Refugee-background students in Aotearoa: Supporting successful secondary to tertiary education transitions

Funding year: 
3 years
University of Otago
Cross sector
Project start date: 
January 2020
Project end date: 
March 2023
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Vivienne Anderson
Research team members: 
Dr Jo Oranje and Sayedali Mostolizadeh (University of Otago)
Research partners: 
Amber Fraser-Smith (Otago Polytechnic), Pip Laufiso (Ministry of Education), Angela Watts (Carisbrook School), Jarrah Cooke (NZ Red Cross) and Dr Rachel Rafferty (University of Derby – external advisor)


Introduction/project description

This participatory action research project involves working with refugee-background students to identify and enact practices that promote their capacity to navigate and negotiate the secondary-tertiary education border. The project will foreground students’ voices in relation to educational transition, and lead to the development of student-centred transition resources for refugee-background students and their educational institutions. In partnership with refugee-background students in Otago/Southland, the project examines: (1) how students imagine and experience the secondary-tertiary transition; (2) strategies they employ to navigate transition successfully; (3) institutional practices that foster their ‘navigational capability’; and (4) how their experiences can inform teaching and support practices.


Our project collaborates with refugee background students in the Otago/Southland region to:

  1. examine how they imagine, experience, navigate and negotiate the secondary-tertiary education border,
  2. identify strengths-based, student-centred approaches that foster their educational and transition success,
  3. develop student-centred transition resources for other young people from refugee backgrounds, and their families and educational institutions.

To this end, our project explores four questions:

  1. How do refugee-background students imagine and experience the secondary-tertiary education transition?
  2. What strategies do they employ to navigate this transition successfully?
  3. What institutional practices foster students’ ‘navigational capability’ in secondary and tertiary education?
  4. How might students’ navigational experiences inform resettlement, teaching and support practices in secondary and tertiary education institutions?

Why is this research important?

Access to tertiary education is a key enabler of social and economic independence and integration for people from refugee backgrounds, but internationally, accessing tertiary education is a key challenge. New Zealand has increased its commitment to refugee resettlement, and education is one of five key resettlement goals in New Zealand’s Refugee Resettlement Strategy. Through engaging with refugee-background students in Southern New Zealand, our project will explore factors that support students’ access to and success in tertiary education. It will also foreground young people’s voices in relation to education policy and practice in the area of secondary-tertiary education transition. 

What we plan to do

This is a longitudinal Participatory Action Research (PAR) project, which means that students are co-researchers with the research team. We will generate data through research hui held during term breaks — in 2020 and 2021, with Year 12 and 13 refugee-background students, and in 2021 and 2022, with students who continue on to Dunedin-based tertiary study. Initially, we will use ‘mapping’ as a way of inviting students to reflect on their educational pathways to date and their educational aspirations. Then, we will work with students to explore and access relevant supports and information sources, and adjust their ‘maps’ if necessary. Students will share their learning through the development of creative resources for families, schools and other students and educational institutions. Data will be generated through peer and group discussion, artefact creation, and participant observation in research hui, and analysed collaboratively with the student participants.

Our partners

Amber Fraser-Smith (Otago Polytechnic)
Pip Laufiso (Ministry of Education)
Angela Watts (Carisbrook School)
Jarrah Cooke (NZ Red Cross)
Dr Rachel Rafferty (University of Derby – external advisor)

Contact details

Dr Vivienne Anderson
Higher Education Development Centre
University of Otago
PO Box 56
New Zealand
Phone: +64 3 479 5360

From left to right: Penny Kershaw, Jo Oranje, Viv Anderson, Amber Fraser-Smith, and Ali Mostolizadeh. Missing team members are Jarah Cooke (Red Cross) and Pip Laufiso (Ministry of Education).