Curtin University

The West Australian study at Curtin University aims to identify the expectations, aspirations and academic preparedness of refugee students seeking to enter undergraduate study (UG) from Intensive English Centres (IECs) based in secondary schools, and to highlight effective support and transition pedagogies for this particular cohort.

Phase 1 of the project was conducted through eight focus groups in three schools comprising 45 refugee students and five key informants from three IECs in WA. Observations were also undertaken at three IECs. A visit by 19 refugee students and two staff members from one IEC to Curtin University was facilitated to give the students an introduction to university life. Through initial analysis of focus group discussions and interviewss, emergent themes have revealed students are motivated and hold aspirations for further education and career development. However, student concerns around lack of personal confidence, and academic language and culture, are salient. In Phase 2, seven interviews with first year UG students have commenced. Student proposed recommendations will be presented in our report to policy makers.

Data Collection
Phase 1: Focus Groups with IEC students in high school. By the end of 2016 Curtin had completed eight Focus Groups in three schools comprising a total of 45 refugee students.

The focus groups conducted between August and October 2016, explored the motivations and expectations of students currently in IECs who were planning to transition to either mainstream high schools for years 11 and 12 and/or to higher education.

In response to a request from one IEC a visit was arranged for students to visit Curtin University. On 19th September 2016 a visit by 19 refugee students and two staff members from one school to Curtin University was facilitated.

Phase 2: Key Informant Interviews.

Between August and September 2016 Curtin University completed 4 individual interviews with key informants/stakeholders working in the field of education to students from refugee backgrounds. Participants included Principals of IECs, teachers in IECs and teachers in mainstream high school who taught students who had previously been in the IEC. Between February and June 2017 a further 3 interviews were conducted, giving a total of 7 key informant interviews.

Interviews with key informants explored the perceptions of teachers and Principals as to the factors affecting transition of students through the education system at both the personal, community and national level. Policy and funding issues impacting on the operations of IECs and teaching capacity were also discussed.

Phase 3: Interviews with Undergraduate students from refugee backgrounds.

Between March and October 2017, interviews were conducted with 11 Curtin University undergraduate students from a Humanitarian Entrance Background who have transitioned to higher education. The students had transitioned from a variety of pathways, including the IEC pathway.

The interviews garnered undergraduate students’ perceptions on the transition to higher education, including barriers, enablers and recommendations for further support.

Data analysis

Focus group discussions with IEC students, and interviews with undergraduate (UG) students and key informants have been transcribed and analysed thematically (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Factors affecting refugee students’ movement through the Australian education system are presented in three time periods—pre-arrival factors, transition factors (while they are at IECs or university enabling courses) and factors affecting study in higher education.

These themes are drawn from the analysis of interviews with both the students interviewed in the IECs and the university students. The findings are also further informed by interviews conducted with teachers and Principals of IECs.


Pre-arrival factors: Analysis of data revealed three pre-arrival factors affecting transition to higher education: Winding Pathways, Aspirations and Expectations and Decisions and Information.

Disrupted schooling, or schooling in multiple countries often meant students had to spend additional years between high school and university entry to catch up on missed concepts and develop academic skills. IEC students had strong aspirations for higher education but were concerned about socialisation and language. Students were confronted with many decisions, but often had knowledge gaps about navigating the education system, and university processes. Some missed orientation week due to competing priorities especially paid work which put them at a disadvantage before they commenced.

Transition: IEC environments and staff were perceived to be extremely welcoming by students who appreciated teaching staff understanding of their journeys and the support provided for transition to the mainstream. However, students who had studied in university Enabling courses had mixed responses, ranging from finding the course helpful, to feeling they had been misled in their expectations.

Analysis of data revealed six challenges affecting the transition period for students aiming for higher education: English, Academic skills and concepts, Standardised testing, Stigma.

Competing priorities and Funding and policy.

English was the primary challenge for students in this period, in both the written and spoken form. Poor English ability also impacted on other subjects such as mathematics. Academic skills such as referencing and academic writing were sometimes new concepts for students, as was the concept of homework. Standardised testing presented significant barriers to students aiming for higher education as the testing sometimes prevented them from graduating from high school, or from choosing subjects that led to tertiary education. Stigma from other students, and sometimes teachers, prevented some students from acknowledging their refugee status at school and therefore restricting their access to extra support. Funding for IECs, and national policies affecting refugee intake, impact on the operation of IECs, who as a result are sometimes unable to offer specialist classes to refugee students with limited schooling.

Analysis of data revealed four factors that enabled the transition for students aiming for higher education: Self-determination, Social and academic support, Specific local programs, and Age of arrival.

Specific programs had been developed in some schools that were designed to accommodate the needs and backgrounds of refugee students and provided viable alternative pathways to higher education. Students who were resettled in Australian early in adolescence were advantaged as they were able to spend more time in both IECs and in mainstream schooling before transitioning to higher education. Those that arrived later moved directly from the IECs to year 11 which proved challenging and limited their options for higher education as the HEB students do not have the English or academic ability at that point to choose appropriate ATAR subjects.

Factors affecting study in higher education: Analysis of data revealed four factors impacting on the experience of SfRBs who have transitioned to higher education: Language, Time Management, Socialisation, and Mix of informal and formal support.

Students expressed having some difficulties in English, both written and spoken. This impacted on their confidence to speak in class and with their written work. Many students are operating in two languages, translating written work back and forth, using devices such as Google translate to assist them in understanding content and producing written work. The translation process means completing assessments takes significantly longer time. There is also additional time pressure when students are trying to fit in extra English classes. This results in daily stress. Most students reported social interaction was difficult. Local students, although not overtly discriminatory, did not interact with SfRB students and seem reluctant to form long term friendships outside the classroom.

Students displayed independence and self-reliance, but seem isolated, which again impacts on confidence. Students do sometimes access formal support programs available such as academic skills and English classes, with mixed success. Sometimes classes are full, sometimes they are not tailored to student needs. In general, students felt they did not need any more instruction on how to structure a paragraph. They wanted a mentor to proof-read their work, but as this is not available, many seek informal support from peers. This puts a burden on their locally born friends and students are not always successful in finding this informal support.

Some seek help from former high school teachers—who often provide it in their own time! HE tutors do not typically have time to help, or to proofread. Some students felt the volume and nature of information available, and the freedom of choice was too overwhelming. They were struggling with the change to an individualistic society from a collectivist society. They felt a need for clear guidance from someone in authority, similar to the role played by fathers and teachers in their home country.

Underlying / Recurring Theme—Time

Underpinning the findings from all three time periods was the concept of time. Students’ transition through the education system was influenced by time in multiple ways. This includes: Time spent displaced, age of arrival, time taken to learn and complete assessments, time to acculturate, time taken to navigate the system.

Students that arrive earlier in Australia are advantaged. Students need as much time as possible in the IEC and mainstream high school before entering HE. Parents learn the school and HE system over time from teachers and students. It takes time to acculturate, adapt, and sometimes to renegotiate family roles. All this has to happen whilst studying and learning English. Students and IEC teachers feel SfRBs need more time than locally born students to complete work and learn new concepts. Students need time to navigate the Australian system, including changing course, or university. IEC teachers encourage students to have an alternative plan to university, such as TAFE. Spending time at TAFE can help them decide future pathways. It can be a ‘time-out’ or a pause.

In conclusion

Our findings in WA highlight that SfRBs, students were highly motivated to progress in their studies and demonstrated a strong work ethic. They highlighted the importance of support from peers, parents, community and teachers in facilitating their HE goals. They are resilient and want to find work and contribute to the country they live in.

Braun V, Clarke V. Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology. 2006;3(2):77–101.