Refugees and Higher Education

Part V: The Impact on the Education of Canadian Students

There are a myriad of recent initiatives using modern instruments and methods underway, such as the installation of Wikipedians-in-residence to enhance both the quality of the Wikipedia at the same time as it assists in its most effective but also critical use, including the severe shortcomings of its editorial process. Rather than downgrading the level of knowledge which students access, the process of engagement can involve them deeper in the process of producing quality learning materials while, at the same time, teaching students how knowledge can be subject to biases. This is but one of many examples.

Many of these initiatives are designed to reduce attrition rates that result from a variety of factors from the amount of debt students accrue in gaining a higher education to the student’s lower GPA score and the quality of teaching offered these students. Motivation is also a key factor. When it comes to refugee students, the motivation to do well and to complete a course of studies is very high. Further, the strong motivation rubs off on native students. Ironically, the higher the percentage of more motivated students, the lower the attrition rate and the greater the effectiveness of college education. This is especially true when the native students can experience a degree of responsibility for and involvement in bringing refugee students on campus. 

Currently, as Maclean’s Magazine reported in 2018, the drop-out rate of students in Canada from universities varies from 10% at Queen’s to over 50% in a few institutions. York University is the mean where the drop-out rate is 27.5%. The average drop-out rate from first year is 14%. This represents a very inefficient use of resources.

What is needed is a better pipeline, one connecting potential refugee learners on one end and universities with an absorptive capacity at the other end, one connecting native students at the latter end with very highly motivated refugee students at the other end. As one prominent scholar involved with distance education serving refugees has remarked, this global situation “resembles an hourglass: one bulb is filled with thousands of institutions with great and growing absorptive capacity, while the other bulb is filled and filling with millions of potential refugee learners. The bulbs are connected by a thin neck through which refugees trickle like solitary grains of sand to universities while the knowledge from the world’s universities trickles through the neck one lesson at a time to refugee learners in the global south.” The issue is how to widen the neck?

“How do we turn the trickle into a flow, with students going one way and knowledge and capacity-building investments go the other?  Is there a model that can overcome the collective action problems endemic to higher education (HE) in the global north while investing in HE education in host countries?  How do we strengthen the system so it is sustainable, adaptive, and resilient enough to sustain the flow?”

In 2018, about 1.8 million native students attended postsecondary institutions in Canada. This number has been relatively constant since 2011. If the number remained constant, if the foreign student population also remained constant at 600,000, if by 2025 120,000 PSSV students were added to this total, then PSSV students would eventually constitute only 5% of the total postsecondary student population in Canada, a relatively insignificant increase in enrollment. Total foreign student enrollment would be about 30%.

With 642,000 foreign students, Canada is now the world’s third-leading destination of international students. Study permits for 404,000 international students took effect in 2019 alone. PSSV students would constitute a relatively small proportion of the student visa population. At the same time, to both select those students as well as incentivize young refugees, Canada, with partners, would run a distance education program at the post-secondary level for refugees. For every nine students educated overseas, one student would be brought to Canada. At the same time, with the skills acquired, refugee youth would be in a much better position to enter the knowledge economy in their countries of asylum.[i]

If there are 30 million refugees in such situations, if half of them are of school age (15,000,000), if 1,500,000 can be assisted to graduate from secondary school each year, if Canada takes on the responsibility of distance higher education for 10% of them, or 150,000, if 20% of them enter Canada on student visas (30,000) each year, then students in the PSSV program would constitute about 5% initially of students in Canada on student visas.

We need to connect institutions of higher learning in host countries where refugees in significant numbers are located with institutions that are able and eagerly willing to enhance their online learning capacities. Knowledge can travel down the pipeline one way. So can students eager to acquire and participate in field experience. Research and students can travel in the opposite way. At the same time, the capacity for higher education in the region will be significantly enhanced.

What we need to do is couple universities and colleges, students and faculty, universities and civil society organizations at one end with institutions of higher learning and service organizations at the other end to make higher education available to refugees in a far more extensive way. The coupling process entails expanding the private sponsorship model initiated and developed in Canada.[ii] Student bodies would be asked to sponsor not just a few students as they do now, but an institution like York could sponsor 500.

Students would organize into groups of at least five to enlist partners in the private sector who would put up the costs for each student sponsored. Costs could be significantly reduced if volunteer sponsors offered students free room and even possibly board. Courses would be offered in refugee camps and refugee areas through both distance learning and intensive in-person support locally.[iii] Online is most effective when it is coupled with high-dosage teaching that MOOCs currently miss.[iv] From the achievement of those students, selected ones would be accepted for sponsorship. In this way, educational possibilities would connect with economic opportunities and in turn with membership openings not only in sponsoring societies, but in local societies that can benefit from the skills acquired.

The model entails the following nodes that need to be connected:

  • Relevant research centres, such as the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, linked in a mega-university network of parallel institutions in the same and adjacent areas of a megalopolis, such as: Ryerson University Centre for Immigration and Refugee Studies; Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies and the Global Migration Research Institute in the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto; Dr. Christopher Kyriakides who holds the Canada Research Chair with the Department of Sociology and Professor Vic Satsawich at McMaster University, the former working on the intersection of media and refugee policy and the latter on the intersection of organization and refugee policy and also include Charles Carlo Handy, the Founder of McMaster University’s Graduate Migration and Mobility Network; the Centre for Studies in Social Justice, University of Windsor; CERIS, Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigration and Settlement, Citizenship and Immigration Canada; Migration and Diaspora Studies at Carleton University; the Centre for Migration and Ethnic Relations in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at Western University; Culture and Language Studies at the University of Waterloo; International Migration Research Centre (IMRC), Wilfrid Laurier University; Development Studies at the University of Guelph which would include faculty such as Prof. Monique Deveaux in U of G’s Department of Philosophy.
  • a number of journals that publish refugee scholarship: Linkages would be fostered by the use of existing networks and journals such as Refuge: Canada’s Journal for Refugee Studies; Journal for Refugee Studies; Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration; Journal for Ethnic and Migration Studies; Journal of the Global Migration published by the Munk Centre; 

 Griffith Journal of Law & Human DignityJournal of International Migration and Integration;

  • Linkages with nearby community colleges with relevant programs which often do far more to integrate first-generation learners and migrants than do the elite institutions;
  • Linkages between those centres and the student councils at those universities as well as among those student councils as students are envisioned as the backbone for delivering the sponsorships;
  • Linkages with municipalities in which those higher learning centres are located to enhance the capabilities and opportunities of a mega-region now considered the key locus of business and economic development while allowing refugees to join knowledge economies to the benefit of both the resettlement countries and the refugees themselves with the additional side effect that some of these refugees will return to help others gain an education and enhance the economic prospects of both the host and possibly home states;
  • Linkages between businesses and social service organizations with the student councils active in the program.

It should be noted that without such linkages, there is a propensity of businesses to exploit refugee labour for profit purposes in the guise of providing skill training. In the move away from humanitarian resettlement responses, wealthy countries have instead invested in countries of first asylum to abet border enforcement and institute economic development zones such as in The Jordan Compact. However, economic gains have been minimal and, taking advantage of their immobility, refugees are used to make a profit at the expense of their well-being.[v]

In contrast, the purpose is to significantly enlarge the necks of the pipeline joining the refugee population centres with the university-urban partnerships so that global emergency zones become both the target of providing educational opportunities and a source for talent to feed the economic growth of a mega-region. Refugees acquire a gateway and sponsorship centres acquire a creative and highly motivated source of talent.

To achieve these synergies requires an increased investment in distance learning and the technology related thereto, the organization of sponsorships in the global north and the creation of and partnership with higher learning centres in the global south in areas of high concentration of refugees. This would be an excellent application to the goals of the Open Societies University Network (OSUN) located at Bard College and funded by the Soros Foundation, the goals of which are to:

  • Foster critical thinking, open intellectual inquiry, and fact-based research to strengthen foundations of open society amid authoritarian resurgence
  • Educate students to address tomorrow’s global challenges by getting to know other societies from the inside
  • Expand access to higher education at a time of growing inequities
  • Counteract polarization by promoting global research collaboration and educating students to examine issues from different perspectives and advance reasoned arguments[vi]
  • Bolster efforts by universities in challenging environments to build their own capacity through global partnerships to make greater contributions to their societies.

Foundations with existing programs already in place will have to be approached. Further, a media campaign will be necessary to demonstrate how this will be a win-win situation for refugees and the receiving country.


[i] The access to higher education significantly improves the chances for young people. Cf. Caitlin Nunn, Sandra M. Gifford, Celia McMichael, and Ignacio Correa-Velez (2017) “Navigating precarious terrains: reconceptualizing refugee youth settlement,” Refuge: Canadian. journal on refugees. 33:2, 45-55. https://refuge.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/refuge/artic le/view/40462 

[ii] For a review of this program, see Refuge, a special issue on private sponsorship, co-editors Johanna Reynolds and Christina Clark-Kazak https://refuge.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/refuge/issue/current

[iii] “Refugee camps versus urban refugees: what’s been said – and done,” Cristiano D’Orsi, The Conversation (November 3, 2019). This news report summarizes the ongoing confusion on the policy front regarding camp vs. urban refugees.

[iv] MOOCs miss much more. The decision in 2016 by Coursera to open a track for vulnerable populations (Coursera for Refugees) was well-intentioned but misbegotten.  It not only recycled and marketing of a partial solution, it made assumptions about learners that are at best tenuous, and at worst misleading.  Some would say unethical.  As one economist in the African Development Bank, “please, no more MOOCs!”

[v] Julia Morris (2020) “Extractive Landscapes: The Case of the Jordan Refugee Compact,” Refuge 36:1.

[vi] Hopkins, G., L. Buffoni (2019) The IGAD Kampala Declaration on jobs, livelihoods, and self-reliance: from declaration to reality,” PalgraveCommun 5, 157.  The article emphasizes the crucial importance of planned and active participation, inclusion and collaboration of all parties to enable a high-level meetings and fora to prioritize an approach to discussions which creates enabling contexts of formal but inclusive dialog. https://rdcu.be/bYI6r

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s