Bridging the Gap Between Secondary and Tertiary Education for Students with Refugee Backgrounds with Bourdieu

A Case study from Malaysia




refugee, asylum seeker, higher education, access to education, Bourdieu, Malaysia


Although progress has been made in increasing access at the primary and secondary level, only 1% of youth with refugee backgrounds are enrolled in tertiary education compared to 36% globally. Recent research suggests that tertiary education is fundamental in restoring dignity, security and hope for students with refugee backgrounds as well as preventing engagement with harmful fundamentalist ideologies. Given these potential benefits it is essential to better understand the barriers and develop initiatives to improve participation of students with refugee backgrounds in tertiary education. The main challenges faced by such students in Malaysia are a lack of information about existing opportunities, poor knowledge of the application process and insufficient soft skills required to gain access. This paper presents a case study of the CERTE Bridge Course in Malaysia, which was designed to address the above challenges and ‘bridge’ the gap between secondary and tertiary education for students with refugee backgrounds. Bourdieu’s theory of capital, habitus and field is used to explore the impact of the CERTE Bridge Course on participant’s success in achieving access to higher education. The research used pre- and post-surveys with each cohort to understand educational attainment, goals and interests and allow participants to self-assess development in soft skills. It is argued that the CERTE Bridge Course helped students navigate access to higher education by providing ways for them to develop social capital through improved communication skills and access to a network of sympathetic higher education admissions officers. Students also developed cultural capital and developed their habitus in a way that allowed them to negotiate access by presenting their skills in more recognisable ways in the field of higher education in Malaysia. Finally, the research highlights several immovable barriers in the field and identifies lesser discussed forms of capital, such as aspirational and resilience, as playing an important role in facilitating access.


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How to Cite

Birtwell, J., Duncan, R., Carson, J., & Chapman, J. (2020). Bridging the Gap Between Secondary and Tertiary Education for Students with Refugee Backgrounds with Bourdieu: A Case study from Malaysia. Journal of Comparative & International Higher Education, 12(Winter), 112–139.



Winter 2020 Special Edition: Thriving in the Face of Adversity (Refugees)