Kevin Rudd has admitted hardline asylum policies introduced by Labor were "not a perfect answer", while the former prime minister's wife has called for more compassion to be shown to refugees.
Mr Rudd's confession came as the Abbott Government accelerated talks with Papua New Guinea in an effort to cut a deal on what to do with certified refugees at the Manus Island detention camp.
Speaking at Oxford University on Saturday, Mr Rudd urged students to meet five challenges.
He asked them to preserve peace, fight for liberty, work for inclusive capitalism, face the rise of China and take climate change seriously.
But the former PM was challenged by a student on whether his government's harsh policies of dealing with asylum seekers were consistent with the advice to pursue peace and liberty.
Mr Rudd acknowledged the policy was controversial but said "a large slice" of people arriving by boat were not genuine asylum seekers.
"Where it got to by the end of 2013 was the number of folks coming by boat was overwhelming the whole (Australian) refugee intake," he said.
"It's not a perfect answer."
Just days before calling the 2013 election, Mr Rudd announced the expansion of the Manus camp and said a deal had been struck with Port Moresby under which refugees would be settled in that country.
But on coming to power, the coalition found there was no legal framework in place for how Manus refugees would be settled in the PNG community.
Speaking at the Australian National University on Saturday, Mr Rudd's wife Therese Rein said that since leaving The Lodge she had time to reflect on the problems of refugees fleeing conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.
"There are a lot of people who are displaced because of war, famine, oppression . . . and it is really important that we welcome people to this country who are fleeing all of that," she said.