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Scholarships open the doors to university

March 30, 2022

A young man supported by the Asylum Seekers Centre has kicked off his studies after winning the University of NSW’s first-ever asylum seeker scholarship. 

Ian* quit university before fleeing his country in 2019. An exceptional student, he won an academic scholarship to study for a year at Sydney University in 2021. But when the scholarship ended, he couldn’t afford to stay – the international fees cost about $50,000 a year.

The UNSW scholarship covers his course fees, food and college accommodation.

“The scholarship is a life-changing thing for me… I was really excited to get it,” he said.

Ian arrived in Australia by himself and hopes his parents and siblings will come soon.

“It’s quite tough when you first come here, you barely know anyone. You need to find a job, find a place to live, earn money to sustain yourself. Sometimes you have nightmares, dreaming about what happened (back home),” he said.

“Things are getting better now. I want to get into the workforce as soon as possible.”

University out of reach for most people seeking asylum

Many people in Australia have waited five or more years for outcomes on their applications for refugee protection visas. University is out of reach for most, as they must pay unaffordable international student fees.

Asylum Seekers Centre volunteers Margaret Tung, Jude Stoddart and Beverley Bosman help people apply for scholarships. In the five years since Jude started the program, they have helped 28 people win scholarships; this year there were five successful recipients.

“We started working with young people seeking asylum because it was clear that being required to pay exorbitant fees as international students would effectively exclude a whole generation from getting a university education,” said Jude.

“We are now seeing the benefits for them personally and for our whole community as the first groups from the program have graduated. They are qualified in areas like medical science, accounting, computing with artificial intelligence and business – the fundamentally important expertise we need to see nurtured in Australia.”

The scholarships are a game-changer for individuals, but they’re limited – the number available in Sydney may be less than 20 per year.

Students have a bright future if they have access

Margaret said many scholarship applicants arrive in Australia as children and graduate school with their peers not knowing if they’ll be able to go to university.

“It’s very hard for students – they have a bright future ahead of them, if they could study. It’s only for the fact that they are asylum seekers that they can’t,” she said.

The UNSW scholarship is the only one in Sydney to cover the cost of living, so all other scholarship winners have to work to pay for rent and food. Asylum seekers can’t get Austudy or other Centrelink payments.

“I just think the government policy is such that we are not treating asylum seekers as if they really need protection. The policies are making it hard for them to live here because they’re hardly entitled to any kind of safety net, welfare, or assistance,” Margaret said.

“We’re really struggling with a skills shortage in Australia. We have all these young people willing and capable of contributing so much to the society they have lived in since their teenage years. They’re being singled out and treated differently, just because they need protection. It’s a very cruel policy.”

Nazia’s scholarship lead to work and friends

Nazia* won a scholarship with ASC’s support and graduated from Western Sydney University in 2020.

“Securing a scholarship was the light of hope for me and my family’s future because university comes with an entire package – friends, belonging, support and doors to employment. I soon had friends and a casual job with a multinational company,” she said.

“In return, I was able to give my time and service to the community by volunteering at the Salvation Army and at the Western Sydney University Tax Clinic where we help unrepresented individuals with financial difficulties to lodge tax returns to ATO.

Nazia now works full-time at a reputed Australian investment company, but is still waiting for a permanent protection visa.

Margaret, Jude and Beverley support students at the Asylum Seekers Centre by offering course, scholarship and internship advice, helping with scholarship applications, and providing ongoing support.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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