Supporting refugee students in higher education

3 December 2015

An Australian-first symposium is looking to lead the way in investigating methods to improve the higher education experience for university students from a refugee background.

University of Newcastle Australia
Find out more about the University of Newcastle

Led by the Centre of Excellence for Equity in Higher Education (CEEHE) the symposium, Transforming Through Praxis, was held at the University of Newcastle (UON) on Nov. 20.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young opened the event, which brought together practitioners from institutions across Australia to share their knowledge and identify best-practices for universities to adopt to support these students.
Driven by the results of two research projects from the University of Newcastle, the symposium addressed the lack of specialised support for students from a refugee background undertaking study in higher education in Australia.
Dr Sally Baker, Research Associate for CEEHE, said the symposium is a real opportunity to combine research and practice to identify ways that universities can remove some of the barriers students from these backgrounds face.
“We know from our practice and research that universities can be experienced as inflexible and impenetrable systems for students from refugee backgrounds. Accessing face-to-face academic support often means navigating complex online booking systems. These systems act as barriers for students who prefer, and actively seek out, social connectivity in their learning,” said Dr Baker.
One issue that can lead to a lack of support is the difficultly in identifying students from a refugee background. Traditional methods of data collection have a narrow focus, and can exclude students on different visas.
For example, “The UON admission database identifies only 42 Humanitarian Entrant Background students holding permanent visas, but there may be as many as 400 students from a refugee background studying across all campuses at University of Newcastle,” Dr Baker said.
With the recent announcement by Newcastle City Council that the city has put its hand up to help resettle some of the 12,000 Syrian refugees this conversation is timely and will help steer Australia in a more intelligent direction.
The symposium also featured a panel of students from a refugee background who shared their experiences, along with a photographic exhibition by Associate Professor Jaya Earnest from Curtin University.
Research and practice workshops at the symposium covered a wide range of topics:
Knowing the language and/or knowing the ropes
This school-university collaboration explored the links between language, ‘hot knowledges’ and educational aspirations. Students from the Waratah Technology Campus of Callaghan College in Newcastle are working in partnership with local education and community-based organisations to facilitate access to a range of knowledges which can support refugee students. *Hot knowledge involves navigating structures and networks that relies on student experience and cultural capital.
A best practice teaching and learning model for refugee students
Refugee students from an African background now make up a large proportion of those settled in Australia, and this changing cultural background provides new challenges for Australian communities and schools. These students have a wide variation in cultural and educational experiences, despite many coming from the same country. What support is needed for these students?
Transitioning from TAFE into higher education – managing expectations
This workshop examined ways to support refugee students from TAFE courses to higher education degrees. One of the most significant challenges practioners face is how expectations vary from TAFE to university.
Supporting realistic university aspirations for culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) cohorts
How can universities best support students from a CALD background to ensure they’re prepared for university and have pathways to success? Is mandatory English language proficiency testing effective? What are the pros and cons. This workshop examined the ways forward.
CALD Refugee Students and the Economics of their education
For the past 15 years, Toowoomba, a regional city in Queensland, has participated in Australian Government Refugee Settlement schemes. Over this time, many new residents have wanted to improve their language and skills through higher education. However, while successful, the funding for the programs which benefit these students is often under threat. How can we empower these students and help them move forward?
After the symposium there is momentum to move forward and create a national special interest group to take up the challenges and move ideas forward and work collectively and collaboratively to develop better understandings about our students and their needs, and to lobby for sector-wide action to foreground the importance of language and cultural awareness so as to improve teaching and learning practices.