Educating young refugees and asylum seekers the smart thing to do

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Educating young refugees and asylum seekers the smart thing to do - LS.jpg

Educating young asylum seekers would allow them to contribute more to the community. Photo: Joe Armao

Sandy Gifford and Peter Mares
This article originally appeared in The Age.

On October 21 The Age reported on the case of Ali*, a VCE student who faces a far more uncertain future than most of his contemporaries. This is an anxious time for all year 12 students as they worry about doing sufficiently well in their exams to get into their preferred course. For refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas, however, education stops with their final exam.

Ali is far from alone. The exact number of asylum seekers and refugees in the final year of high school is difficult to determine, but we know there are more than 4000 children on bridging visas or in community detention in Australia. Through our networks, we are aware of many students who, like Ali, can only dream of further study after they complete high school.

Mohamed* is in year 12 at a state high school. He has loved science from a young age and cherishes the hope of being an engineer. His subjects include physics, chemistry, maths methods and English – his fifth language, and one he speaks fluently, although he has lived in Australia for less than three years and spent some of that time in detention.

Despite his intellectual gifts, Mohamed is deeply disheartened and questioning the point of studying hard for his final exams. As an asylum seeker on a bridging visa, he will need to pay the full fees of an international student if he wants to undertake further study in Australia. This will not change, even if he is eventually recognised as a refugee. Because Mohamed arrived by boat, he will only be granted a temporary protection visa – a visa that denies him access to university entrance, unless he pays up-front fees. Mohamed and his family have no hope of finding the tens of thousands of dollars required.

Mohamed's sister Sherene* is a bright and vivacious year 11 student, who is also doing well at school, but she knows that at this time next year she will face the same roadblock.

Australia can and must do better than this. There is no logic of deterrence that can justify blighting the future of a young person in this way. It is simply wrong. Even if ethical considerations are set aside and the policy is viewed through an unfeeling prism of costs and benefits, it still makes no sense.

Mohamed, Sherene, Ali and others in similar circumstances might end up spending many years in Australia, or it might become their permanent home. Clearly, it is not only better for them, but also for our nation, if they develop their capabilities and enlarge their possibilities so they can contribute more to the community. If, for whatever reason, they return to their homeland, then at least we would be sending them back with increased skills.

Malcolm Turnbull fully understands how a good education can change an individual's life and improve society. We call on the Prime Minister to extend the HECS/HELP student loan scheme to asylum seekers and refugees on temporary visas who meet the entrance criteria for further study. To refuse to do so is to crush the hopes of youth.

There would be costs involved, but these would be outweighed by the benefits. If the student remains in Australia long term, they would pay back the loan through the tax system,  as other graduates do. Their increased wages through the higher earnings that come with further education would contribute to general revenue. Their skilled work would boost productivity and growth. If they are sent back to their homeland, or return voluntarily, we can convert the debt into international aid and regard it as part of our contribution to rebuilding efforts in war-torn countries.

We hope Turnbull will see sense on this, but universities cannot wait for government to take the lead. Just as clinicians at the Royal Children's Hospital have given potent expression to their professional ethics by refusing to discharge asylum-seeker children into the health-destroying conditions of immigration detention, so staff at Australian universities must stand up for the rights of young people to increase their knowledge and skills and expand their horizons. We must insist that our institutions develop a scheme to provide supported places to eligible refugees and asylum seekers, whether for university study, a TAFE course, or an apprenticeship.

We are heartened that our own university, Swinburne, is doing its best to offer scholarships to individual asylum seekers and refugees when particular cases are brought to its attention, but a reliance on individual lobbying efforts risks being highly selective. Those without a champion will miss out, so we need a fairer, more systematic approach.

There could even be a dash of far-sighted self-interest in this. Imagine that a young Mohamed or Sherene gets a start from a university scholarship and then, like so many past migrants who have come to Australia as refugees, goes on to become a successful and wealthy entrepreneur. Isn't it highly likely that in future decades they will respond generously to approaches from the university to become a benefactor?

But we don't need pragmatic reasons to do what is right. Education is a gift that can never be taken away and that always has shared benefits. Australia should open the door to higher education opportunities for these young people, regardless of where they will make their futures.

*Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Sandy Gifford is a professor of anthropology and refugee studies and Peter Mares is an adjunct fellow, both at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.