SFU needs to level the playing field for refugee students

Concrete action should be taken around equitable refugee student admissions

The WUSC office on Burnaby campus needs more support. PHOTO: Gudrun Wai-Gunnarsson / The Peak

by Dev Petrovic, Staff Writer

SFU Student Services recently announced they are increasing their efforts around admission inclusion and accessibility for refugee students. While the initiative is still in its early stages, concerns around the difficulty of the current admission process and lack of situation-specific accommodations still remain. For SFU to truly consider how to be more inclusive of refugee students, there need to be more specific adjustments in how the admission process is conducted, as well as increased monetary involvement. 

As mentioned in the statement, the current admissions process is academically focused and does not consider external factors — such as socio-economic status and previous learning environments — that may impact an applicant’s formal academic achievements. Wafaa Zaqout, coordinator for the Refugee and Newcomers program, explained that refugee students “are often driven and passionate, but need to focus their energy in places outside of school.” For example, having to work several jobs and take care of family members, among other obstacles, may deter them from being able to fully commit to the expectations of a post-secondary environment. For this reason, adapting admission requirements — as offered as a potential solution in the statement — is certainly something that SFU needs to focus on first and foremost.

While this is a great first step, SFU also needs to consider their role in partnering with sponsorship programs. Currently, SFU offers the World University Services of Canada (WUSC) Student Refugee Program, which is a sponsorship program funded by a portion of the Student Activity fee. Through this program, refugee students are fully supported through sponsored tuition, textbook fees, and some living costs. The problem is that this program is created to be a highly competitive and rigorous process, requiring academic achievement evaluations, language proficiency tests, several interviews with partner organizations and sponsors, medical and security tests, as well as an evaluation of their ability to resettle in Canada. On top of that, only 80 students are accepted every year. 

Not only is this process incredibly daunting, but also rejects a large portion of the hundreds of students who apply every year, regardless of their academic ability. Not to mention that a process this long and exhausting neglects the consideration of applicants who may not have the support or resources to even go through with it. It also takes on a relatively classist and Anglocentric approach. Every applicant’s secondary school circumstances are not consistent with SFU’s educational expectations, and refugee students may not have access to this standard. A student’s initial English and French proficiency should not entirely discount them from being a successful candidate at a post-secondary institution.

All of these evaluations are not equitable expectations from applicants with a refugee background. After all, the process is not anything even remotely comparable to the application process for both domestic and international students. I understand that the WUSC sponsorship program is partnered with SFU, not run by them, and that these aren’t necessarily requirements that the school implements. However, SFU also has the power to make adjustments, as well as create alternative programs that can ensure the application process is equitable. 

The sponsorship program may have its limitations, but this does not mean there aren’t other actions that SFU can take to increase its educational accessibility for refugee students. As already mentioned, the regular application process needs to change. To supplement this, SFU could renegotiate with its sponsors (WUSC) to increase the number of accepted students, partner with a different program, or create its own program altogether. Whatever the action, there are realistic approaches for SFU to take

Another option could be re-locating funding to prioritize the refugee student program. In last year’s SFSS referendum, a WUSC student fee increase was approved, yet the number of sponsored refugee students has not changed very much. This is a minor solution for a much greater issue. Small fee increases can only do so much when what is really needed are concrete, systemic changes to the admissions system. Altogether, it may be a minor price that the SFU community may pay, but certainly should not be a monetary issue for SFU considering there always seems to be funding for various expensive, consistently delayed construction projects. 

After this statement from SFU’s Student Services, I do hope that refugee students are given the attention and support from SFU that they deserve. It’s a start to have disparities in the admission process acknowledged. But there is much more work to be done to adequately support refugee students wanting to join the SFU community. Engaging the world means engaging all students, including the unique experiences of those who come from a refugee background.

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