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Pacific Islanders and education: is Australia an ‘unlucky country’?

Historically, geographically, culturally – there are many points of comparison between Australia and its neighbour to the east, New Zealand. But there are notable differences. This week, The Conversation…

The future for migrant Pacific Islanders in Australian education isn’t promising. AAP/Laura McQuillan

Historically, geographically, culturally – there are many points of comparison between Australia and its neighbour to the east, New Zealand. But there are notable differences.

This week, The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, will publish essays examining issues of marginality and modernity. We’ll run articles on the arts, the environment; on the economic and emotional ties that bind people to land, and land to the rest of humanity. We’ll take a fresh look at the 21st century world that exists just beyond the ditch.

Thousands of Australian school leavers have spent days this summer contemplating their futures. For some this is a no-brainer. Studying at university is the obvious choice, with approximately 223,000 starting in February in over 30 universities across Australia, following their dreams to be an engineer, a nurse, a town planner or gain that business degree.

But for the 23,000 members of the Pacific Islander community in south-east Queensland, the post-school options are far more limited. Most come from families who are struggling financially, so the pressure to get a job – any job - far outweighs any aspirations to aim higher.

It will cost more for New Zealand or Pacific Islander citizens to go to university than their Australian counterparts.

Pacific Islanders in Logan

Griffith University’s Logan campus is located in the heartland of Australia’s Pacific Islander population. Logan is famous for its diversity: it has over 200 ethnic and cultural groups, new refugee arrivals mashed together with Aussie battlers, semi-rural landholders and middle-class families.

Here too are those seeking a better life who travel from the Pacific nations such as Tonga, Samoa and Kiribati via New Zealand to south-east Queensland. Some families have settled here for decades. The Logan-Gold Coast corridor population is 9% New Zealanders, compared to the national average of 2%.

Immigration data shows that 648,000 New Zealanders live in Australia, up from 470,000 in 2007 before the global financial crisis. Almost 85,000 Kiwis were born outside New Zealand.

One in eight of these migrants gained New Zealand citizenship before moving to Australia. 10,592 New Zealanders were born in Samoa, 5269 in the Cook Islands and 2754 in Fiji.

The over-prevalence of girls to boys in schools is concerning for the Logan community. AAP/Dan Peled

The Pacific Islander population is now so strong that many of Logan’s schools have almost 50% islander students. A visit to Woodridge, Mabel Park and Marsden high schools confirms the dominance of Pasifika cultures.

The progression through school soon reveals a problematic journey for many and a distinctly gendered pattern. Year 12 classes in many Pacific Island schools tend to have more girls than boys. Griffith’s Logan campus is 80% female. What happens to boys is of concern to families and the community.

The Logan Campus is Griffith’s focal site for community engagement and outreach, building aspiration and widening participation for non-traditional students. Griffith staff have been working with the Pacific Islander community for several years to build aspirations and the capacity to get more young people into tertiary study and succeed there.

It’s a complex space for engagement. The stories of families, young people and teachers produce an array of interrelated factors that influence their education and journey to work.

Social security agreements

In 2001, Australia and New Zealand endorsed a new bilateral agreement on social security. This agreement created two types of visa holders: those with protected Special Category Visas (SCVs), who were residents in Australia on or before February 26, 2001, and those with unprotected SCVs, who arrived after that date.

Holders of unprotected SCVs are regarded as temporary residents. They do not qualify for full social security benefits until they have obtained a permanent visa and met the two-year waiting period for newly arrived residents.

These exclusions apply to HECS-HELP for higher education course fees. School leavers who came to Australia after 2001 cannot defer HECS or apply for loans to cover it.

Financial challenges

While most students experience some financial hardship in attending university, finance represents a major resource constraint for refugee and immigrants students.

For Pacific Islander students, the need to pay HECS up front is a major obstacle for families who are already struggling to meet daily needs. Many Pacific Islander families have skills and experience that limit employment opportunities to lower-paid sectors, such as manufacturing and service industries.

Additionally, employment is often highly casualised and seasonal. Income fluctuates in families that are often larger and include extended family and relatives needing support. Young people are under real pressure to start earning as soon as possible, even if for low wages and an insecure employment future.

Poor education outcomes

Academic performance presents another challenge. Many Pacific Islander children come into the broader category of “Children for whom English is an Additional Language” (CEAL), but the data kept on these children are not disaggregated to distinguish Pacific languages. Therefore, it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of how these children are or could be supported with literacy.

The lack of technology and preparation for school can leave Pacific Islander children far behind their local peers. AAP/Dan Peled

In this community, Pacific Islander families are low users of pre-school and childcare. Many children are not educationally prepared for school from the outset.

We also know, anecdotally, that many Pacific Islander children do not meet educational benchmarks by Year 9 and many fail Year 12 English. Limited access to technology in the home is also a barrier, given IT skills are so prevalent with pre-schoolers and essential now to the learning experience at school and beyond.

Many parents are unable to provide computers in the home or limit use to older children. Once at university – for those who do make it through – there are often knowledge gaps that become problematic for higher learning. If you didn’t actually grasp long division in Grade 3 or quadratic equations in Year 8, doing business maths or drug calculations in nursing is going to be tough.

