Speaker in front of slide introducing symposiumOn 15 November 2017, the National Symposium: Seeking Asylum and Higher Education was held at Melbourne University. The symposium brought together 25 people with lived experience of seeking asylum and 40 representatives from Australian universities and community organisations. They met to talk about how to work together to improve the opportunities in higher education for people seeking asylum.

The event was co-convened by Dr Lisa Hartley (Centre for Human Rights, Curtin University) and Dr Sally Baker (School of Social Sciences, UNSW). Asher Hirsch (Refugee Council of Australia) and Karen Dunwoodie (Monash University) provided invaluable support. They were supported by a wider steering group comprising colleagues from the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network (MYAN), the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), the Centre for Human Rights at Curtin University and Melbourne University.

Participants in front of Powerpoint slide on discussion pointsAn inspiring day

The day was designed to listen to and learn from the lived experience of students seeking asylum. As well, participants learnt from each other the experiences of community organisations and universities which had already developed programs and interventions to support students seeking asylum with their education.

It was an inspiring and collaborative day. It began with three students (Fatema Hemmat-Doust, Muhammad Majid, and Arif Hazara) discussing their experiences as people seeking asylum and from refugee backgrounds.  Other people who had experience of seeking asylum also shared their experiences throughout the day.

They spoke of many challenges, including their treatment as international students, and the complicated application process. They spoke of the limitations on government-funded English language courses  and income supports. However, students often spoke of the importance of key people, such as a trusted broker or friend, in enabling their participation.

Universities and community organisations also shared examples of good practice as well as common challenges.  These presentations showed both similarities and differences in institutional responses. They also reminded participants of how many responses had been developed in isolation, and the need for collaborative spaces.

Participants also discussed in small groups four topics:

  • What can be done to further encourage and support universities to continue and expand their scholarship programs?
  • What can be done to support people who lose their income support?
  • How can universities improve their application processes and the support they offer to those wishing to apply?
  • What support can be provided to people once they start university?

What now?

At the end of the day, Asher Hirsch and Caroline Fleay (Curtin University) facilitated a robust discussion on the creation of a national movement to support people seeking asylum to access higher education. A working group within the Refugee Education Special Interest Group was created to foster collaboration between universities offering scholarships.

Another suggestion was to develop together tools (such as guidance for admissions personnel) building on the experiences of participants.  There was also discussion of establishing a group led by students to speak about the lived experience of studying while seeking asylum.

Learn more

You can read a summary of the main issues discussed at the symposium in the discussion paper available below. The report of the symposium is also now available.

The symposium organisers will also develop an advocacy report as a resource for talking about these issues.

A research project on the symposium’s topic, ‘People seeking asylum: Access and support in higher education‘, is also being led by Dr Lisa Hartley, Dr Sally Baker, Dr Caroline Fleay and Dr Rachel Burke (University of Newcastle). It is funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. The project will explore the complex barriers to higher education that people seeking asylum face in Australia, and evaluate university and community-level support for their participation. A report on the research is due to be published at the end of 2018.


Special thanks to:

  • participants who donated money to enable students to be present on the day
  • Curtin’s Centre for Human Rights for co-sponsoring the event
  • the Melbourne Social Equity Institute for hosting the event, and
  • the Sisters of Mercy for their generous donation.

Thank you also to the Salvation Army Intercultural Ministries and especially to Captain Manikya Mera and her wonderful team who prepared and delivered the delicious food for our event. Mera works alongside her team in this little catering start-up, to help people re-establish their livelihoods. Please feel free to email educationsig@refugeecouncil.org.au  if you would like to use Mera and her team to cater for your next event.