Giving Burmese refugees a university education

Published: Monday 17th October 2016

The situation of refugees, forced migrants and internally displaced people is one of the greatest humanitarian challenges facing humankind.

ACU through the Faculty of Education and Arts offers the Diploma of Liberal Studies course which provides a unique opportunity for bright young refugees to have access to internationally recognised qualifications in higher education.

Thai-Burma Refugee Program

ACU’s Thai-Burma Refugee Program has offered tertiary education to Burmese students in refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border since 2004. The program is recognised for its strong alignment with the University’s Mission and its strategic goal of Internationalisation. Since 2009, students in the program have been given the opportunity of enrolling in ACU’s Diploma in Liberal Studies and, since that time, over 150 students have graduated with the Diploma award.

Recently Dr Jen Couch, Course Coordinator of the Bachelor of Youth Work based at our Melbourne campus, went to teach a unit in the ACU Thai-Burma program in Ranong and Mae Sot. While in Ranong Dr Couch experienced firsthand the benefits the course is having on the community.

The Developing Young Person

“I taught a subject called ‘The Developing Young Person’ to the Diploma of Liberal Studies cohort. This is a youth work subject that focuses on the development and wellbeing of young people. One of the assessments for the unit was to develop a hypothetical youth program that addresses the needs of young people in the area,” Dr Couch explained.

“Students in Ranong made their assessment task a reality and created two real-life projects in August this year,” said Dr Couch.

Project one: A basic computer and Thai language skills class that aims to help students obtain work in the surrounding industries. The classes are run every Saturday for people between 17-25 years.

Project two: A class that teaches basic Burmese and maths to children who are not able to get to school, as children often live within charcoal and fish producing factories.

“Both projects were developed after consultation with families and community members,” explained Dr Couch. “The students held parent meetings to find out what the community wanted and needed.”

“It is fantastic to see concrete community engagement outcomes from an assessment task!”  Dr Couch said. “Both programs aim to address the educational needs of young people and children in Ranong.”


Ranong is in Southern Thailand and is the second largest Burmese community in Thailand (estimated at 80,000 people), where many migrants work in the fishing and its related industries. The migration has been fuelled by both the push of continuing economic hardship in Burma and the pull of better wages in Ranong, where fishing and its related industries are the largest sectors of employment.

More information about the ACU’s Thai-Burma program

Collaboration from international universities, community-based and non-governmental organisations (CBOs and NGOs), as well as religious orders, have aided in sustaining the ACU Thai-Burma Program. Internationally, there are two programs that offer Diploma-level university pathway courses to refugee cohorts.  No other program offers Diploma-level education in the locations ACU’s Thai-Burma Refugee Program serves.

This program has inspired other universities to consider offering tertiary education to refugees and has been recognised by the UNHCR as a model for best practice. It is part of the University's mission to be "guided by a fundamental concern for justice and equity and for the dignity of all human beings".

Graduates of the program have gone on to work in roles of significant benefit to their local and wider communities.  Since the program’s inception, a growing number of graduates have gone on to become teachers, managers, coordinators, health workers, professional in not-for-profit, political organisations and others have been awarded scholarships for further study by various universities.

Click here to find out more about ACU’s Thai-Burma program.