Australian Catholic University (ACU) is a public not-for-profit Australian university funded by the Australian Government. The university has eight campuses across Australia and one in Rome. Since 2004, ACU has been involved in delivering tertiary education on the Thai-Myanmar border to refugees, particularly persecuted ethnic groups, who have fled repression and civil war in Myanmar. Here, ACU offers an 18-month foundational liberal studies diploma – equivalent to one year of a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree – in eight broad subjects; and a half-course four-unit certificate qualification. In 2019 ACU began trialling a new education program, the Certificate in Teaching and Learning, to bring ACU’s long history of teacher training expertise to the Thai-border region and build teacher training capacity in refugee and migrant communities.
The program aims to provide a gateway into further tertiary education, into critical positions in community-based organisations (CBOs) or NGOs, and to help shape the future leaders of Myanmar communities. The diploma includes units on English language skills, international relations and human rights law, geography and development, global history and global health.
The ACU Diploma in Liberal Arts program (Thai-Burma) employs entrance testing procedures that mirror those used for international student entry to ACU in Australia, recruiting high-quality candidates for the Diploma program from the Thai border-region with Myanmar. In partnership with the Marist Asia Foundation in Thailand, the ACU’s diploma program provides blended learning experiences, including substantial face-to-face teaching from visiting academics, in a flipped classroom approach in comfortable, safe study centres. It also offers regular email and videoconference with academics in Australia, and hosts visiting guest lecturers at their learning centres, and there are qualified English-language tutors based permanently in-country to provide daily support. Students have access to reliable internet and the IT required to successfully engage in both classroom and online learning. At key points in the diploma, refugee students’ study ‘side by side’ with Australian students via ACU’s online learning platform, with great opportunities for collaborative learning in the ‘global classroom’. Assessment is undertaken across the whole student group, ensuring rigorous quality standards of assessment are adhered to.
The provision of strong English-language support and a focus on building a safe, community of learners has led to a very low attrition rate of under 10%. This is, in part, because the tempo of learning is purposely slowed compared to academic programs in most Universities; eight units (a full-time load in Australia) are completed over a longer 12-18 month period, instead of 12-15 weeks. Where possible, the content of units in the diploma is chosen to ensure cultural relevance to the students. This ensures there are some topics on which they may have greater expertise than their ACU peers in Australia, allowing them to confidentially share their knowledge and experiences with Australian students via the joint learning platform. By this way, both domestic and offshore student experiences are enriched.
ACU is the only university currently offering free internationally-accredited education to refugees in Thailand that is accepted by other universities. To date, more than 250 students on the Thai-Myanmar border have graduated with the Diploma of Liberal Studies degree from ACU. Our student cohort has a long-term gender balance of c. 50% females. While the majority of these students do not have a recognised high school qualification, the award of the diploma qualification means that universities across Asia, Australia, the USA and Europe, have accepted them for further tertiary-level education. For students who go on to further study in Australia, advance standing in a Bachelor’s degree is also possible. Beyond further study, ACU’s Thai-Burma program graduates have gained employment in NGOs and community-based organisations, CBOs as teachers or community leaders, and in the business sector as well. ACU’s Thai-Burma Program is delivered in partnership with the Marist Asia Foundation and with support from Chiang Mai University and the CLCC.