows that over 204 people seeking asylum are currently studying at 23 universities across the country, thanks to scholarships that meet their full tuition fees.

However, there are many more people seeking asylum for whom higher education remains an elusive dream. Funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE), our team – Dr Lisa Hartley (Curtin University), A/Prof Caroline Fleay (Curtin University), Dr Sally Baker (University of New South Wales), Dr Rachel Burke (University of Newcastle), and Rebecca Field (Curtin University) – undertook the first nation-wide study of educational policies and practices affecting people seeking asylum in Australia.

We spoke with current and former students from asylum seeker backgrounds, as well as those hoping to participate in higher education. We also interviewed community advocates, caseworkers, university staff, and academics whose individual efforts – while often unacknowledged – are critical to educational access for people seeking asylum.

While it is clear that many important bridges to tertiary studies have been implemented in the last three years, there are far more barriers continuing to render higher education an impossible dream for most. This further disadvantages this already vulnerable population, diminishing their employment potential and significantly undermining positive resettlement prospects and social inclusion.

Who are people seeking asylum?

People seeking asylum have fled their country of origin due to war, religious or ethnic persecution, or other human rights violations, and have applied for international protection. For much of the past six years, approximately 30, 000 people have resided in community detention or lived in the community on temporary Bridging Visas while awaiting the processing of their claim for refugee status in Australia. If deemed eligible for protection, the Government issues refugees one of two temporary visas: a three year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a five year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). As at July 2018 there were still 12, 290 people awaiting an outcome on their claim for refugee status.

Unlike people with permanent protection, such as those offered resettlement through Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme, people seeking asylum are ineligible for a range of services. Access to higher education is a key area in which this differential eligibility for government assistance is most pronounced. School leaver Soumi Gopalakrishnan’s situation, which was recently reported in the news, illustrates the barriers to higher education confronting many people seeking asylum.

What are some of the major barriers to higher education for people seeking asylum?

Most people seeking asylum in Australia have study rights. However, the temporary nature of their visa means the only pathway to higher education is to be granted admission as a full-fee paying international student. This pathway is entirely financially prohibitive for almost all people seeking asylum, particularly as they are ineligible for government assistance to finance tertiary education.

Further, recipients of Special Benefit (the welfare payment available to people seeking asylum) who wish to pursue higher education can only continue to receive income support if they are undertaking a vocational course that is likely to enhance their employment prospects and can be completed in 12 months or less. The recent removal of Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) income for people deemed ‘job ready’ also illustrates that people seeking asylum are expected to support themselves if they wish to study.

Therefore, even if a person is awarded one of the few scholarships covering the entire cost of university fees, without an accompanying living allowance, they are still required to work long hours to afford basic living expenses, seriously detracting from their ability to focus on their education.

Some students have told us that succeeding in their studies meant having to forego work (and therefore food and stable accommodation) to focus their attention on completing assignments. In these circumstances, charitable organisations such as the Red Cross are often the only means of assistance.

The temporary visa status of people seeking asylum also creates difficulties in accessing enabling courses, government-funded English language classes, and other supports for successful transition into higher education that are available to other students. Ineligibility for these important pathways and services significantly disadvantages people seeking asylum, many of whom have experienced interrupted schooling and require specific forms of academic language and literacies support.

Therefore, should they manage to attend university, people seeking asylum – one of the most educationally disadvantaged populations in Australia – are required to succeed with the least amount of support.

The stresses of adjusting to academic life, financial difficulties, and living in an extremely precarious and uncertain situation have a significant, negative impact on students’ mental health. These concerns, combined with ongoing trauma from past experiences, separation from family, and mental health impacts of detention weigh heavily and act as further barriers to higher education, making it difficult to focus on study.

What are some of the bridges to higher education for people seeking asylum?

