By Jovana Mastilovic
Griffith Law School

In November 2018, Soumi Gopalakrishnan shared her story with the ABC.[1] Despite graduating Year 12 top of her school and receiving the Dux Award at Brisbane’s St James College, her prospects of attending University were slim. As a Sri Lankan Tamil who arrived in Australia by boat four years prior, Soumi, like other people seeking asylum, was subject to international University fees ranging up to $100,000 a year.[2] In addition, people seeking asylum are not eligible for government loans and support (HECS-HELP) and fees must be paid upfront. Despite aspirations of one day becoming a doctor, Soumi’s fate appeared to lay working in a stationary factory, just like her two elder sisters.

Historically, Universities have always used innovative ways of advocating and ensuring people from all backgrounds pursue their right to education and safety. Universities have courageously modelled communities of resistance and protection[3] and students have been at the front-line in struggles for progressive change.[4] Universities represent places of hope, safe-havens, and opportunities for students from all backgrounds.

In 2016, nearly 30[5] Universities across the United States (US) declared themselves as Campuses offering Sanctuary — much like sanctuary cities.[6] The concept of sanctuary dates back to medieval England and represents a moral and legal obligation to protect those who are vulnerable.[7] Despite Universities being legally restricted in preventing their students from being deported, actions taken on behalf of Universities in the US to support their students, regardless of their immigration status, ranged from not sharing the immigration status of their students with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE),[8] providing confidential legal advice, distance learning, tuition support (including in-state tuition rates),[9] expanding on-campus services such as medical care,[10] and not allowing ICE officers on campus without a warrant.

St James College, Soumi’s school in Brisbane, waives school fees for families seeking asylum and so they did not ask Soumi and her siblings to pay school fees. The school even provided them with Go-cards to enable them to travel to school. Gerry Crooks, the principal of St James College said, ‘I think they’ve given the school far more than we could ever give them as a family.’[11] Providing people who have been made most vulnerable in communities with access to education, benefits not only those who gain access to education, but also the wider community. Research conducted by Members of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group (SIG),[12] determined that education is widely acknowledged as an essential factor in ensuring social inclusion and the formation of human capital.[13]

There are approximately 30,000[14] people seeking asylum in Australia. Some of these people have been living on temporary visas for more than six years, in constant fear they will be deported, and with minimal support to maintain their livelihoods. Despite this, as Soumi has shown, people persist and are able to somehow manage, utilising everything they have and often making large sacrifices to ensure they receive an education. However, access to higher education proves nearly impossible.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, only Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology and the University of the Sunshine Coast offer scholarships for people seeking asylum or refugees in Queensland.[15] These scholarships provide an opportunity for only a very limited number of people and opportunities in Queensland remain fewer than in other Australian states such as Victoria, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory.

Universities need to do more[16] to support refugee students as well as people seeking asylum; as St James College Principal said, ‘[Universities] have an obligation[17] to offer opportunities for these young people, because Australia’s going to benefit in the long run anyway.’ The story of Soumi is an enlightening one, as following the traction of her ABC story, University offers flooded[18] in. In March 2019, she attended her first University lecture for the degree of a Bachelor of Health Science in Canberra.[19] However, as Soumi says, ‘changing one life isn’t enough[20] and ‘there are so many other students who are in the same position as me.’[21]

Indeed, in Australia, there are approximately 2,668[22] children seeking asylum and globally, the number of displaced people is only rising.[23] Children make up more than half[24] of the world’s refugees and Universities can, should,[25] and need to do more to offer sanctuary to people fleeing persecution.

Jovana Mastilovic is a PhD student at Griffith Law School researching the European Union response to people seeking asylum since 2015.[26] Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organisation, committee or other group or individual.