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Increased support for refugee students to transition to higher education

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Educators and providers will have access to a new set of tools and resources to better support students from refugee backgrounds pursue higher education, following a national research project that examined students’ transition experiences.

Approximately half of Australia’s refugee intake are aged between 15 and 19 years of age, an age when education is a priority.

Led by the University of Newcastle, in partnership with Curtin University and Macquarie University, the three-year Office of Learning and Teaching research project identified a range of challenges this unique group of students face in the quest to achieve further education.

The research project examined a number of programs that aim to better prepare students from refugee backgrounds to transition effectively to higher education through a range of methods, such as enhancing English speaking and comprehension skills, expanding cultural skills and building academic literacy.

University of Newcastle Associate Professor Seamus Fagan said the findings demonstrated that students from refugee backgrounds encountered a vastly different experience to the traditional idea of transitioning into tertiary education.

“The findings challenge the idea of ‘the transition’ into higher education being the same for everyone. Tracking the experiences of these students highlighted a complex web of circumstances connected not only to English language proficiency, culture and education, but also settlement, family, community and belonging,” he said.

“At the centre of many of the challenges faced by students from refugee backgrounds are unspoken, implied assumptions by policy-makers, institutions and educators; coupled with a lack of recognition of student strengths.

“These intense demands contributed to false starts, pauses in study and movements in and out of tertiary education — strongly influenced by age, family responsibilities, clarity of future vision, support networks, and understanding of what higher education entails,” Associate Professor Fagan said.

In 2016, Australia had more than 3,500 students from refugee backgrounds undertaking tertiary study. Currently, in NSW alone, there are 8000 students from refugee backgrounds moving through the schooling system, a group that is increasing by 1500 students each year.

“It is vital that we provide this group of students, who have unique circumstances, the most suitable support to enable them to competently progress to higher education.”

Professor of International Health, Jaya Dantas, from Curtin University’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine who led the WA project, said the research highlighted that newly arrived refugees should be notified of English language programs available to them as a matter of priority by the Departments of Education and Training, and Social Services.

“This project documented that there is a need for both students and adults from refugee backgrounds to have access to English language programs for a longer period of time to ensure a smooth transition into mainstream high schools and higher education and this should be supported by the Department of Education and Training,” Professor Dantas said.

Based on the outcomes, the research team developed a set of best practice recommendations, curriculum and resources for program providers who engage with students from refugee backgrounds, including universities, TAFEs and schools – available on the project website:

The team produced a comprehensive national audit of the pathways, programs and support into higher education available for students from refugee backgrounds. The resource, designed for both practitioners and students, is hosted on the Refugee Council of Australia website.

Engagement in this project also contributed to the establishment of a national Refugee Education Special Interest Group, also hosted by the Refugee Council of Australia, to create greater collaboration and networks between institutions, practitioners and providers to achieve better outcomes for students of refugee backgrounds.

“Through providing the necessary support and actively eliminating barriers to successful educational experiences and outcomes we will be benefiting all students and improving the future outlook for the nation,” Associate Professor Fagan said.

The study, ‘(Re)claiming social capital: Improving language and cultural pathways for students from refugee backgrounds into Australian higher education’, can be accessed on the project website

The project was funded by the Australian Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching.

**This media release was prepared by the University of Newcastle in collaboration with Curtin University and Macquarie University**

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