Family expectations and roles

Family expectations are important indicators of educational goals and outcomes. For example, we know that school leavers’ attendance at university is strongly correlated with whether their parents attended and therefore have expectations that their children will also study for a degree.

However, the cultural expectations of many Pacific parents may differ significantly from the practices and thinking in schools and universities. For example, the traditional Pacific expectation of unquestioning obedience and respect for authority figures can mean that parents encourage their children to “sit and listen to the teacher” and discourage questioning and critical thinking.

We know that a sense of identity is crucial to continued academic failure and educational success. It has been argued that Pacific students have fewer opportunities to create their own identities. The pattern tends to be to conform to or rebel against the identities that have been constructed for them by their families and the wider culture.

Towards higher education success

Griffith’s Logan campus has been working alongside Pacific Islander communities for several years as part of its broader community–university engagement agenda.

This work has focused on reaching out to and inviting into the university members of Pacifika communities. The program encourages aspirations for university study, builds capacity of current and future students and enhances community engagement with higher education.

The outreach activities involve future Griffith students, specifically the LEAD (Legacy-Education-Achievement-Dream) Project. LEAD operates through local high schools, engaging with students and the wider community.

LEAD activities aim to enhance student leadership skills, increase self-confidence and empower a range of at-risk students to transform their outlook and learning through the process of identifying and actualising their goals. LEAD has achieved excellent outcomes and won several awards locally and nationally.

Rugby is seen as a way of connecting with Pacific Island boys in Logan. Digwyddiadau Conwy Events Conwy

Other participation activities involving current Griffith students has been the establishment of the Griffith Pasifika Association. This is a student body bringing together Pacific Islander students, developing leadership and supporting success, and the Pasifika Cultural Graduation, a community-based celebration of graduating students with their families and the whole community.

Bringing parents on to campus and hosting other cultural events have also been pivotal to advancing engagement and participation.

One of our wider outreach activities – especially directed at young men – has been through sport. The Logan community and in particular the Pacific Islander community are avid rugby players and fans. The establishment two years ago of the first university rugby league team at Logan, the Logan Redbacks, is emerging as a positive “hook” for getting young men to university.

The current construction of a new sports field at Logan campus is being inspected with interest by local hopefuls.

Scholarships are another important financial boost for students from a low socioeconomic background. Partnerships with service clubs, local banks and law firms have been instrumental in providing scholarships and bursaries that help with fee payment, books and other study needs.

These are still small in number, but sometimes just $2000 is enough to leverage a decision to apply rather than to keep working at the local fast food outlet.

Complacency is not an option

In 2013, then-higher education minister Craig Emerson announced proposed changes to the Higher Education Act 2003 to provide access to HECS-HELP for New Zealand residents. To be implemented in 2015, this was a promising move and the local community was cautiously optimistic.

However, this did not progress before the 2013 federal election and seems to be off the new government’s agenda. For the 600,000 New Zealand residents in Australia, this is yet another stark reminder of the inferior status and social exclusion of those on unprotected SCVs. While they can continue to work and pay taxes, they cannot vote, access social security, work in Australian government positions or access student loans.

Addressing these issues requires a commitment to the long haul. It means meaningful engagement and partnerships with the Pacific Islander community from early childhood through to schools and university.

Meanwhile, in Logan, more children born here are attending school, playing sport, working in menial jobs and paying taxes. Some young people in high school are the sole earners in their families, despite only being able to work part-time. Some end up homeless, or just hanging around and couchsurfing.

But without doubt, Pacific Island young people are missing out on all the opportunities that higher education offers.

The co-editors of Griffith REVIEW: Pacific Highways, Lloyd Jones and Julianne Schultz, and contributors will be discussing all things New Zealand at The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (Feb 26), National Library of Australia in Canberra (Feb 27), Adelaide Writers Week (Mar 3) and New Zealand Writers Week (Mar 12).

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28 Comments sorted by

  1. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    You could say that the education and family situations described are an indication of another form of immigration that is always going to have difficulties with assimilation into the broader community and acceptance of appropriate standards expected by communities.
    The Logan region has plenty of social problems which make for nightly news quite regularly and then there is that which we do not hear about.
    There are no prizes for guessing where hanging about and couch surfing can lead to.
    For this century, it probably needs to be asked not whether an overhaul of our exchange relationship with NZ needs to occur but how quick can it be done.

    1. Frank Moore


      In reply to Greg North

      Well Greg North, you obviously aren't a social worker come academic! This is why you speak with such commonsense I suppose...

  2. Frank Moore


    Given all the above facts and descriptions - Why on earth does Australia allow such under performing folks into the country? Why? It's madness.
    At no point does Lesley point out that no imports of "Pasifika" [groan] ever leads to an export of anything - at any time. Other than cash going home!
    This, in a nutshell, is a demonstration of how and why Australia and Australia's future has been pre eaten. Gone.
    What possessed the policy wonks to allow such under performers into the country? Some greasy pollie must have been chasing a vote in a marginal electorate...
    Aside from creating work for social workers, police and health workers (all importers) what else has happened?

