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Senate discusses future plans to aid student refugees

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McGill has encountered challenges in its efforts to enable more student refugees to enroll in its academic programs. On Oct. 21, the McGill Senate addressed the university’s role regarding the current Syrian refugee crisis, and measures for allowing more refugees to study at McGill. A question addressed to Senator and Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens from Law Senator Benjamin Brunot, inquired about the procedures and possible improvements in McGill’s contributions to support student refugees.


Brunot questioned whether McGill planned on maintaining its level of funding to the Student Refugee Program (SRP), and what measures the university would take if there was insufficient funding for this program. The SRP is run by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), and enables student refugees to pursue their post-secondary studies in Canadian institutions. In response, Dyens explained McGill’s plans to allocate supplementary funds to the SRP, in addition to WUSC’s annual $1 student levy.

“We […] have allocated $130,000 this year to increase the number of student refugees through the WUSC program,” Dyens wrote in his response.

According to Gabriel Siow, Vice-President (VP) internal for WUSC McGill, the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has increased the need for the program. The additional $130,000 provided by McGill will allow for the acceptance of four more students from Syria for the 2016-2017 academic year.

Since 1987, McGill has accepted 36 students through the WUSC program.

“WUSC has been relying on a $1 student levy, per student, every year in order to cover virtually every cost of our incoming refugee students for their first year, after which they will resort to government loans for their education,” Siow said.


The Quebec Ministry of Education does not currently allow undocumented students to be admitted into post-secondary institutions. According to Brunot, this may create a barrier for student refugees who do not have all their personal documents in their possession when they arrive in Canada. In Dyens’ response to Brunot’s question, he described an individual-based approach for admission of students in precarious situations.

>“Students who apply for admission and who, due to catastrophic circumstances such as war or natural disaster, are not able to present formal, official documentation to substantiate their prior academic studies, are considered on a case by case basis,” Dyens wrote.

Dyens additionally explained that McGill has been lobbying provincial and federal governments to increase the number of Syrian refugees welcomed in Quebec, but the federal government has been hesitant to accelerate the process.

“Immigration issues are complex, involving both the provincial and the federal governments,” Dyens wrote. “Quebec has been quite vocal in its desire to increase the number of Syrian refugees coming to the province; however, the federal government is more reserved in its desire to speed up the process.”

Efficacy of MOOCs

In his response, Dyens suggested Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as a solution for increased access to a McGill education for refugees. During the Senate meeting, however, Brunot raised concerns about the difficulty of using MOOCs to reach out to students in precarious situation. MOOCs are online courses delivered through a non-profit consortium, EdX, which includes 36 institutions around the world. McGill joined EdX in 2012, and currently offers four courses through MOOCs.

“I was just worried about how McGill can actually reach refugees through MOOC’s,” said Brunot. “[Refugees] might not have the access to either [a] reliable internet connection or basic technology where they are, and where they need a higher education.”

While acknowledging that the services offered by McGill through MOOCs and WUSC at the moment are meager, Dyens stated that the best way to reach as many refugee students as possible at the moment is through Internet access.

“I think that as long as a person is a refugee, any access to a higher education will be difficult,” Dyens said. “Our offering is very limited at the moment, but I think our idea here is that as many people as possible have access to McGill education. We think internet access […] is better than people having to come all the way here.”

According to Siow, while there is still much room for improvement in oppurtunities for student refugees, he is hopeful that McGill will be able to support more of these individuals in the future.

“There are many more [students] who are going through the same thing as Syrian refugees,” said Siow. “Hopefully the awareness of the magnitude of the world’s refugee crises will spur more to action.

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