Globally, Canada is the top country for refugee resettlement and has specialized programs for people fleeing violence, including the recent Canada-Ukraine Authorization for Emergency Travel (CUAET). Consequently, a growing number of people in Canada have experienced forced migration. These lived experiences enrich teaching, learning and research by diversifying worldviews, perspectives on global challenges, and Canada’s place in the world. However, many talented colleagues face barriers to accessing postsecondary opportunities due to their immigration status and displacement experiences.
There are some important existing initiatives to widen and deepen access to Canadian colleges and universities for people with lived experiences of displacement. For example, since 1978, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), through the Student Refugee Program (SRP), has combined resettlement with tertiary education pathways. WUSC has local committees made up of students at campuses across Canada to sponsor more than 150 refugee students per year for a total of 2200 students in 40 years. The Scholars At Risks (SAR) network launched in Canada in 2012 has provided protection to displaced and threatened scholars and allows them to resume their work – either as visiting researchers or as graduate students. In 2013, a group of students at Wilfrid Laurier University proposed what is now known as the International Students Overcoming War (ISOW) project. In 2018, York University, in partnership with Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre, started the “Access to Education” program to provide degree opportunities for people with precarious immigration status.
Barriers faced by displaced students and scholars
While these are promising first steps, structural barriers can impact learning and research outcomes and retention. Students who are not permanent residents or protected persons are required to pay international student fees and are not eligible for provincial loans and many scholarships. Researchers and students may contribute to their family incomes both in Canada and through remittances overseas. Given these financial realities and limited social capital, many students with displaced backgrounds must work – sometimes full-time – while completing their studies, while researchers may take on multiple precarious contracts.
Additionally, displaced students and scholars often have caregiving responsibilities in intergenerational families, reducing time for learning and research. Students and researchers who are new to Canadian universities may not know how to access university-based counselling and academic support services. Contract instructors and researchers often do not benefit from institutionalized access to language and professional training, internal research funds, employment benefits, and library access beyond their contracts. Racialized and visibly religious colleagues face additional layers of discrimination due to racism, xenophobia and/or Islamophobia.
In response, Canadian postsecondary institutions should develop strategies to widen, deepen and institutionalize access for students and researchers from displacement backgrounds for three key reasons:
- Publicly funded institutions should be publicly accessible. While universities and colleges have adopted equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategies, most EDI policies do not explicitly address the structural barriers that displaced students and researchers face.
- Provincial and federal governments who fund postsecondary education and research, as well as immigration programs, have a vested interest in settlement outcomes of displaced students and researchers. Access to learning, training, research and employment opportunities in Canadian universities will facilitate successful labour market integration.
- Universities and the wider Canadian public will benefit from the knowledge, experience and creativity that displaced students and researchers bring to the multifaceted issues of our times – from climate change to racial justice to displacement.
A better approach
We have come up with four key recommendations for postsecondary institutions to more systematically and strategically welcome students and researchers from displacement contexts.
- Canadian universities and colleges need to institute application and tuition fee waivers or discounts for people from refugee and displacement backgrounds who do not benefit from domestic fees and funding opportunities. For example, some universities waived application fees for Ukrainians who arrived in Canada as temporary residents. This offer should be extended to all in similar situations regardless of nationality. Universities should also follow York University’s example to provide pathways to higher education for people with precarious status who would otherwise be required to pay international fees.
- Postsecondary institutions need to provide clearer and more equitable opportunities for accessing funding, scholarships and grants for people from displacement backgrounds. Currently, most financial aid sections of higher education websites require prospective candidates to click through multiple links to find eligibility criteria. Websites should be overhauled to more clearly indicate which financial opportunities are available to people from displacement backgrounds. More of these funding and grants should be created for students who are not eligible for domestic fees, scholarships and loans.
- Canadian universities and colleges need to more explicitly recognize and validate previous, non-Canadian education and work experience. As part of EDI training for hiring and admissions committees, there should be explicit sensitization to bias against non-Canadian credentials. Moreover, administrators should be made aware of challenges posed to obtaining official documents, like transcripts and diplomas, and reference letters for people fleeing war, violence and repression. Explicit policies should be put in place to accommodate such circumstances and deal equitably with applications from displacement contexts.
- Finally, there is an urgent need to review employment conditions for displaced researchers and instructors on contract. In particular, a flexible approach to library access and language and professional training will reduce some of the structural barriers that displaced colleagues face in securing stable, long-term employment. Within collective agreements for contract faculty, provisions could also be made to waive seniority requirements for a specific number of employment opportunities to facilitate access for displaced colleagues with no Canadian work experience.
Parisa Azari is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Ottawa. Christina Clark-Kazak is an associate professor of public and international affairs in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of social sciences.