    1. Alan Wylde

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Frank Moore

      There was once a nomenclature "Ugly American". It seems to me you typify he Ugly Australian.

    2. Frank Moore


      In reply to Frank Moore

      Keep chanting Alan Wylde. That way you'll never have to face the reality of Australia's population policy stuff ups and what it presents to us now and for our diminishing future.
      Keep chanting and you wont have to take responsibility for your part of the debacle.

    3. John Perry


      In reply to Frank Moore

      I'm not sure what you're trying to say, Frank. Do none of these people find work in Australia?

    4. Frank Moore


      In reply to John Perry

      What percentage unemployed is enough for you to admit failure of this group - as a group John Perry?
      And given the global nature of the economy, what percentage of "workers" not involved in exporting would indicate failure on that metric?

  3. Chris Lloyd

    Professor of Business Statistics, Melbourne Business School at University of Melbourne

    Please explain why 80% of the PAcific Islands kids in shool are female. "What happens to boys is of concern to families and the community." You can't just leave this hanging there unanswered.

  4. Lorraine Muller

    PhD - eternal student

    I am curious. Why don't the NZ and pacific Islanders become citizens?

    Surely this must be part of the issue.

    1. Timothy Gassin

      PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      Many want to, but they can't. NZ citizens can live in Australia permanently, but since 2001 they have not been able to apply for citizenship.

      These laws have created a ridiculous and socially destructive situation in which there are many NZ citizens who, despite living permanently in Australia and paying taxes, will never be able to become citizens, vote, or access student loans, social security, and disability services.

    2. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      Thank you for your explanation. I had just assumed that they were illegible to apply for citizenship after a certain amount of years and am shocked that this is not the case any longer.

      Surely this inability to become citizens is at the crux of the issue relating to school/university etc.

    3. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      Yup, I am always keen to learn more. It is the best thing about having a mind that is open to learning.

    4. Timothy Gassin

      PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      The Immigration Department estimates up to 60% will never qualify for a permanent visa - it is not simply a matter of putting in an application.

      For the rest, they need to apply to migrate to Australia, as if they were not already living here.

    5. Jilly Monroe

      Secondary Teacher

      In reply to Lorraine Muller

      This web site certainly has all of the information and facts. According to review, the relationship between international students and the communities in which they reside is a topic of considerable importance. Despite the need to learn more about the dynamics of these interactions, most research has been conducted within educational institutions as opposed to within the broader community. And education is an important aspect of the work of society. - Jilly Monroe of

  5. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "While they can continue to work and pay taxes, they cannot vote, access social security, work in Australian government positions or access student loans."
    Surely they access all these things in their own country - New Zealand?

  6. Andy Cameron

    Care giver

    "Once at university – for those who do make it through – there are often knowledge gaps that become problematic for higher learning. If you didn’t actually grasp long division in Grade 3 or quadratic equations in Year 8, doing business maths or drug calculations in nursing is going to be tough."
    Then why are even admitted to university in the first place? This article reads like it talking about social work and group therapy, not university education.

    1. Frank Moore


      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Both examples are key indicators that a root and branch reworking of the tertiary education sector is long, long overdue.

    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      It also should be of interest to those wanting to know why Finland's PISA scores are higher than ours.

    3. garyb

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Australia's PISA sample are randomly chosen, not all students are tested under PISA, everyone who attends on the day(or within a week or so) is tested in y3/5/7 and 9 for NAPLAN.
      Each two years NAPLAN indicates 'true' progression as the same cohort is tested.

    4. Frank Moore


      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Yep Andy, there's a sub strata of our society who'll go to any lengths to weaken our competitiveness, decrease our standard of living, increase our public and private debt, skew our nation into a Nauru like - "Pacifika" like - cargo cult-ish, import orientated faux economy - all for the sake of their own piety.
      Plenty are contributing to the responses to this unintentionally illuminating article.
      Want to import the functionally illiterate and innumerate from cultures that are in fact orientated to illiteracy and innumeracy?
      Sure! Then create a bunch of brochures proclaiming the "richness" of multicultural decision making - as we all go broke!
      The reckless, concentrated stupidity of these people is beyond comprehension.
      (And I'm not referring to the "pacicifika"!)

  7. Karen Jones

    PhD candidate, University of Queensland

    A thoughtful article thank you Lesley. However the section on Social security agreements is factually incorrect. The 2001 bilateral agreement did not create two classes of SCV holders. That agreement only covered sever disability support and pensions. The two classes of SCV were created unilaterally by the Australian government when it passed an amendment to its own domestic policy, Families and Community Services Legislation, which then discriminated New Zealand citizens from other permanent residents! by removing the social security rights previously held by New Zealanders residing in Australia.

    Interestingly, the Australian Government ensured that change to domestic the domestic legislation coincided with the date of the bilateral agreement, 26 February 2001, thus creating the confusion.

  8. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    I had commented earlier Lesley with reference to hanging about and couch surfing.
    There does seem to be some irony should I call it that whilst net surfing looking for some numbers as referred to on another New Zealand article I came across similar wording.
    If you go to
    You will find
    " "The children who were brought up here don't want to go back (to New Zealand) and that…

    Read more