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Participants in front of Powerpoint slide on discussion pointsIn recent years, there has been growing concern about the barriers to higher education for people seeking asylum. Although some universities are responding by offering these people scholarships, more support is needed to overcome other challenges.

On 15 November 2017, the Melbourne Social Equity Institute hosted the National Symposium: Seeking Asylum and Higher Education. This brought together 25 people with lived experience of seeking asylum and 40 representatives from Australian universities and community organisations to discuss concerns, practices, ideas and hopes for the future.

This report highlights the main advocacy priorities and suggestions raised by participants.

Policy on people seeking asylum

There are currently around 30,000 people seeking asylum living in Australia awaiting their claims to be processed. This group of people, living either in detention centres or in the community, can only get temporary protection. If the Department of Home Affairs determines that they are refugees, they are will receive one of two temporary visas: a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV).

Unlike refugees on humanitarian visas, those on TPVs and SHEVs do not have access to Federal Government programs designed to assist students with financial support for tertiary study. These supports include Higher Education Loans Programs (HELP), Commonwealth Supported Places and concession rates. Instead, they are required to pay international student rates that most cannot afford. This prevents most of them from accessing higher education, and in turn, makes it harder for them to settle.

In a recent development, those on bridging visas who are full-time students are losing access to income support and casework, and will be expected to support themselves financially in their studies. Further, people on temporary protection visas will lose access to Centrelink benefits if they are enrolled full-time on a course for longer than 12 months.

In the last two years, partly as a result of the Refugee Council of Australia’s Education for All campaign, State and Territory governments and universities have sought to address these issues with fee waiver scholarships, part-time jobs attached to scholarships, bursaries, travel cards, and computers. Victoria, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, and South Australia have offered various support, including concession rates for diploma courses.

Key issues and possible solutions

In the symposium, participants with lived experience of seeking asylum spoke of challenges in accessing higher education in Australia. This included:

  • their treatment as international students
  • an associated level of ‘fear’ in completing the complicated application process
  • lack of ‘front-end’ knowledge from student services, and
  • limitations on government-funded English language courses and income support.

Students who participated also spoke of the positive impact of key people, such as a trusted broker or friend. One participant commented :

I am an example of what the community can do… when the community takes responsibility for others.

Representatives from universities and community organisations shared their own examples of good practice and common challenges. These showed similarities and differences in institutional responses, as well as the need for collaborative spaces.

Responses by universities or community organisations

  • Providing full or part fee-waiver scholarships
  • Providing a living allowance/ stipends
  • Facilitating the acquisition of work on campus
  • Employing a support/liaison offer to support people on scholarships throughout their studies
  • Offering subsidized accommodation options
  • Offering up to a year of English language tuition or an alternative pathway program to meet admissions criteria
  • Waiving IELTS fees or providing funding to cover the cost of taking the IELTS test (so as to meet English language proficiency requirements), and
  • Providing funds to cover course costs, such as textbooks and study equipment.

 Further details of the symposium can be found here.

Participants also discussed the following four topics in smaller groups, based on a discussion paper sent prior to the symposium.

  • 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?

Some of the main issues and suggestions are summarised below.

Improving scholarships

Several universities across Australia provide scholarships to people on bridging visas and temporary visas, which cover the entire cost of tuition. These universities include Deakin University, Monash University, Macquarie University, University of Western Australia, Charles Sturt University, University of Tasmania, La Trobe University, Australian National University, University of Canberra, University of New England, Curtin University, University of Adelaide, University of Canberra, RMIT, Swinburne University, University of Notre Dame and Western Sydney University.

Some universities also mentioned offering stipends to people seeking asylum with little or no access to government funded income.

Discussions also focused on finding alternative and sustainable forms of funding to expand the current number of scholarships being offered, including repurposing of funds, staff giving, and alumni.

Key suggestions

  • People with lived experience need to be given opportunities to inform policy and practice
  • Continued lobbying for an end to TPVs and SHEVs
  • Continued lobbying of universities to offer more scholarships while recognizing their financial limitations
  • Part-time and flexible options for scholarship holders need to made available
  • The need to elevate the powerful stories of people who have received scholarships and have contributed their skills to the Australian community
  • Make a template for a standard business case around the cost-opportunity analysis of people in education versus people stuck in limbo/welfare/low-status jobs, and
  • Need to disseminate research findings and insights more loudly. 

