“When I arrived in Australia I was 17. Now I’m almost 20. The best years of my life are gone. When can I go to school? When can I go to college? When can I have my education? I don’t know what will happen to me.
"I escaped from my country because I couldn’t go to school. The only thing I wished to have was a better life, a safe life, and to be educated – and I couldn’t have that.”
As secondary school students eagerly await their university offers, this young man faces a much bleaker future.
Abdul is one of around 30,000 people seeking asylum who are waiting for the government to finalise their refugee claims. Once they prove their claim for protection they are found to be refugees, yet because they arrived by boat they will only have access to temporary visas.
A new report by the Refugee Council of Australia shows that government policy effectively denies this group of people access to further education. This is because they cannot access Commonwealth Support Places (CSP) and federal government loan schemes such as HECS-HELP and FEE-HELP.
If people seeking asylum and refugees on temporary visas want to go to TAFE or university, they need to pay international student fees, often in the tens of thousands of dollars.
For those who have spent years without work rights on A$460 a fortnight, this is obviously not a viable option.
Things don’t get much better once an asylum seeker is found to be a refugee.
The Coalition government last year reintroduced three-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for people found to be refugees alongside a new five-year visa, the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV), which requires refugees to work or study in a designated regional area.
Unfortunately, the restrictions on Commonwealth funding for higher education apply even after refugees are granted these visas, locking them out of higher education indefinitely.
Another barrier to further education for these people is a restriction on payments by Centrelink known as special benefits. This prevents people from receiving income support if they are enrolled in a course that lasts longer than 12 months.
So even if a person can get to university, they will not have any form of income support, such as the Austudy or Youth Allowance payments that are available to others.
Even if young people can get access to education, research shows that the temporary nature of these visas has a damaging effect on refugees’ ability to focus on their studies and plan for the future. One young refugee was quoted saying:
“When I think about my future, I think it’s very uncertain. The only thing that I love and I desire is to study. I really want to be educated, but then again when I think about my future then I think of going back, not being able to get a decent job or study, again I feel completely heartbroken.”
This inequity has not gone unnoticed by the education sector.
Many groups have been working with universities on this issue. Recently, a handful of institutions announced plans to offer scholarships to people seeking asylum, including Curtin University, Monash University, the University of Western Australia and the University of Canberra.
Yet while scholarships certainly help, what is really required to provide sustainable outcomes for this group of people is a change in Commonwealth policy.
Refugees on temporary visas and people seeking asylum should have access to Commonwealth Support Places and higher education loan schemes so they can improve their skills, gain qualifications and contribute to Australia.
Education is vital to ensure successful settlement and support newly arrived communities to integrate into Australia and make a positive contribution to our community.
When TPVs were previously introduced in 2001, approximately 90% of the around 11,000 TPV holders were eventually granted permanent visas and went on to become successful members of our community.
Further education has a profound impact on the lives of individuals, and on the Australian community as a whole. Depriving these people of access to education ultimately deprives us all.
*Name in the article has been changed.