For developing a replicable and sustainable model that delivers empowering tertiary education to camp-based refugees
Summary of particular contribution and context for this
The Karen people, one of 19 ethnic groups in Burma, have been fighting the military junta that rules the country for over 40 years in what is the world’s longest-running civil war. As a result of the violence and the junta’s oppression of the Karen and other ethnic groups, there are now over 140,000 registered refugees from Burma in camps on the Thai side of the Thai-Burmese border. Many schools in Karen State have been destroyed and the educational system in general in Burma is in a state of collapse. Within the camps, where the refugees are cared for by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there is elementary and secondary education but no access to tertiary education.
The mission statement of Australian Catholic University (ACU) speaks of the University being guided by “a fundamental concern for justice and equity and the dignity of all human beings”. The University seeks to realise the challenge in Pope John Paul II’s letter governing Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that a Catholic university should “be capable of searching for ways to make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II 1990). This was the inspiration that led us to develop a learning model which has enabled Karen refugees to have access to university education. It is anticipated that this model can be replicated for other refugee communities around the world.
In 2004, a pilot program was established to determine the feasibility of offering tertiary education to refugees by mixed mode education, using ACU’s online learning technology (WebCT) and on-site tutors. This was the challenge that faced us. One of us (Robert Compton) visited the camps, where a selection process led to 18 students being enrolled in a Business Studies course. The units were conducted online from Australia, with some textbook support and online library access. Since the Business Studies course required an understanding of the world of commerce, which did not form part of the life experience of the students, the course had to be adapted (It had originally been developed for delivery to Indigenous Australians in remote areas.) It was clear at this stage that the units offered to students in Australia would need to be tailored to meet the needs of the students in the refugee camps.
The notion of isolated refugees graduating from university may seem improbable but, in 2006, 16 Karen students graduated with the ACU Diploma in Business, having studied for three years online and with face-to-face tutoring. This was seen as an exceptional achievement by the Karen community as well as local NGOs. For the first time in their lives, many of the students had a qualification (and an identity), which enabled UNHCR representatives to assist them to undertake further study abroad.
Given the outcomes of the program, many students wished to continue studying with ACU and new students also sought to commence studies. With the success of the pilot program in Business clearly evidenced, 14 students enrolled in the ACU Certificate of Theology in late 2006. Seven students (most of the others have already been resettled in third countries) will complete the Certificate at the end of June 2008. A Diploma in Liberal Studies is to be offered by ACU from 2008 with the collaboration of Jesuit universities from the United States of America and the active participation of Open Universities Australia (OUA). This model has provided a delivery forum that could make tertiary education available to refugees globally.
Statement addressing selected criteria 4 and 1:
Respect and support for the development of students as individuals; and approaches to learning and teaching support that influences, motivates and inspires students to learn
The first visit in 2004 determined that many of the potential Karen students were suffering from depression, anxiety and trauma. In Burma, many had seen their villages razed to the ground and their parents and friends tortured and, in many cases, killed. Others had been raped and beaten. Many of the students felt their situation to be hopeless and the chance of gaining an internationally-recognised qualification beyond their grasp. Boredom among the potential students was another significant issue as the refugees could not easily leave the camps. For security reasons, the Thai authorities did not allow internet access to be established in the camps. The potential students’ sense of low self-esteem was evident. Despite these obstacles, there was a great desire by the refugees to further their education and extend their horizons.
Thanks to the generosity of the Karen community in Australia, a house was rented in a village just outside one of the camps where students could be housed temporarily and be given limited access to computers and the internet. We started offering the units using a mixed mode model of teaching, including support materials and readings sent from Australia, online assessment and discovery, on-the-ground tutors and lecturer discussions.
This opened up a whole new world to the students and they were encouraged to learn about business and the global environment. Some of the students had lived many years in the camps or were even born there and therefore had no concept of shopping, for example. The units on Marketing and Consumer Behaviour were particularly challenging as the students had no concept of consumerism. The Business subjects offered were underpinned by studies in Business Ethics.
The students demonstrated a need for contact with the outside world that was beyond anything that we had experienced previously. They emailed every day either about their work or about the general business of living their lives. As we were undertaking the teaching of these units in a voluntary capacity over and above our normal workloads and because of our other commitments, we could only manage to deliver two subjects per semester. The students, on the other hand, have so little in their lives to excite them and could easily have coped with three subjects three times a year.
Some assessments were of a short answer essay format. We found that we needed to adapt the way in which we gave the students feedback by providing comments against each response. The comments were designed not only to inform but to boost the self-esteem of each individual. It was obvious from the outset that these students were very motivated and adequately holding their own against students studying similar units in face-to-face mode in Australia. When informed of this, it was a delight to watch their self-esteem and confidence increase.