Financial support

Social security

The main form of social security payment for refugees with temporary protection visas is Special Benefit. People can only continue to receive Special Benefit if they are taking a tertiary course to enhance their employment prospects,  which can be completed in 12 months or shorter. This seriously limits participation in higher education as it means people may not feel able to accept scholarships from a university, as they will be forced to balance work and study.

This is compounded by a recent policy development in which people seeking asylum on bridging visas are losing income and casework support.

Housing

All participants identified the cost of suitable and safe housing as a key issue. Participants discussed cases of student homelessness, including the case of a student camping on the beach while studying. Other discussed homestay as a potential option that can create a sense of ‘belonging’ to the community, but which comes with some risks.

Basic living costs

One participant described their daily living as a student as ‘eat, survive, study’. Some institutions have offered various kinds of support, including stipends and living allowances. Others have sought to get around the policy hurdle by offering successive 12-month courses, allowing someone to continue to receive Special Benefit. Other people have been able to continue their course on a part-time basis, allowing them to receive income support.

Main suggestions

  • The Federal Government should ensure all people seeking asylum and refugees have access to income support
  • Universities should be encouraged to either subsidise or donate accommodation for the students who receive scholarships
  • Opportunities for students for employment on campus should be provided, and
  • Safe, suitable housing could be built into any scholarships offered and organised for students by the universities.

Improving application processes

A number of students noted having extreme difficulties in applying for scholarships for a variety of reasons, including being unaware of the scholarship and course requirements, and being turned away from frontline staff who were unaware of such scholarships. Some found it difficult to understand the advice they were given and the eligibility criteria.

The online application processes created hurdles for many, who found them difficult to navigate or did not have access to digital technology.

One participant identified difficulty in finding information regarding scholarships for postgraduate studies, as most scholarships are available for the undergraduate level.

Key suggestions

  • The need for greater collaboration and coordination between universities to streamline the application process across institutions and ensure parity of information shared with potential applicants
  • Universities could consider offering trained mentors for the application process
  • Holistic approach to support with an investment and commitment from all faculties and divisions within the University
  • Universities should offer the opportunity to apply face-to-face, and
  • University staff with roles relating to scholarships, equity and admissions should be trained on the specific needs of students.

Support at university

Once a person is offered a scholarship, new challenges include navigating the university system and campus, understanding course requirements, and purchasing books and other study equipment. Some universities have begun to offer stipends to cover these costs.

Another barrier may be personal support, in terms of developing connections with other students, departments and  within the university. Some universities have developed peer-mentoring programs to provide support.

Key suggestions

  • More information needs to be collected about the numbers of students seeking asylum who struggle with ongoing health and disability and the official structures in place to support such students
  • Advocacy should be taken at a national, state/government and institutional level to ensure people with disabilities can access the same study supports as domestic students with disabilities
  • On-campus mental health support, counselling services as well as career advisors need to be made more visible, accessible and informed
  • Provide assistance with receiving study materials. For example, former students could donate their materials to scholarship recipients enrolling in their units, or stipends could be offered
  • Universities should establish a personal connection when studies first commence eg welcome event, phone call or meeting of welcome
  • A mentor or an identified person who can offer support and encouragement could be identified for scholarship holders
  • Find community champions—those with relevant expertise in the community—and link them up with students as mentors
  • Universities could establish and support a network of previous and current scholarship recipients for mentoring and support
  • Academic support via a mentoring program is needed
  • Academic support could be provided through a peer mentorship scheme, comprising earlier scholarship recipients, so as to foster feelings of belonging and social inclusion, and to aid navigation and orientation, and
  • Universities could offer paid workplace experience to help establish networks and enable access to employment after university.

Moving forward

Immediate actions

  • Lobby internally for funds and supports for students who will lose access to SRSS
  • Liaise with counterparts in other universities about the approaches being used to lobby internally for funds and supports for students who will lose access to their SRSS payments
  • Read the PowerPoint document outlining what supports universities who attended the symposium were providing and advise of any errors or omissions
  • Forward these documents to colleagues who did not attend the symposium
  • Identify key people/ decision makers in your institution who could be interviewed for the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education-funded research project led by Lisa Hartley, Sally Baker, Caroline Fleay and Rachel Burke

Interim actions

  • Lobbying internally for more scholarship and supports for people seeking asylum
  • Creation of good practice examples
  • Working group for admissions and scholarships to sit within the Refugee Education Special Interest Group
  • Coordinating with advocacy groups such as Academics for Refugees on a national campaign for a coordinated advocacy approach, and
  • Continued lobbying for an end to TPVs and SHEVs and for refugees to be granted permanent visas.

Author: Holly Parsons