Humanitarian migrants are amongst the most marginalised population groups in countries within the Global North, including Australia. An important channel for these migrants to successfully settle into the host society and improve their socio-economic outcomes is participation in the local education system, particularly in higher-education options. However, we know surprisingly little about the socio-demographic factors that facilitate or constrain access to (higher) education amongst humanitarian migrants, with evidence from robust quantitative studies being particularly scarce. The present study fills this important gap in knowledge by analysing Australian longitudinal survey data (Building a New Life in Australia; n=2,109 migrants and 8,668 person-year observations).
Key results indicated that higher English-language proficiency and pre-arrival education levels are core factors fostering greater engagement with the Australian higher-education system amongst humanitarian migrants. For example, humanitarian migrants who entered Australia with no qualifications participated in the education system in 10.1% of the observations, compared to 11.9% for those with some schooling, 14.5% for those with a trade qualification, and 19% for those with a university degree. Further, those who entered Australia with no qualifications selected a higher education course in 4.1% of observations, compared to 9.4% for those with some schooling, 13% for those with a trade qualification, and 21.3% for those with a degree
Concerning gender differences, humanitarian-migrant women in our sample exhibited a greater adjusted likelihood of being a student than humanitarian-migrant men. Yet the timing of education access differed somewhat between humanitarian migrants of either gender: the share of humanitarian-migrant men in education decreased with time since arrival, whereas the share of humanitarian-migrant women in education increased with time since arrival. The absence of a “female penalty” in relation to education access amongst humanitarian migrants in Australia constitutes a surprising finding.
Altogether, our findings confirmed that humanitarian migrants experience barriers to accessing the Australian higher-education system, and that policy attention is required to redress this situation. However, they also stress that a “one size fits all” policy strategy may be neither sufficient nor appropriate to boost their education prospects. Instead, certain subpopulations within the broader humanitarian-migrant population require special attention from equity practitioners and policymakers—for example, those with low levels of English-language proficiency and those entering the country with low/no educational qualifications.