Not There Yet

An Investigation into the Access and Participation of Students from Humanitarian Refugee Backgrounds in the Australian Higher Education System

Project Aims

This research reviews selected literature and data relating to the participation of students from refugee backgrounds in Australian higher education. While acknowledging the numerous high quality case studies that have been identified through this investigation that provide ground level snapshots on the experiences of ‘refugee students’, it is apparent that there was a dearth of ‘bigger picture’ research at a system’s level in relation to the situation of these students regarding their participation in higher education. There are substantial data held by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training which relates to the participation of refugee background students across the nation, and their enrolment patterns at particular sites, but it is clear from a survey of the literature that to date this data had not been adequately explored, even though it provides a rich source of information that can complement existing efforts of universities in developing policies and programs for the increasing number of refugee background students entering Australian universities.  

However, working within a ‘strengths-based’ approach, it is clear from the research that students from refugee background form a small but increasing proportion of the Australian higher education system who bring with them a wealth of personal skills and knowledge and who, if given the opportunity, can contribute to, as well as benefit from, the further development of a high quality socially inclusive university system.
With this context in mind, the intended purposes of this research are to:

  • review the literature in order to identify key principles and practices for engaging and supporting refugee background communities with their access to and participation in the university system;
  • address the lack of information on the levels of participation of people of refugee background in Australian higher education;
  • provide an overview of the participation of the diverse refugee background communities across the Australian higher education system;
  • identify patterns of under-representation across the university system, courses and communities;
  • encourage all Australian universities to develop better targeted and designed engagement programs for the diverse refugee background communities;
  • provide a research base for the development of comprehensive national and international responses to the issues of the participation of refugee background students in higher education.

While this study is intended to encourage discussion of issues to do with refugee background students in the national system of higher education, it is hoped that the research will provide an opportunity for the sector to reflect on the current patterns of participation of these students and encourage policy makers and practitioners to build on the very positive work that is going on across universities, particularly that which has been undertaken at particular sites where significant numbers of refugee background students have enrolled in the period under study. This inquiry is also presented as a first step in a larger research program that will identify more closely the educational aspirations and experiences of underrepresented communities in the higher education sector, as the basis for community and culturally specific ‘engagement’ initiatives.  

These findings and proposals for action may also be of interest to equity programs that ‘target’ other groups that share characteristics with students from refugee backgrounds, including first in family, low SES, mature aged students, and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups of students, though as we have pointed out the students that are the focus for this research have specific needs that arise from particular histories that cannot be easily subsumed into other equity groups, but may at certain points overlap.

Project Team

Dr Les Terry, (formerly Coordinator & Research Fellow, Melbourne Refugee Studies Program) Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Dr Ryan Naylor, (formerly at the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education) College of Science, Health and Engineering, La Trobe University

Dr Nga Nguyen, Cancer Council of Australia

Dr Alberto Rizzo, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne

With support from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education at Curtin University and Xavier Irvine (University of Melbourne).

Report (published August 2016)

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