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Researching pathways into higher education with students from refugee backgrounds: Exploring the conceptual, methodological and ethical challenges

Sally Baker Jaya Dantas Mary Taiwo

We are thrilled to have been selected to represent the Australian Association for Research in Education as a featured symposium at this year’s BERA conference. We believe that the selection of our symposium foregrounds the growing and increased urgency in education of the imperative to consider the needs of students whose language, cultural and educational backgrounds are at odds with dominant forms of knowing, being and doing. In particular, in addition to thinking about how our implicit assumptions about who might be in our classrooms can create significant challenges, our symposium pushes us to think more broadly about our scholarship with vulnerable and marginalised students, yet focusing on their resilience and strength. In foregrounding students from refugee backgrounds as inhabiting many of the characteristics of many highly disadvantaged groups (such as unfamiliarity with the language, practices and culture of higher education), we seek to remind our colleagues of the challenges that many of our students face when it comes to transition, and language and culture of education systems. As Bourdieu, Passeron and de Saint Martin, (1996) remind us, “Academic language is …no one’s mother tongue, not even that of children of the cultivated classes” (p. 8).

At a time of unprecedented global migration, with over 65.6 million people having been forcibly displaced (UNHCR, 2017), and with Australia’s recent commitment to resettle an additional 12,000 Syrian humanitarian entrants, contributing robust understandings of the experiences of refugees is vital. Supported by federal funding (through the Australian government’s Office for Learning & Teaching), the research presented in the symposium, therefore, has significant implications for educators and policy-makers globally and across sectors through its impact on, and contributions to, practice, conceptual understandings, research methodologies and resources in the context of Students from Refugee Backgrounds (SfRBs).

Our symposium considers the theoretical, methodological and ethical underpinnings of research that explores pathways into and through higher education for SfRBs. The insights offered in this symposium have emerged from a multi-sited, longitudinal, research project, investigating transitions of SfRBs into/ through higher education from different pathways. The project examines three different contexts, educational pathways, localities, and groups of students: a Vocational Education & Training (VET)–enabling–undergraduate pathway in regional Australia; a school–undergraduate pathways in metropolitan NSW; and an Intensive English Centre (IEC) based at high school qualification–undergraduate pathways in Western Australia. Despite significant variation in the locations of the research sites, the ages of the participants and the types of educational provision explored, all three studies are linked by the specific focus on SfRB’s linguistic, educational, social and cultural experiences, as they transition into and through undergraduate study.

Through this symposium the three partner universities of this research project – University of Newcastle (UON), Macquarie University (MQ), and Curtin University (CU), explore the conceptual underpinnings, methodological possibilities, ethical implications and challenges of engaging in research with different cohorts of students from refugee backgrounds, who experience different educational departure points and live in different geographic locations.

The three objectives for the symposium are: firstly, to engage in a theoretical discussion about transition in the context of SfRBs, seeking to examine how the dominance of linear notions of ‘transition as induction’ (Gale & Parker, 2014) poorly reflects the experiences of the participants in our study. Secondly, to offer a methodological discussion of the affordances and challenges of engaging in ethnographic, longitudinal research with SfRBS as they move between educational levels while simultaneously engaging in the processes of transitioning into new cultural and linguistic spaces, both in terms of living in Australia and engaging in higher education. Thirdly, to examine the ethical considerations and concerns raised through engaging in research with SfRBs in schools, IECs, TAFE, enabling and undergraduate programs, particularly research with participants in a language that is not their mother tongue(s). In addition, the fourth paper will present the results of an Australian, national cross-sectoral audit of existing pathways to support SfRBs entering higher education (school, VET, higher education and community sectors). These findings have international significance and will help to build an international picture of what pathways are available to students from refugee backgrounds.

Our project adds to the growing body of international research that addresses the educational and sociocultural expectations and experiences of young SfRBs in the Australian context, as well as adding to the limited international literature on the experiences of adult SfRBs. In these interlinked areas, there is limited explicit theorisation of transition in the context of students who have cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Moreover, there is very little discussion of how to engage in transitions research with students undergoing the processes of resettlement and highlights the strengths and strategies of SfRBs who try to achieve against great odds.



Bourdieu, P.; Passeron, J.C.; & de Saint Martin, M. (1996). Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California.

UNHCR (2017). Figures at a Glance. [online]

Symposium details: Researching pathways into higher education with students from refugee backgrounds: Exploring the conceptual, methodological and ethical challenges – Thursday 7th September 2017, 10.05 – 11.35  FUL-107