“I should do work hard, day and night”: What can universities do to share the burden of ‘success’ with students from refugee backgrounds?

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Written by: Evonne Irwin, Shelley Gower, Dr Sally Baker and Professor Jaya Dantas

For people from refugee backgrounds, participating in education is a significant priority during and after their settlement [1,2,3] and for the last 20 years, increasing numbers of students from refugee backgrounds (SfRBs) have entered Australian universities. However, while these students willingly take on the challenge of higher education with the promise of increased employment opportunities and a ‘better’ life [4,3], the question remains: What responsibility do universities have in facilitating the progression of students from refugee backgrounds through their institutions?

In a three-year study conducted by the University of Newcastle in regional NSW, Macquarie University in NSW and Curtin University in WA, our research explored the experiences of SfRBs as they transitioned into and participated in higher education from three distinct departure points: TAFE–Enabling education; high school; and Intensive English Centres. Our longitudinal qualitative data reveal a myriad of cultural, social and institutional issues for these students alongside many instances where they expressed the desire and imperative to ‘work hard/er’ to achieve their educational goals.

I need to do more work. I need to do—I have to work—I should do work hard, day and night. (Macquarie University: undergraduate student)

Yet, at the centre of many of the challenges experienced by SfRBs are tacit and implicit assumptions by institutions and educators that misrecognise or mask the struggles SfRBs experience. That is, while SfRBs express their desire to ‘work hard’ to fulfil their educational goals, they do this within educational (and settlement) contexts that persistently, yet unintentionally, place barriers before them.

Our research found that the obligations of settlement (housing, health, work) coupled with the demands of study—including cultural, linguistic and navigational challenges as well as access to trusted people—were significant impediments to progression in higher education. For example, while higher education institutions offer many forms of academic support, those services and supports rarely address or account for the complex and overlapping experiences of SfRBs including possible trauma, potential pre-literate backgrounds and multiple settlement obligations.

We found these supports were often mistrusted by, or inaccessible for, our participants. Access is often limited and designed around the assumption that students have available time during normal business hours, or can be easily accessed via forms of support provided online. For our participants with family, work and settlement obligations as well as a preference for building face-to-face connections and trust with support people [5], these supports were unavailable and/or unsuitable.

No one will help you because tutors they so busy and so many student always like just ask her by email, I can’t meet her face to face. (Curtin University: undergraduate student)

These issues regarding the availability of appropriate support belong to institutions and external impediments such as these are largely out of the control of SfRBs. Despite this, SfRBs tend to place the onus on themselves for ‘achievement’, ‘success’ and ‘progression’ with a belief that these will come with ‘hard work’.

It is going to be hard for me as well, especially in English writing and catching the lecture but nothing is impossible we need to work hard to gain something. The support that they organise for the international students they can help us to achieve the goals that we have. It is possible with hard work. (University of Newcastle: TAFE–Enabling student)

In Western higher education contexts, students arguably feel solely responsible for their own achievement and progression [6,7]. However, this internalisation of a ‘meritocracy’ discourse can hide complex and multiple issues such as those experienced by SfRBs [6,7]. In the case of our participants, therefore, what could be described as individual resourcefulness and determination could also be characterised as an undue burden on individuals to ‘fit in’ with a system that does not acknowledge or cater for their particular experiences or structural disadvantages.

What can our higher education institutions do, then, to facilitate the ‘success’ of SfRBs?

We recommend:

  • Special orientation activities for SfRBs, and possibly a ‘rolling orientation’ to cater for students who may have family commitments that impinge on their ability to attend a stand-alone orientation activity.
  • Face-to-face, professional, personable, constant, support informed by sound equity principles.
  • Assistance with language development from suitably qualified and trained English language specialists.
  • Targeted professional development for teaching staff to expose implicit assumptions and misrecognitions of SfRBs and to illuminate the strengths, experiences and challenges SfRBs bring with them to their higher education experience.

These steps may lift much of the burden of the responsibility of ‘success’ from the shoulders of individual SfRBs and onto the broader, better-resourced shoulders of higher education institutions.


The authors would like to acknowledge funding by the Office for Learning & Teaching (OLT) for a project titled (Re)claiming social capital: improving language and cultural pathways for refugee students into Australian higher education (ID15-4758) and the findings and recommendations from that project form the basis of this post.


[1] El Jack, A. (2010). ‘Education is my mother and father’: the ‘invisible’ women of Sudan. Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, 27(2): 19–31.
[2] Hatoss, A. & Huijser, H. (2010). Gendered Barriers to Educational Opportunities: Resettlement of Sudanese Refugees in Australia. Gender and Education, 22(2): 147–160.
[3] Stevenson, J. & Willott, J. (2007). The Aspiration and Access to Higher Education of Teenage Refugees in the UK. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 37(5): 671-687.
[4] Morrice, L. (2013). Refugees in higher education: Boundaries of belonging and recognition, stigma, and exclusion. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 32(5): 652–668.
[5] Baker, S., Ramsay, G., Irwin, E., & Miles, L. (2018). ‘Hot’, ‘Cold’ and ‘Warm’ Supports: Towards theorising where refugee students go for assistance at university. Teaching in Higher Education, 23(1): 1–16.
[6] Archer, L. (2007). Diversity, equality and higher education: A critical reflection on the ab/uses of equity discourse within widening participation. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5–6): 635–653.
[7] Leathwood, C. & O’Connell, P. (2003) ‘It’s a struggle’: the construction of the ‘new student’ in higher education. Journal of Education Policy, 18(6): 597–615.

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