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Chainlink Ceiling

20 February 2016

Funding barriers at The University of Melbourne are preventing refugees and asylum seekers from pursuing an education.

A recent report by the Refugee Council of Australia has found asylum seekers and refugees are blocked out of the education system due to funding restrictions. It paints a damning picture of tertiary institutions’ funding allocations. This is particularly unflattering for The University of Melbourne, who is yet to announce any specific funding or scholarships for refugees and asylum seekers pursuing qualifications.

Deputy Provost and Deputy Vice­Chancellor International at The University of Melbourne, Professor Susan Elliott, blames the current lack of governmental support for the underfunding of such programs.

“With hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Europe and elsewhere, how do universities respond to their needs when usual funding mechanisms are not available?” She asks.

The report, released in December 2015, finds refugees holding temporary protection visas, as well as asylum seekers holding bridging visas, are ineligible for government subsidisation. Without access to financial support, asylum seekers in the middle of having their claims processed are required to apply as international students, paying tens of thousands of dollars in upfront fees, even though their visas provide them with the right to study. Unable to secure Commonwealth Supported Places, FEE­HELP or HECS­HELP schemes, or receive income support, the opportunity to complete tertiary or TAFE qualifications is severely hindered.

Nicholas Haslam, the director of Researchers for Asylum Seekers, believes universities need to do more, and that allowing refugee communities to participate in the higher education system is an opportunity “that will pay great dividends for social engagement”.

“Universities also need to see it as their responsibility to open their doors to displaced people and remove barriers to participation. They can’t wait for governments to take the first step, but should invest their own resources in enhancing the access and involvement of refugee students,” he said.

“Enabling refugees to find meaningful work and economic independence is crucial. Education plays a key role in… enabling refugees to engage and participate fully in their new society.”

Eleven Australian universities offer scholarships tailored to refugees and asylum seekers; The University of Melbourne is not one of those institutions. Rather, potential refugee and asylum seeker students requesting financial support must apply for the International Undergraduate Scholarship, valued at $56,000 AUD.

While this would cover the cost of a full degree, the likelihood of receiving this scholarship is slim as it is open to most international students, with only fifty spots on offer. Further requirements include that students must have successfully completed their final year of high school with ‘excellent results’ and are a citizen of a country other than Australia or New Zealand.

Many refugees cannot fulfil these prerequisites due to the circumstances of their migration. The plight of a young woman pursuing higher education is detailed in the report:

“I lost my dad, I lost my brother and I couldn’t stay anymore. … I’m not allowed to work, there are no funds for me to study… I escaped from my country because I couldn’t go to school. The only thing I wish to have was a better life, a safe life, to be educated, and I couldn’t have that.”

Dr Les Terry, a research fellow at The University of Melbourne’s Refugee Studies Program, believes having one scholarship for all international students is incredibly problematic.

“It is important to note that there will be great variation in the education background that exist both within and across [refugee] communities,” he explains.

Aiming to highlight the disparity, the Melbourne Refugee Studies Program and the Centre for the Study of Higher Education are currently looking into the unmet needs in refugee background communities and ways of making the system more accessible.

“Many refugee background people will enter Australia with high levels of education while others will have faced major barriers in their schooling and therefore have different needs”, he said.

While The University of Melbourne’s response to the findings is still being considered, it acknowledges change is inevitable in order to support these potential students.

“Though the timing of the report’s release means it is still being fully analysed, it’s clear that this is an issue which needs consideration by many countries and change over the next five years seems very likely”, said Professor Elliot.

Currently the university offers support services such as financial advice, counselling and English language support to all students.