School to university transitional experiences of refugee background students: A journey of uncertainty and complexity June 23, 2015Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
Tags: international education, literacy education, refugee background students
from Loshini Naidoo
The blog is based on a 2012 OLT (Office of Learning and Teaching) funded project “supporting school-university partnerships for refugee students’ access and participation in tertiary education”. The views in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.
Australia has a long history of welcoming refugee communities into the broader social fabric and likewise of benefiting from the contributions made by these communities to Australian society. Refugee background students however represent a “high risk group which faces great challenges in terms of adaption to the school system, acculturation, social adaptation, English language learning, and eventual academic success” (Brown, Miller & Mitchell, 2006, p. 150). The adaptation to the new education system is further compounded for refugee background students by having spent prolonged periods of time living in refugee camps or in a transient existence (Naidoo, Wilkinson, Adoniou, Langat, Cunneen &bBolger , 2015; Ndhlovu, 2013).
Refugee background students, particularly those arriving from Africa, are a specific group with greater educational, welfare and support needs (Taylor, 2008). These include basic skills in reading and writing as well as the socialised reading and writing skills required to learn and communicate effectively. Thus, many refugee background students frequently find that they are expected to acquire social communication, academic writing and communication skills, while catching up to their native-speaking peers, who often themselves are still developing language competency (Naidoo et al. 2015).
Academic success and transition to university is dependent on the knowledge of engrained social norms that are often taken for granted (Trumbull and Rothstein-Fisch et al. 2014). ). No matter how natural they seem, these behaviours are culturally specific and must be actively learned by students (Nwosu and Barnes et al. 2014). Thus, many refugee background students who are not ‘fluent’ in the cultural practices of Australian higher education can often find the transition difficult (Naidoo et al., 2015).
The language challenges students face at university are connected to both their own English language proficiency, and also the very specific English language demands that university study and discipline specific study places upon them (Naidoo, et. al., 2015). University academic staff prioritise the dissemination of discipline based knowledge rather than language skills (Dunworth & Briguglio, 2011) and while academic staff are aware of the difficulties encountered by many international and some domestic students, they feel ill-equipped to provide English language support (Naidoo, et al, 2015).
Academic staff at university are concerned that generic learning support programs are inadequate to meet the specific language needs of refugee background students, and that scarcity of long term funding for specific programs limits their effectiveness (Naidoo, et al, 2015). A consequence of this outsourcing of academic language support is the disinvestment of responsibility by academics.
Alongside the need for explicit teaching of discipline specific content and language is the need to teach learning to learn cognitive and metacognitive strategies for the Australian university context. Cognitive strategies include understanding how to locate and select credible sources of information and metacognitive strategies include successfully planning assessment tasks that are appropriately structured to meet the needs of the discipline area (Hurst & Davison, 2005).
These culturally specific strategies are frequently taken-for-granted practices amongst university educators, and thus, form part of the ‘hidden’ curriculum. They present cultural challenges as what seems to be ‘everyday’ curriculum knowledge is actually part of cultural practice and is not necessarily known to English language learners.
Not having English language support that builds students’ capacity to engage fully within a discipline presents a distinct obstacle to academic achievement and the ability to manage the academic language registers of university (Naidoo, et. al., 2015). The current English language support strategies employed at universities are not directed at supporting the language acquisition journey of a student on a language learning progression, but rather with meeting more immediate needs around the submission of assignments.
The impact of an English language support program that transcends disciplines will create a new dialogical space to examine established power hierarchies and academic practices and will show institutional commitment to a more supportive, actively integrated language learning program at university that will enable diverse students to transition much more easily through university programs.
Brown, J., Miller, J., & Mitchell, J. (2006). Interrupted schooling and the acquisition of literacy: Experiences of Sudanese refugees in Victorian secondary schools. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 29(2), 150-162.
Dunworth, K., & Briguglio, C. (2011). Teaching students who have English as an additional language: A handbook for academic staff in higher education. Milperra, New South Wales: HERDSA.
Hurst D., & Davison C. (2005). ‘Collaboration on the curriculum: Focus on secondary ESL’, in Crandall J., & Kauffman D (ed.), Case Studies in TESOL: Teacher education for ESL and content area teachers, pp. 41–66. Alexandria: TESOL.
Naidoo, L., Wilkinson, J., Langat, K., Adoniou, M., Cunneen, R., & Bolger, D. (2015). Case Study Report: Supporting school-university pathways for refugee students’ access and participation in tertiary education
Ndhlovu, F. (2013). Language nesting, superdiversity and African diasporas in regional Australia. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 33(4), 436-338
Nwosu, O. C., Barnes, S. and L, R. 2014. Where ‘Difference is the Norm’: Exploring Refugee Student Ethnic Identity Development, Acculturation, and Agency at Shaw Academy. Journal of Refugee Studies, p. 050.
Taylor, S. (2008). Schooling and the settlement of refugee young people in Queensland: The challenges are massive. Social Alternatives, 27(3), 58-65.
Trumbull, E., Rothstein-Fisch, C. and Greenfield, P. 2014. Bridging Cultures in Our Schools:New Approaches That Work. [e-book] A WestEd Knowledge Brief.