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You are reading: Understanding access to higher education amongst humanitarian migrants in Australia

Executive summary

The significance of education participation and success amongst humanitarian migrants

Between 2006 and 2016, Australia provided settlement opportunities to more than 145,000 humanitarian migrants. Despite the breadth of services offered by government and third-sector institutions, they remain amongst the most vulnerable population groups in Australian society.

An important channel for humanitarian migrants to successfully integrate into mainstream society is participation in the local education system and, particularly, higher education. Yet individuals from humanitarian-migrant backgrounds face multiple and unique barriers to education participation and success, over and above those faced by other migrant groups.

Few studies to date have empirically examined the ties between humanitarian-migrant status and circumstances and higher education participation and attainment in Australia. This report fills this significant gap in knowledge.

Leveraging unique and under-utilised data resources

This report provides novel analyses of recent survey and administrative data sources using state-of-the-art statistical methods. It systematically queries two data sources that—despite being ideal to examine humanitarian migrants’ interactions with the Australian education system—remain severely under-utilised for such purposes.

Our initial analyses of the 2016 Australian Census and Migrants Integrated Dataset (ACMID) supplemented with the 2016 Census of Population and Housing (the Census) offer a thorough overview of the relative rates of education/higher education participation and attainment of humanitarian migrants in Australia, compared to other migrants and Australian-born people.

Our subsequent analyses of longitudinal survey data from Building a New Life in Australia (BNLA) add further nuance by providing novel evidence on the factors that act as enablers and barriers to education/higher education participation and success amongst a recent cohort of humanitarian migrants.

Both sets of analyses consider potential differences between men and women, thereby recognising that processes of education participation and success are often gendered.

New evidence on humanitarian migrants’ engagement with the Australian education system

Our comparative analyses of ACMID/Census data revealed that:

  • Despite their younger age profile overall, humanitarian migrants tended to enrol in higher education at later ages (23+ years) than other migrants and the Australian-born population and were less likely to participate in higher education during normative ages (18-21 years).
  • Humanitarian migrants were clearly disadvantaged in relation to attaining higher education qualifications: they were approximately half as likely as Australian-born individuals to have a university degree, a third as likely as family migrants and a fifth as likely as skilled migrants.
  • Humanitarian-migrant women were more likely to participate in higher education than humanitarian-migrant men, particularly in the younger age groups. However, humanitarian-migrant men caught up later in life through mature age higher education participation.

Our in-depth analyses of the humanitarian-migrant group using BNLA data revealed that:

  • While only a small share of humanitarian migrants upskilled early into their settlement period, there was an upwards trend over the five-year observation window. By the end of the fifth year, 15.4% of humanitarian migrants were enrolled in a course (other than an English-language course) and 26.1% had attained a qualification.
  • Engagement with higher education amongst humanitarian migrants in Australia is modest. Of all humanitarian migrants enrolled in any course other than an English-language course (i.e., a degree; a trade/technical course; or some other course/work experience), only 14.2% pursued a higher education option. Similarly, of all completions, only 7.6% involved a higher education course.
  • While multiple socio-demographic factors played a role in structuring humanitarian migrants’ engagement with the Australian education system, two such factors consistently predicted higher engagement: English-language proficiency and pre-arrival education level. Specifically, developing English-language proficiency and limited prior educational experiences were core barriers to education/higher education participation and success in Australia within this cohort.
  • The results revealed significant differences in the probability of studying a course, having attained a course and planning to study further by humanitarian migrants’ country of origin. Humanitarian migrants from Iraq—the largest group—exhibited comparatively poorer outcomes than humanitarian migrants from other countries.

Implications for equity policy and practice

These results bear important lessons to inform equity policy and practice. Taken together, they support the notion that humanitarian migrants experience unique barriers to participation and success in the Australian education system and should be the focus of policy attention.

The results also provide evidence of heterogeneity in education access and success with the humanitarian-migrant group, suggesting that certain subpopulations require additional, targeted support—including migrants who come from Iraq, those whose English-language proficiency is low and those who enter Australia with low or no education credentials.

These results suggest that the Australian approach to equity in higher education should be revised: humanitarian migrants should be separated from the Non-English-Speaking-Background category and consideration should be given to positioning them as a standalone equity group.

Key recommendations

Several key recommendations emerge from the findings presented in this report:

  • The Australian Government should devote increased policy attention to the engagement of humanitarian migrants with the Australian education system: humanitarian migrants not only possess lower educational credentials than other migrants and the local population, but are also less likely to participate in the Australian higher education system during normative ages.
  • Certain subpopulations within the broader humanitarian-migrant population require targeted attention from equity practitioners and policymakers, as their rates of higher education participation and attainment are particularly low. This includes:
    • humanitarian migrants from Iraq
    • humanitarian migrants with low levels of English-language proficiency
    • humanitarian migrants entering Australia with low/no educational qualifications.
  • Tailored programs aimed at eliminating core barriers to higher education participation among humanitarian migrants should be implemented, similar to initiatives targeting other groups that face ongoing disadvantage in the context of higher education. Programs should be multi-faceted, aiming at building education aspirations and foundational skills to facilitate successful participation in higher education, while also providing financial resources and access to mentoring and social support networks. Recent Government efforts to offer new migrants opportunities to improve their English-language skills are well guided.
  • The Australian Government should reconsider the placement of humanitarian migrants within the higher education equity category of “people from a Non-English Speaking Background”: the degree of higher education disadvantage experienced by humanitarian migrants is more pronounced than that experienced by other groups within this category and by members of the category overall.
  • The Australian Government should invest additional resources to gather data that can be reliably used to monitor the higher education participation and outcomes of humanitarian migrants to Australia. These could take the form of linked administrative data and/or a new longitudinal study capturing a more recent cohort of migrants than Building a New Life in Australia.
  • Researchers should devote further attention to trialling and evaluating existing programs and interventions aimed at improving higher education participation and success among humanitarian migrants, and to examining the post-graduation experiences of humanitarian migrants—including their labour-market integration.

Read the full report here.