Enabling long-term refugees to access higher education in Thailand: A distance learning approach

Barbara Zeus

Around 140,000 refugees from Burma live in camps along Thailand's border with Burma (Myanmar). These camps have existed for 26 years. Refugees' rights are tightly restricted and they are fully dependent on external aid agencies for food and livelihood support. Many young refugees know little about life outside the camps and lack opportunities and freedoms. They are able to access secondary education in the camps but few can go to university. Barbara explains how accredited degree programmes have been made available through distance learning.

A community-run camp education system offers Burmese refugees primary and secondary education and some vocational training, with support from international NGOs. Education is highly respected and young people hope to shape their country's future as educated citizens. Many young refugees study hard and dream of attending university, but face financial difficulties, lack of awareness of the application procedures, lack of accreditation and citizenship, and restrictive host country policies.

A few students from the camps have won university scholarships in Thailand and abroad, but competition is high. The cost of one student studying abroad could cover the cost of many students studying locally. Refugee communities lose human resources when students leave for overseas studies. Providing higher education opportunities within camps is therefore important, yet only 3% of all UNHCR-supported education programmes worldwide are at vocational and higher education levels. There is also a lack of research into the benefits of higher education for refugees and their communities.

Distance learning
Some refugees in Thailand have accessed higher education via the internet. Some have pursued degree programmes via distance learning from the Australian Catholic University (ACU), from which there have been 22 graduates since 2004. Currently, around 20 students are studying for a Diploma in Liberal Studies which ACU runs in partnership with four American Jesuit universities. ACU used a participatory approach to decide on refugee communities' needs and students' preferred subjects. The programme combines online learning with face-toface teaching from visiting tutors, and on-site tutorial support for academic English, study skills and motivation. Learning and teaching materials were adapted from Australia to suit local contexts. The online courses have enabled students to access information, develop skills and knowledge, and obtain an internationally-recognised qualification.

Refugee empowerment
ACU found that most distance learning graduates gained employment with locally based NGOs and communitybased organisations dealing with issues like education and human rights. Their advanced English, IT, research, leadership and management skills helped them get these jobs.i ACU also found the distance learning programme helped increase students' self-esteem and respect within the community. The degree programmes have empowered refugee graduates and their communities to move from passively accepting outside aid to engaging in direct dialogue with policy-makers and practitioners. Students have been encouraged to see alternatives to violence in struggling for democracy in Burma.

The way forward
Refugees spend on average 17 years in exile, so their educational needs cannot be put on hold. Developing transferable skills through distance learning can help students prepare for their uncertain future (e.g. repatriation to Burma, or resettlement in Thailand or elsewhere). Distance education remains relatively unexplored as a tool for including marginalised learners at higher education levels. The ACU example could inspire similar programmes or partnerships between universities and NGOs providing refugee education.

Barbara has worked with Burmese refugees in Thailand on a voluntary basis since 2004. She is currently an intern with INEE's Adolescent and Youth Task Team (see: http://ineesite.org/index.php/post/adolescence_and_yout h_task_team). This article is based on the author's MA dissertation, available from EENET's website:
www.eenet.org.uk/resources/docs/Higher_Ed_Refugees_Thailand.pdf

The author can be contacted by email at:

i UNHCR. (2003). World Refugee Day 2003: Information Kit. Geneva: UNHCR.
ii MacLaren, D. (2010). Tertiary Education in Pursuit of the Common Good: the Thai-Burma Border Experience. Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Australian Catholic University, MacKillop Campus (unpublished).

 


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