Refugees and Higher Education in Three Countries

By Kimberly F. Browning, Hakan Ergin and Daichi Ishii

The number of people around the world who have been forced to leave their homes is the highest on record. Of these nearly 71 million displaced people, 41 million are internally displaced, 26 million are refugees and over 3 million are asylum seekers. Whilst around 1/3 of young people around the world go on to study at university or college, only 1% of refugee youth are able to access higher education.

At the recent Shaping Sustainable Futures for Internationalization in Higher Education conference, some of the challenges that hold back refugees from accessing higher education were discussed and debated. In this post, we share some of these issues.

Hakan Ergin, a postdoctoral scholar at Boston College’s Centre for International Higher Education, discusses the situation in Turkey, the world’s largest recipients of refugees and home to vast numbers of refugees from Syria. Daichi Ishii, a PhD candidate at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, offers a perspective from Hong Kong, where access to higher education for asylum seekers is limited. Kimberly F. Browning, a government advisor who recently completed an award-winning PhD dissertation on prior learning assessment and recognition, looks at problems of qualification assessment and recognition for refugee immigrants to Canada.

Turkey: Managing access to higher education for Syrian refugees

Having opened its door to over 3.6 million Syrian refugees since 2011, the Turkish government has taken action to help Syrian refugees access Turkish universities. However, being admitted to a university is already quite challenging for Turkish youth. Every summer, more than two million local youth take the university entrance test but fewer than half make it into a university. Others have to wait for a year to re-sit the test. In this environment, parents are willing to spend time and money on preparation their children for university, and this helps explain why both parents and young people have resisted moves by the government that would extend to access to a different group: Syrian refugees.

In order to cope with this local tension, the Turkish government has had three tactics. First, reforms for refugee access were made step by step. For example, the quota for refugee admission to universities was restricted to ten per cent of the quota of the local students in 2013. As society became more familiar with the idea of refugees at university over time, this restriction was eventually removed in 2019.

Second, in response to fake news, the government has attempted to keep people informed on a regular basis. For example, a story claiming that a department at a university would only accept refugees but not local people spread widely on social media. In response, the government released press statements contradicting this misinformation.

Third, the ruling party, which has a conservative identity, issues reminders that Syrian refugees are Turkish people’s Muslim brothers and sisters and it is a religious kindness to provide them with humanitarian and educational aid.

So far, these tactics seem to be working and tensions are dissipating. However, as almost two million of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are below the age of 18, it is very likely that there will be more demand for higher education by these refugees in the near future. Looking ahead, the government will need to continue taking measures to prevent any serious tensions arising in the country.

Hong Kong: Universities as Providers of Legal Status for Asylum Seekers

Asylum seekers are those who have made a claim to be a refugee on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to persecution, but whose status has not been evaluated. Given this precarious status, it is difficult for asylum seekers to get stable legal status in some territories.

This is the case in Hong Kong, where asylum seekers face a long wait for the outcome of their asylum application. Furthermore, asylum seekers cannot work legally while waiting for the result of their applications. The government’s attitude toward asylum seekers is not positive, and the system has not been changed smoothly.

However, it is still possible to change the legal status of individual asylum seekers within the framework of the current system. One way to do so is to enroll in a local higher educational institution. By going to university, asylum seekers can obtain a study visa and legal residential status. Some private foundations have been known to offer financial and legal help to asylum seekers to access higher education and therefore obtain legal status, and there are cases of asylum seekers who have graduated from local universities and subsequently found work in Hong Kong.

Yet there are two major barriers for asylum seekers wishing to enter higher education in Hong Kong. Firstly, the tuition fees are very high. For example, The Chinese University of Hong Kong charges local students HKD$42,100 (CAD$7,000) but over three times that much – HKD$145,000 (CAD$24,000) to non-local students. Asylum seekers are not regarded as local students and have to pay the non-local student rates regardless of how many years they have stayed in Hong Kong.

Secondly, although the option to enrol in a local university is available, it is sometimes difficult for asylum seekers to get a study visa if in the past they had stayed illegally in Hong Kong.

Canada: Challenges to assessing the qualifications of refugees

Canada admitted more than 286,000 permanent residents in 2017, including 44,000 resettled refugees, protected persons and people admitted under humanitarian, compassionate and public policy considerations. In addition, the United Nations Refugee Agency Global Trends reported that in 2018, Canada admitted the largest number of refugees who were resettled in 25 countries and had the second highest rate of refugees who gained citizenship. While initial efforts have focused on immediate settlement needs, a key issue for many refugees is the recognition of their qualifications in order to find employment, gain admission to further education, and settle into their new lives in Canada.

To ensure refugees’ inclusion, their qualifications and prior learning must be recognized so they can continue their education and find employment that corresponds to their skills. The benefits of recognition are not just economic: the recognition process itself can also potentially increase individuals’ capacity to learn by building up their self-esteem and confidence, encouraging them to engage in lifelong learning.

However, the complexity of having previous credentials recognized is one of the main obstacles refugees encounter in obtaining employment in Canada. Some of the barriers faced by refugees in having their qualifications recognized include incomplete or interrupted education, missing or partial documentation, inability to verify documentation and recognizing learning that has occurred outside formal education.

In addition, Canadian qualification recognition systems are often fragmented, as provinces and territories have different standards for evaluating degrees and setting certification norms for trades and professions, and lengthy, complex recognition systems that can discourage newcomers from applying in the first place. This in turn, creates a hurdle with numerous educational institutions and international credential assessment services being involved, resulting in confusing processes for newcomers.

Educational institutions, regulatory bodies and academic credential assessment services have developed policies to assist refugees, but ongoing collaboration among stakeholders is critical to facilitating continuous improvements to learning recognition processes for refugees and their integration into the Canadian workforce.

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