Researcher Annette Sprung works against the exclusion of migrants in their new societies. / Photo: A. Sprung's personal archive

Migration research is a force for inclusion

World of research.  Migrants run the risk of exclusion and turning into the “Other” in their new societies, also in adult education. For migration researcher Annette Sprung, research can prevent this through uncovering false categories and bias towards refugees.

Dr Annette Sprung is a professor at the University of Graz in Austria, her research focusing on adult education in migration societies, and themes of racism and diversity. The refugee influx in Europe makes Sprung’s research themes such as “the migration society” and “intercultural pedagogy” all the more salient.

But what do these academic topics contain in practice? Sprung has a clear definition at the ready:

– Migration is connected to social change, in many cases also to social inequalities. This makes it a relevant topic for the sphere of education. At the core, dealing with migration is dealing with change – a central task of education.

– My research concerns the challenges migration poses for adult education institutions. For example, how can institutions avoid the exclusion of people with migrant biographies? Or which new programs and methods have to be developed to address new migrant citizens? Studies show that in many countries certain groups of immigrants are underrepresented in adult education, she explains.

Sprung’s work also deals with the competences of adult educators. She looks into what kind of skills professional educators need to teach migrants, and how well migrants are represented also in the adult educator profession, as teachers themselves.

Sprung notes that migration research is mostly interdisciplinary, with many insights of other disciplines informing the research. For example theories on postcolonialism, racism and discrimination have inspired many studies in the field, and theories about transnationalism are adopted intensely in current research. Theories about foreign language learning are another example of interdisciplinary perspectives.

No boost in research funding

One might think that the ongoing refugee crisis would mean a bonanza of research funding for the topic. While this may be true for some countries, Sprung has not noticed a marked increase in her native Austria.

– I assume that at the moment the practical and basic challenges of taking the migrants in are so big that a lot of money, but also many ideas and energy, go to these activities.

Nevertheless Sprung sees plenty of need to emphasise certain research topics, emerging from the crisis.

Emphasis on good learning environments

According to Sprung, one such topic concerns the conditions of learning. Many migrants feel a lack of security after having arrived and are traumatised. Sometimes it takes a long time until their applications are decided, causing feelings of insecurity.

– We might need specific approaches to create good learning environments for those people – without separating them in the long run from the ‘majority’, she outlines.

– Furthermore we must think how refugees can adapt to their new society without being forced to assimilate. We also have to ask what the native populations have to learn? Which power relations and political frameworks play a role in these issues? Let us look at our society in terms of diversity in general – not only in terms of migration.

Adult education against “Othering”

Speaking of the diversity of European societies, Sprung is worried about the rise of nationalism, right-wing politics and racism across the continent. In her opinion, these topics should be a natural part of the agenda of the adult education researcher.

– A general challenge in migration research is to find ways to avoid the so-called process of ‘Othering’ of migrants, meaning that we tend to reproduce categories which lead to their exclusion, ‘special treatment’ and separation, Sprung says.

Education is not free of ‘othering”, either. ‘Migrants’ are not a homogenous group, Annette Sprung reminds – there are other factors that might be more relevant, like their former education, socio-economic status and gender, to name a few. Research can contribute to deconstructing false categories and help to develop a clearer picture of migrants’ needs, for example concerning their education.

Therefore it is also important to change perspectives: People with migration biographies are not only those who need help or who are the ‘learners’. They should become more involved in important positions and in all fields of education, including the scientific field, as competent actors.

– Generally I would like to see a re-politisation of adult education, which is rather dominated by economic interest at the moment. We should look more critically at the role of adult education in a migration context. Education often helps to execute repressive policies against migrants without really reflecting about all facets of their background.

A “hands-on” academic

Annette Sprung sees her academic work strongly tied with practice. Her research is mostly applied and in some cases participatory action research. In many projects she works together with stakeholders and decision-makers of adult education, but also with the people who are directly concerned by the research topics, such as migrants. For her, this has proved most fruitful and reflects a central claim of critical migration research: to give space to self-representation of minorised groups and to make them an active part of the knowledge production.

– One of our last projects, to give an example, analysed the access of migrant professionals to jobs in adult education. We studied how institutions deal with diversity and discrimination in general. Many experts were involved already in the analysis but also as co-researchers in participatory research workshops. Finally we developed – together with those stakeholders – ‘guidelines for adult education in migration societies’. These guidelines will be spread, discussed and implemented now.

Annette Sprung

  • was born in 1968;
  • studied social work and (adult) education and has been active in social work, in adult education (training and management) and in research;
  • works currently  at the University of Graz/Austria – Department of Educational Sciences/ Adult Education;
  • focuses on adult education in migration societies, racism, diversity, social inequality and civic education is part of several scientific and professional networks and committees, amongst them the ESREA Network on Migration, Transnationalism and Racisms.

World of research – bridging research and practice