A feminist ethics of care reading of the experiences of students from refugee and migrant backgrounds in Australian higher education

Year: 2019

Author: Baker, Sally, Naidoo, Loshini

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

As the numbers of refugees and displaced persons worldwide continues to rise, it is inevitable that the number of refugee students in Australian education will increase. There is an undeniable need for educators to create enduring spaces for refugee background students by reconceptualising learning as a holistic process that extends beyond classroom walls and builds on the resilience and assets these students bring to learning (Naidoo et al., 2015).The scholarly literature strongly attests to the significance of being able to access forms of tertiary education for people from refugee and asylum seeking backgrounds (Naidoo, 2015; Stevenson & Baker, 2018). Education offers hope and opportunity, often disrupting the bleak daily experience of waiting for settlement, or the radical disruption of early settlement. However, while education is known to be important, there is concern that the educational systems and structures in settlement contexts like Australia lack the flexibility needed to fully respond to the needs of newly arrived students who are culturally and linguistically diverse (Baker et al., 2018; 2019).

This paper suggests how we might reframe research into an ‘ethics of care’ for those from forced migration backgrounds. For Foucault, a critical attitude and its allied virtues – refusal, curiosity and innovation – form the building blocks of ethical conduct (O’Farrell, 2005,p. 116), which requires ‘taking care of the self’ (Sidhu & Naidoo, 2018, p. 172). When read through a feminist ethics of care lens, there is a clear moral conflict at play when higher education institutions accept students with particular needs, but do not consult with students as to what they need, nor adjust their practices and structures to accommodate those students.

In this paper, we use Tronto’s (2010) 3-part typology of what constitutes ‘good care’ in institutional contexts — the purpose of care, the politics of care, and the particularity and plurality of care — to probe universities’ responses to the needs of students from refugee backgrounds. Exploring higher education through the lens of a student from a refugee background helps us to resist the assumptions that universities often make about who our students are, what they can do, what they bring, what they need, and what they desire. When viewing higher education experiences from the eyes of a refugee student, we are forced to unpack paternalistic assumptions about our students’ prior educational experiences, about cultural and linguistic diversity, about ethnicity and religious background, about experiences of trauma, displacement and conflict.