University scholarships that cover full tuition fees and provide living allowances and other supports are essential bridges to higher education for people seeking asylum. In the last three years, community organisations have been instrumental in advocating for scholarships and providing support to people seeking asylum as they navigate complex application and admission processes. Community advocates have provided these bridges to higher education within an extremely changeable political and policy context, and with ever decreasing funding.

However, as stated, if a university does not offer a scholarship that meets the full cost of tuition, this bridge effectively becomes a barrier to accessing higher education. The cost of living and lack of support significantly reduces the possibility of successfully balancing work and study within the context of severe financial vulnerability.

Many students attempting to study while seeking asylum express a preference for part-time degrees that incorporate part-time employment opportunities and subsidised accommodation. Part-time employment assists with professional networking and workplace experience – essential for successful resettlement in Australia – while allowing students to meet living expenses.

Some universities also offer alternative entrance pathways, such as enabling programs or diploma pathways. These programs, which often have a reduced study load, are proving to be important bridges to successful transition to university, providing the opportunity to develop familiarity with academic practices, language, and literacies requirements, as well as insight into disciplinary content.

Bespoke academic assistance that acknowledges the diverse educational needs and background experiences of people seeking asylum and is provided throughout their studies must to be accompanied by ongoing and highly accessible mental health support offered by practitioners with experience working with people from asylum-seeking backgrounds.

Having a dedicated university staff member to support students who are seeking asylum to successfully transition into and though their studies is also essential. Students often require assistance to navigate siloed university departments where welfare services, admissions, international student departments, and faculties do not always have opportunities to communicate. Ideally, a dedicated support person will have lived experience of seeking asylum.

Moving forward: strengthening bridges and reducing barriers to education for people seeking asylum

Federal Government policies underpinning the most significant barriers that people seeking asylum face in accessing higher education need to be addressed, including the requirement for permanent protection visas to be issued to all who have been recognised as a refugee. Ensuring all people seeking asylum and refugees have access to income and student supports, on par with other Australians, is key.

Ensuring that people with lived experience of seeking asylum inform policy and practice is also essential. Providing effective support requires first-hand understanding of the unique circumstances of living on a temporary visa.

The determination and commitment of people seeking asylum to their studies, while living in situations of extreme uncertainty and receiving minimal supports compared with most other students in Australia, needs to be lauded. The university and community organisations responsible for implementing scholarships and other supports are also to be commended.

However, change is needed to properly ensure these students receive the assistance necessary for their access, retention, participation, and success in academic endeavours and in their resettlement in Australia. University and community sector advocacy efforts directed at realising this are critical.

For more information on the first nation-wide investigation of educational policies and practices affecting people seeking asylum in Australia please see People Seeking Asylum in Australia: Access and Support in Higher Education or contact Dr Lisa Hartley, Chief Investigator:


Rachel Burke is an Applied Linguist and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) educator and researcher in the School of Education, at the University of Newcastle. Rachel takes a critical discourse analytic approach. Her work focuses on linguistically and culturally diverse educational contexts, the critical examination of policyscape, structural mechanisms for inclusion/exclusion, and praxis-driven approaches to languages and literacies education.


Sally Baker is a Lecturer of Social Research and Policy in the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She is affiliated with the Forced Migration Research Network (FMRN@UNSW). Sally’s research explores issues of equity in higher education, with her research interests including higher education equity and language policy, the educational experiences of students from refugee and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, academic literacies, transitions, and methodological issues and longitudinal qualitative research. She is currently working on a National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education-funded project which is examining university and community responses to higher education and people seeking asylum with colleagues from Curtin University and the University of Newcastle. Sally is also the Co-Chair of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group, which is hosted by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network.

Further information regarding university scholarships in Australia for people seeking asylum, see Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA).  

Rachel Burke and Sally Baker will be presenting on this research at the 2018 AARE Conference on Wednesday 5th December. The title of their presentation is Barriers to Higher Education Confronting People Seeking Asylum: Investigating the Impact of University and Community Responses’