Australian Catholic University (ACU) is a public not-for-profit Australian university funded by the Australian Government. The university has seven campuses across Australia and one in Rome, Italy (in collaboration with the Catholic University of America). Since 2004, ACU has been involved in delivering higher education on the Thai-Burmese 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.
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, global history and global health, development and education, in partnership with York University in Canada. ACU believes the critical thinking that academic work demands leads to belief in peaceful, political negotiation as a means to end the violence in their homeland.
The ACU Diploma employs entrance testing procedures that mirror those used for international student entry to ACU in Australia, recruiting high-quality candidates for the Diploma of Liberal Studies course from the Thai border-region with Myanmar. In partnership with the Marist Asia Foundation in Thailand, the ACU’s diploma program provides substantial face-to-face teaching from visiting academics in a flipped classroom approach in a comfortable, safe study centre. It also offers regular email and videoconference with academics in Australia, 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. 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 that offers an internationally-accredited course to refugees in Thailand that is accepted by other universities. To date, more than 200 students on the Thai-Myanmar border have graduated with the Diploma of Liberal Studies from ACU. 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, 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.