A new study expands what we know about immigrants and children of immigrants in higher education. A key takeaway is that siblings help them to build self-confidence. They may say to each other, “We can do this! We will take higher education.” (Illustration: iStockphoto)

Siblings provide valuable support for students of immigrant origin

Many students with non-Western backgrounds pursue challenging educational programmes. For them, sibling support is an important resource.
December 8, 2020
Knowing that their parents made great sacrifices to settle in a new country is an important motivation for the students, says researcher Ida Drange. (Photo: AFI).

“If the students wonder whether they’ve made the right educational choice, their siblings are there to back them up. Siblings are an important resource,” says Ida Drange, a researcher at Oslo Metropolitan University’s Work Research Institute (AFI).

What resources can students with non-Western backgrounds draw on to make it through a demanding course of study? What percentage of immigrants with a doctoral degree end up in an academic career?

Drange and her colleagues have examined these questions in two articles.

Many students with non-Western backgrounds choose challenging, prestigious professional studies. What enables them to succeed? Could it be that they receive more support from their families and other networks than the majority population does?

Siblings – a secret strength

For the most part, the answer is no, Drange and two co-authors conclude in their article “Multiple frames of success”. They find that immigrants and descendants of immigrants do not receive more support than others during the span of their education. With one exception: from their siblings.

Parents are also important. But parental support is substantial for all students, whether they have a majority or an immigrant background. Siblings, on the other hand, are far more significant for students with an immigrant background than for those in the majority.

“Siblings have little consequence for financial support, but are important in helping to build self-confidence,” says Drange.

The support received from siblings can be a “secret weapon” that makes it easier to get through the challenges students face.

“Siblings can say to each other, ‘We can do this! We will take higher education and we will get into the job market,’” she explains.

Thanks to research, we know quite a lot about the educational programmes that immigrants and the children of immigrants tend to choose. But less is known about why they make these choices and how they feel while in the midst of their studies, according to Drange.

The new study adds to our knowledge of the subject. Students were asked, among other topics, about their experience of student life and the work opportunities they thought they would have after putting their last exam behind them.

Explaining immigrant drive

“Immigrant drive” is the term Drange uses for a phenomenon that seems paradoxical: while many immigrants and children of immigrants have family backgrounds with a low level of education, they often choose prestigious professional studies anyway.

In many cases, they perform well as students and succeed in the job market afterwards.

“There is much talk about immigrant drive. Why are some immigrant groups so well represented in higher education? Sometimes it feels like a mystery,” says Drange.

In addition to examining how families and friends help students of immigrant origin, the researchers also looked at the students’ frames of reference. How do they see themselves, and to whom do they compare themselves?

The researchers found that an important motivation for many of the students is knowing that their parents made great sacrifices to settle in a new country.

Seeing opportunities their parents never had

In interviews, the students compared their own opportunities in Norwegian society with the lack of opportunity their parents had in their home country. For some, this created a sense of obligation and belonging.

Drange calls this a dual frame of reference, with students relating simultaneously to conditions in the country their parents came from and to their own situation in Norway.

“This may give the students a sense of having a right to belong, what in English is called entitlement,” says Drange.

Yet this perspective does not apply in equal measure to all. A number of women who were interviewed thought of themselves first and foremost as minority women in a Norwegian context, Drange says.

Some women said they received little support for their choice to pursue an education, and that their parents’ lack of educational opportunity played no role in what they perceived as a somewhat lonely struggle without clear role models.

In their article “Ethnic diversity in academia” (in Norwegian), Drange and Tanja Askvik looked at what happens after students obtain a doctoral degree. Do immigrants with a doctoral degree remain in the research sector?

The authors examined data on everyone who completed a doctoral degree in Norway between 1980 and 2012 and lived in Norway in 2013.

Doctoral graduates of immigrant origin vanish from academia

Immigrants with a doctoral degree are less likely than others to pursue an academic career, and the differences from discipline to discipline are great.

It is rarer for immigrant doctoral graduates to hold a research or teaching position in the university and university college sector than for majority population members with the same level of education, according to this research.

The fields of teacher education, humanities and economics are especially susceptible to losing immigrants with doctoral degrees. In the natural sciences and health fields, by contrast, the proportion of immigrants who remain in the university and university college sector to teach or conduct research is the same as for the majority population.

The term “immigrants” refers generally to foreign-born persons who live in Norway. But in this study, the immigrant group also includes descendants of immigrants, because there were so few of them (see the fact box). Foreign researchers staying briefly in Norway were not included in the study.

Drange says teacher education and humanities are the fields that stand out most starkly.

“Scientific employees with immigrant backgrounds are highly underrepresented in these fields. It is worrisome that few immigrants with a doctoral degree are employed in the university and university college sector,” Drange believes.

“The question is what they do instead.”

Job opportunities outside higher education

Drange points out that doctoral graduates in certain disciplines may find satisfying job opportunities outside the higher education sector – for example, working in economics or science in the private sector.

However, a doctoral degree in teacher education or humanities may prove unrewarding outside of universities and university colleges.

The most striking differences are found in pedagogy. There, nearly 8 of 10 doctoral graduates with a Norwegian background work in the university and university college sector, while the proportion for immigrants from Western countries is 2 of 10.

For immigrants from non-Western countries, the proportion is even lower.

Discrimination cannot be ruled out

Drange says that discrimination could be partly to blame for the imbalance in some disciplines:

“We cannot say for sure that this is happening. But when the differences are this large, we cannot rule it out.”

The researchers also investigated the chances that a career in the university and university college sector will lead to a professorship. The figures indicate that immigrants are somewhat less likely than their Norwegian-born counterparts to obtain a professorship within 10 years of earning their doctoral degree, but the differences are not statistically significant.

This study is based on quantitative data only. Across all disciplines, an average of 34 per cent of Norwegian-born doctoral graduates work in research or in university/university college instruction. The corresponding figure for immigrants from Western countries is 29 per cent, and for immigrants from non-Western countries it is 27 per cent. The results are not broken down by gender.

Translated by Walter Gibbs and Darren McKellep.

Read more about the articles

The article “Multiple frames of success: how second-generation immigrants experience educational support and belonging in higher education” (2019) was written by Julia Orupabo, Ida Drange and Bente Abrahamsen and published in the journal Higher Education. It is part of the research project “Pathways to Integration: The Second Generation in Education and Work in Norway”.

The researchers utilised both quantitative self-reported data and interviews.

Students were asked, among other things, about their experience of student life and the work opportunities they thought they would have after passing their last exam.

The Norwegian-language article “Ethnic diversity in academia” (2019) was written by Tanja Askvik and Ida Drange and published in the journal Søkelys på arbeidslivet.

The group of immigrants studied was small, so the authors did not present findings by gender in addition to background. And since the descendants of immigrants in the sample were so few in number, they were included in the same group as immigrants.

The survey is based on a large set of data encompassing everyone who completed or registered a doctoral degree in Norway between 1980 and 2012 and lived in Norway in 2013.

The article is an adaptation of the report “‘Being a foreigner is no advantage’: Career paths and barriers for immigrants in Norwegian academia” from 2016. The diversity report was commissioned by the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF) and written by the Work Research Institute (AFI) and the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU).