Structural factors associated with higher education access for first-generation refugees in Canada: an agenda for research.

Author:Ferede, Martha K.
Position:Clinical report


Refugees are the least educated migrants upon arrival to Canada. Yet, they invest in Canadian higher education at lower rates than other newcomers. Why might this be? This paper enters this emergent conversation through a review of the Canadian-based empirical literature on the structural factors associated with refugees' tertiary education access. Research indicates that as part of the low-income population, refugees are likely to misperceive the cost and benefits of higher education and be deterred by high tuition costs. Academic preparedness and tracking in high schools also pose additional constraints. The gap in the literature exposes a need for inquiry into the ways in which pre-arrival experiences influence refugees' participation in Canada's post-secondary institutions. The paper concludes by underscoring the need for qualitative research that discerns the lived experiences of refugees outside of the aggregate immigrant grouping typical in education research.


A leur arrivee, les refugies forment le groupe le moins eduque des immigrants au Canada. Pourtant, ils investissent dans l'education superieure au pays dans une plus faible proportion que les autres nouveaux arrivants. Pourquoi? Cet article contribue a ce nouveau sujet de discussion au moyen d'une revue de la litterature basee au Canada portant sur les facteurs structurels associes a l'acces des refugies a l'education superieure. La recherche revele qu'a titre de membres de la population a faible revenu, les refugies sont plus susceptibles d'avoir une perception erronee eles couts et des avantages d'une education superieure et d'en etre dissuades par les droits d'inscription eleves. La preparation et le suivi pedagogiques a l'ecole secondaire apportent des contraintes supplementaires. Le manque de litterature sur le sujet met en relief le besoin d'explorer en quoi les experiences pre-immigration influent sur la participation des refugies a l'education postsecondaire au Canada. L'article se termine par une mise en relief du besoin de recherches qualitatives qui discernent les experiences vecues par les refugies sans avoir recours aux regroupements globaux sur l'immigration qui sont typiques des recherches sur l'education.


Immigrant newcomers to Canada do not participate in Canadian higher education at equal rates. Scholars note that it is already highly educated newcomers who are most likely to choose to pursue post-secondary education in their new host country. (1) Refugees, who are the least educated migrants at arrival and are usually unable to return to their country of origin, invest in Canadian post-secondary education at lower rates. (2) Why might this be? This paper enters into this emergent conversation through a review of the Canadian-based empirical literature on the structural factors associated with refugees' tertiary education access.

While there is a growing body of knowledge on post-secondary access for native-born Canadians, relatively little is known about refugees' entry into Canada's higher education system. (3) This is partly due to the fact that K-16 school systems across Canada have traditionally not collected data on students' refugee designation. (4) Consequently, knowledge specific to the resettled refugee experience is often lost within the folds of aggregated educational research. However, since refugees' pre-arrival experiences often differ in important ways from those of voluntary immigrants, research that discerns their distinct experiences is warranted. (5) This paper provides a reflective synthesis and analysis on the available scholarship to serve as a precursor for this essential research.

Why should Canada care about refugee's access to higher education? What contextualizing pre-arrival factors need to be considered? What matters for refugees' access to post-secondary education in Canada? In this paper, I investigate these questions within two sections. In the first part of the paper, I articulate the impetus for focusing on refugees' higher education, describe pre-arrival conditions, and outline my theoretical framework. In the second section, I conduct a literature review guided by my research question: What structural factors are associated with higher education access for first-generation refugees in Canada? I note points of convergence and divergence and highlight contradictions between theory and evidence. For the purpose of clarity, the literature is synthesized into economic and educational factors. This organizational method was determined after a preliminary review of the scholarship and is done solely for clarity of analysis. I do not mean to suggest that these factors exist in a segmented manner in the real and complicated lives of resettled refugees. Lived experiences are nuanced and influenced by a myriad of factors and conditions that intersect and interact in surprising and complex ways. In essence, if refugees' lives are portraits, then this paper offers a sketch that outlines key structural considerations in thinking about refugees' higher education access.

Why Canada Should Care about the Higher Education of Refugees

The education of refugees provides both individual and societal benefits. Moreover, understanding and increasing refugees' participation in higher education is a natural extension of Canada's acclaimed humanitarian refugee resettlement efforts.

With limited tertiary education participation, refugees forgo the significant benefits that are part and parcel of higher education--advantages that are particularly robust with the completion of a bachelor degree. (6) Higher education has been found to provide a gateway to upward social and economic mobility by enabling access to high wages, high-quality positions, social networks, and entry into the middle class. (7) The average lifetime earning differential between a Canadian university graduate and a high school graduate is approximately $1.3 million dollars. A closer look at this figure reveals large income disparities based on field of study. In fact, 18.5 per cent of Canadian university graduates actually earn less than the average Canadian income $37,002. (8) However, despite this problematic lag, more than 80 per cent of university graduates still earn at or above the average Canadian income. Moreover, individual benefits of higher education extend beyond monetary gains. Persons with bachelor degrees are also more likely to enjoy higher self-esteem, have increased tolerance for others, enjoy lower child mortality rates, and live longer and healthier lives. (9)

Since an educated citizenry holds important consequences for the nation, increasing access and attainment to post-secondary education for its refugee population must become a policy priority. Educated persons tend to be informed citizens who are more likely to vote and to participate in the political process. (10) Moreover, an educated population is vital to national economic growth through fostering increased tax revenues and providing a skilled workforce able to engage in increasingly globalized knowledge markets. (11) Finally, those with higher levels of education are less likely to burden the social welfare or criminal justice systems. (12)

Understanding and increasing refugees' participation in higher education not only makes economic and civic sense, but is also a natural extension of Canada's acclaimed, albeit increasingly attacked, refugee resettlement efforts. (13) For over thirty years, Canada has been considered a global leader in the resettlement of refugees. Since World War II, Canada has provided protection for an estimated 700,000 refugees. (14) In 2009, with the arrival of 12,500 refugees, Canada was second only to the United States in the number of refugees sponsored for resettlement into a host country. (15) Canada also holds the distinction of being the only country in the world that allows private sponsorship of refugees by organizations and groups of five or more citizens. (16)

The nation's humanitarian endeavours already extend beyond the opening of its doors to offering integration and resettlement programs. Through its Resettlement Assistance Program, Canada offers a welcome at port of entry, housing assistance, and a basic orientation to Canada that focuses primarily on employment guidance and language instruction for adults. (17) There is no official mandate in resettlement efforts to increase newcomers' higher educational access or participation. Since 1996 the policy focus appears to be on attracting already educated immigrants and facilitating foreign-credential recognition rather than engaging newcomers in Canadian higher education. (18)

The lack of an explicit higher education initiative within resettlement services misses an excellent opportunity to assist refugees to become more marketable in the workforce and, perhaps, to be more smoothly integrated thorough interaction with other Canadians in post-secondary institutions. (19) Despite being more highly educated than previous cohorts, recent immigrants to Canada have experienced difficulty successfully incorporating in the labour market. (20) In an effort to explain this troubling trend, researchers and policy experts have pointed to a weak economy, employment discrimination, and the discounting of foreign work experience. (21) Scholars have also identified the non-recognition of foreign credentials by Canadian employers who "may simply not appreciate or trust the quality of higher education in a country with which they are unfamiliar" as another likely cause. (22) In fact, one-third of immigrants who experienced difficulties finding employment in the four years following arrival reported the rejection of foreign academic qualifications as a contributing factor. (23)

While it is not a panacea, participating in post-secondary education in Canada facilitates entry into the country's labour force. (24) For instance, in 2007 immigrants with a Canadian...

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