Initially, the assessment was individual. Many of the students lived in fear of their lives and of spies and this generated a lack of trust. The introduction of group assessment and online discussions gradually allowed the group to share their knowledge. Trust within the student body began to grow. The standard of work also improved dramatically. By the time they had started the second unit assessment in this mode, they had developed good study skills, their English had improved, their thoughts were backed up by proper research and their argumentative, analytical and debating skills were well honed. These young people were now conducting discussions and analysing data from a world of which they had very little experience.
The students’ confidence in their newly acquired skills grew. The online discussions regarding the readings, and the use of them in assignments, stretched the students. We started introducing more group activities and group reports, and the students’ confidence grew as they felt better equipped to analyse and dissect readings together. Constant support and the supply of additional reading became a daily task for the lecturers, based in Australia.
Both of us travelled to Mae Sot in each of 2005 and 2006 to work with the students and to motivate them to continue. We took with us calculators, dictionaries and support material for the students. While in Mae Sot, we conducted tutorial sessions for the students which served to develop their skills and inspire them further and gave them the opportunity to express themselves as individuals.
A number of government and non-government agencies in Thailand were also visited - for example the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) - to gain their support for the program. As these organisations work on a day-to-day basis with both the Karen refugees and the Thai authorities, they are able to provide logistical and political support, which is essential to the overall success of the education program. They can also act as our point of contact on the ground, signalling any problems that might arise. These visits were essential because there are tensions in regard to local authorities in helping refugees. There is a need to obtain necessary government approvals and to conserve and share scarce resources through appropriate consultation. Securing support from such agencies is therefore critical to the overall success and sustainability of the education program. The visits culminated in the attendance of over 60 political and NGO dignitaries at the first Graduation Ceremony in Mae Sot.
4. How the contribution has influenced student learning and engagement, been sustained over time, and been recognised
The impact of the project on the students was both psychological and life-transforming. They grew in confidence and self-esteem and became a trusting community that wanted to serve others. For many, this internationally-recognised qualification was the first official document with their name on it. They now had an identity and that enabled them to seek scholarships to continue to study either at a Thai university or abroad, and currently there are students studying in Bangkok, Melbourne, the United States and Canada. Others managed to secure employment serving the Karen community in the camps, either with NGOs or the community-based organisations set up by the Karen themselves to improve the lives of the refugees.
In two regards, the students had found a way out of the camps, which one graduate described as “prisons without bars”. They had escaped mentally by having their horizons expanded and some had escaped physically to continue their education, to become the future teachers and leaders of their community or to find employment to help their own people now. They had trialled a model of learning that worked and they had overcome all obstacles to graduate with pride.
Significantly, the holding of an internationally-recognised qualification from ACU has enabled some students to be accepted for resettlement in third countries to continue their education, and others to find employment in or near the camps and to show solidarity with their people. Most of those who are studying abroad hope for a free and democratic Burma to which they can return to share their skills with others.
Based on these outcomes, the project is leading to the establishment of partnerships with NGOs and other universities. Open Universities Australia (OUA) has contributed 25 scholarships for study in degree programs and now assists with enrolment of new students. Five major Jesuit universities in the United States have agreed to contribute and teach units to be offered as part of ACU’s Diploma of Liberal Studies. Other NGOs such as the Dutch refugee agency ZOA, Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and the refugee agency of the Thai bishops’ conference, COERR, are offering logistical assistance.
ACU has made further investment this year by appointing a coordinator for the project to establish the project on a sustainable basis and plan for the future. The success of the Diploma in Business Studies and the Certificate in Theology and the flexible mixed mode way in which the courses have been taught have made the dream of establishing a global system for providing refugees with tertiary education a step nearer realisation.
The team acknowledges the support of the Refugee Tertiary Education Committee (RTEC) (which is the advisory body for our innovative project and includes expertise from the Jesuits, business and other higher education providers as well as from ACU), the Australian Jesuits and senior ACU colleagues in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and in Student Administration who have been integral to the success of this groundbreaking project.
We are looking forward to teaching in the Diploma of Liberal Studies in the near future and helping other students achieve their dreams of tertiary studies.
We let the students themselves have the last word:
The camp is like a ‘prison without bars’. I have had many difficulties chasing me along in my life. When I was in my homeland, ever since I was a child, I had to flee many times to the forest for survival. When I arrived in the refugee camp, I was able to finish my high school and now I have an opportunity to study through Australian Catholic University.
We are lucky to have this opportunity of learning …... It is a wonderful chance for refugees …. even though we are migrants, even though we are illegal persons. The world is so large but in reality there is no space or place for us to stay or to live at the moment. ….. Thank you from my family and my people.