Improving PSE Access and Experience for Refugees in Ontario

Improving PSE Access and Experience for Refugees in Ontario was written by Lena Balata, Natalie Pilla and Jackie Pichette, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario & Sara Asalya, Newcomer Students’ Association.

Refugee students’ success built on clear information about postsecondary options, strong social networks and mentorship

Ontario welcomes nearly half of the country’s refugees and the total number arriving is expected to increase given Canada’s ongoing commitments to resettle refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. Approximately 20% of refugees (aged 25 to 54 at the time of landing) participate in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE) after they arrive, which is low compared to other immigrant pathways. A new study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) in partnership with the Newcomer Students’ Association (NSA) finds that refugees encounter several informational, economic, social and cultural barriers that can inhibit PSE access and success. Refugees who attended college or university highlighted the importance of clear information early in the process, strong social networks and mentorship as factors in their success. Additionally, refugee students who participated in work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities felt more competitive in their job searches.

HEQCO conducted interviews with 19 Ontario refugee PSE students and recent graduates, recruited by NSA. The interviewees included a roughly even mix of: male- and female-identifying participants; those who were students at the time of the interview, and those who had recently graduated; and those who pursued college programs and university programs. HEQCO also analyzed Canadian census data to understand refugees’ postsecondary credential attainment and labour market outcomes, confirming that refugees who earn a PSE credential in Canada have improved labour market outcomes compared with those who do not.

Most interviewees indicated that they held a postsecondary certificate, degree or diploma from outside of Canada. Despite this familiarity with higher education, they experienced difficulty accessing information about Ontario PSE options, which stalled their trajectories here. Many were initially preoccupied with finding employment opportunities rather than pursuing PSE, in part because settlement agencies advised them to direct their time and energy in this way. Several noted barriers accessing information about financial assistance. While they were able to, eventually, leverage personal networks, such as mentors and social connections, to access information about PSE pathways, the delay created a sense of lagging behind their peers.

This sense of feeling left behind continued into PSE, with many interviewees highlighting challenges with academic and social integration, struggles to form bonds with peers and difficulties understanding academic expectations in Ontario. Competing responsibilities (including part-time work and family obligations), difficulties with language acquisition and experiences of discrimination added to their sense of being behind and outside. Interviewees also felt they lagged behind their peers in terms of skills and experiences, such as extracurriculars and work, which would prepare them to be competitive job applicants after graduation.

The following recommendations aim to improve PSE access and support for refugees:

  • Government and institutions should help bridge the gap between settlement agencies and PSE by improving access to information about pathways, financial support and entry requirements for refugees settling in Ontario.
  • Institutions should clearly communicate supports available and tailored to refugee students at the outset of PSE.
  • Institutions should facilitate opportunities for peer-to-peer connections and WIL.