(Re)Claiming social capital: improving language and cultural pathways for students from refugee backgrounds into Australian higher education

23 May 2018

In the past two decades, Australian universities and schools have received increasing numbers of students from refugee backgrounds (SfRBs). These students have been from the Former Yugoslav Republic (Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo), West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia), East and Central Africa (South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo) and now the Middle East (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan) (Earnest et al., 2010; Taylor & Sidhu, 2012; Woods, 2009).

Approximately half of Australia’s refugee intake are aged between 15 and 19 years, an age when education is a priority (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2017). Furthermore, there is a paucity of research that addresses the educational, social and cultural expectations and experiences of SfRBs in higher education, and transition, especially those who were educated and held status in their own countries and who are now looking to gain educational and economic capital in Australia. Given these factors, it is of local, national and international significance to explore SfRBs’ movements into the Australian higher education sector and to develop programs and strategies to support SfRBs to participate meaningfully and achieve meaningful success in their studies.

This project comprised three sub-projects undertaken by the three partner institutions: The University of Newcastle, Macquarie University and Curtin University. Each partner examined a different ‘pathway’ with three different ‘starting points’ from which SfRBs might commence their higher education journey. The University of Newcastle examined a technical and further education Adult Migrant English Program Tertiary Preparation Certificate, Macquarie University examined students at High Schools who attended the LEAP (Learning, Education, Aspiration and Participation) Macquarie Mentoring (Refugee Mentoring) Program, and Curtin University examined the departure point of high-school-based intensive English centres. All three programs aim to enable SfRBs to enhance their English speaking and comprehension skills and prepare them for further high school and undergraduate study. Key areas of focus for this study include equity and higher education, transition and pathways, reclaiming ‘social capital’ through participation in higher education, and language and cultural barriers to meaningful participation for SfRBs.

Key findings:

The findings and recommendations from this project are situated within an understanding that the trajectories and experiences of each student from a refugee background in Australia—and internationally—are both unique and overlapping. By tracking and tracing these trajectories and experiences a complex web of interwoven themes connected not only to language, culture and education, but to settlement, family, community and belonging, has been uncovered.

Findings challenge the idea of ‘the transition’ into higher education (as a ritualised and normative set of experiences); instead, the data suggest that transition is strongly influenced by a student’s age, familial responsibilities, clarity of future vision (professional/career aspiration), support networks, and understanding of what higher education entails (in terms of the time and space needed to undertake higher education studies). While the participants expressed their desires to ‘work hard’ to fulfil their goals and carry on with their lives, they do this within educational and settlement contexts that persistently, yet unintentionally, place challenges before them. Few students took a linear pathway from each of the ‘departure points’; rather, the ‘norm’ was false starts, missteps, pauses and attrition, but all underpinned by a desire to return to higher education when the conditions were ‘right’. The findings suggest there were disconnections between the participants’ and the academy’s cultural understandings of education and the practices (including temporal and spatial practices) that facilitate successful study in Western education systems.

Unsurprisingly, English language proficiency featured prominently in students’ accounts of the difficulties they experienced in Australian tertiary education. Students’ English proficiency can negatively impact on their overall learning experience. In addition, for many students, both Australian-born and from refugee backgrounds, understanding and uncovering the ‘hidden’ curriculum of a particular educational context such as higher education is challenging. The availability, accessibility and use of face-to-face support was reported by many participants across the three sites of study as significant in the development of not only academic and language practices, but also in the development of social and cultural networks. A significant challenge is ‘time’ in many of its guises: the imperative to ‘make up’ for lost time and the converse lack of time to develop appropriate language and academic practices, timelimited assessment procedures that invisibilise the labour of linguistic translation, and inflexible scheduling of academic programs and settlement obligations.

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978-1-76051-464-8 (PDF)
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