Refugees overcome huge obstacles to get a higher education

But poorly adapted Norwegian language instruction ruins the chances for refugees who are motivated to get a higher education, according to Juhar Yasin Abamosa.

“The refugees I interviewed for my master’s thesis are very motivated to get a higher education,” says Juhar Yasin Abamosa. (Photo: Øystein Andresen, Faculty of Educational Sciences, UiO)

In his master’s thesis, Refugees’ Path to Higher Education in a Host Country: Opportunities and Challenges, Abamosa interviewed six refugees. Three of them succeeded in getting a higher education, while three of them did not.

“A common assertion is that refugees don’t have the capacity to learn because they are tired or mentally ill, so there is no effort put into helping refugees get a higher education. However, my master’s thesis shows that they are highly motivated to attend a higher education institution,” says Abamosa.

“Many of them go to great lengths to continue their education. This is why it’s important to encourage, not discourage, refugees from getting a higher education.”

The interviews also show that the informants view higher education as a strategic choice:

“The informants see higher education as security both for themselves and for their children. They think that if they get a degree, it will be easier for their children to do the same,” he says.

Poorly adapted Norwegian language instruction

Despite their motivation, not all of refugees succeed in getting a higher education. According to Abamosa, a main reason for this is that the Norwegian language instruction is not good enough.

“The poor quality of Norwegian language instruction and adult education is seen as one of the biggest challenges. Some of the informants say they were ignored when they complained about the classes or asked for adaptations.”

Two of the informants say that the lack of adapted Norwegian language instruction is the main reason they did not succeed in getting a higher education.

“One informant repeatedly asked the adult education programme for adapted instruction, but nobody would listen to her. Because of the poor quality of Norwegian language classes, she failed the national Norwegian language test for foreigners, and as a result she could not apply for admission to a higher education institution,” says Abamosa.

“Another informant was 30 years old and had lived in Norway for five years. He had a bachelor’s degree from Ethiopia and began a degree here, but he could not complete it because the Norwegian language instruction he received was not good enough. He was afraid to speak up in his Norwegian class and felt that he was being ignored. He tried to speak with the adviser many times, but was told that she was busy and didn’t have time.”

According to the Introduction Act, newly arrived immigrants are entitled to adapted Norwegian language instruction.

“The Introduction Act states that everyone is entitled to adapted Norwegian language instruction, but unfortunately this does not work in practice. Refugees have a right to 600 hours of Norwegian classes, but if we don’t monitor the quality of the instruction and only count the hours, it’s meaningless,” he says.

“Those who are motivated know themselves what kind of Norwegian language instruction they need. We must listen to what kind of adaptations the refugees want and take their recommendations seriously.”

Advised against getting a higher education

Abamosa’s master’s thesis shows that the refugees feel they are being obstructed.

“I use the word discouragement in the sense that the refugees encounter negative attitudes and a lack of encouragement. The informants say that the advisers dissuade them from getting a higher education because of their age, because they have children or simply because they are refugees. You could say it’s a form of systematic discrimination, but I have chosen to use the word discouragement because it can be difficult to document this type of discrimination.”

“One of the informants had one child when she came to Norway. She said to the adviser that she planned to get a higher education. The adviser responded that many refugees come to Norway without a high school diploma and want to get a higher education and become doctors, but most of them end up not doing anything. Since the informant had children and was an adult woman, it would be difficult for her, and the adviser thought that she should work in a pre-school instead,” says Abamosa.

This kind of opposition is paradoxical, Abamosa believes, since many parents of small children attend university. The adviser used the fact that the informant was a refugee with children as a reason that she should not get a higher education. The informant continued her education anyway, and said that her children had been her biggest motivation.

“There are probably many refugees who come to Norway without a high school diploma – who have high aspirations and want to become doctors, but they often end up doing other things because they are advised to,” he says.

“The informants who have succeeded in getting a higher education say that they managed it because they got good help and support from other people, especially from friends and volunteers. This doesn’t mean that everyone should attend university. We are all different and like different things. If someone wants to work in the cleaning industry, that is fine and we should encourage them to do it. If someone wants to be a doctor, that is also good and we should encourage them to do that as well,” says Abamosa.

Lack of follow-up of national laws

According to Abamosa, Norway has one of the best sets of laws on education. However, his master’s thesis shows that strong national laws are not enough.

“The Education Act states that everyone is entitled to Norwegian language instruction, regardless of his or her background. This is excellent because it includes everyone no matter where they come from. But laws in and of themselves have no meaning; they must be used. In order for refugees to get a higher education, the law must be complied with and used in a good way,” he says.

“It also states that the resources the refugees bring with them must be used, but in practice they are told that they cannot get a higher education – even with a bachelor’s degree from abroad on their CVs.”

“At least now we know that this problem can make it difficult for refugees to get a higher education, but there should be research on why some teachers and advisers in the adult education programme choose to act in opposition to the law.”

The master’s thesis shows that in order for refugees to get a higher education, the availability of and access to resources is not enough.

“The Introduction Act gives refugees resources to get a higher education. It’s also important, if not more important, that refugees get to take advantage of the right offerings based on their academic background and their own future prospects in Norwegian academia,” says Abamosa.

Wants higher education institutions to offer Norwegian language instruction

Abamosa thinks that adult education programmes should only offer Norwegian language instruction to immigrants up to a previous maximum level of schooling, and then allow the higher education institutions to take over responsibility from there.

“By this I mean that adult education programmes should not admit refugees with a higher education, but instead let refugees with a high educational level study Norwegian at university colleges and universities. Refugees with a higher education should not be placed in the same class with people who are illiterate. If they are, money and resources are lost,” he says.

“This will require the university colleges and universities to establish their own programmes of language instruction for refugees. This could be an intensive course lasting half a year, one year or longer. It could be offered in Norwegian or English. I think in any case that this type of measure will make it easier for refugees to get adapted Norwegian language instruction so that those who want to can continue with their higher education.”

Calls for clear policy and research

There is alarmingly little focus on refugees and higher education in both policy and research. According to Abamosa, this is true not only in Norway, but throughout Europe.

“We need a clear policy in the field that addresses refugees and higher education directly. Many countries have good introduction programmes for refugees with a low level of education, but when it comes to refugees and higher education, the programmes are lacking,” he says.

“For example, Norwegian law states that we must ensure refugees have work or get an education. But it doesn’t specify whether this means primary and lower secondary school, upper secondary school or higher education. It only says ‘education’.”

In addition, he believes that the research institutions must accept their share of the responsibility.

“Priority must be given to research on refugees and education. The Research Council of Norway should establish projects on this topic, and Statistics Norway must start to collect data on refugees and higher education. We don’t know how many refugees have an education or how many refugees want to get a higher education,” Abamosa concludes. 

Translated by Connie Stultz.

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Juhar Yasin Abamosa’s master’s thesis Refugees' Path to Higher Education in a Host Country: Opportunities and Challenges is a qualitative interview study of refugees’ path towards higher education.

The thesis is based partly on Abamosa’s own experience. He was a refugee and wanted to eventually become a lecturer or researcher at the university level. When he spoke with advisers in the adult education programme, he did not get any support. They thought Abamosa should pursue work in the cleaning industry.

Abamosa has done a comparative study. He interviewed six refugees: Three of his informants have successfully completed a higher education, while three have not. The informants were selected through strategic sampling and the snowball method.

Main findings:

  • The refugees are highly motivated to get a higher education.
  • Getting a higher education is a strategic choice.
  • Poorly adapted Norwegian language instruction is a major reason that the refugees did not succeed.
  • The informants are advised against getting a higher education.
  • Good educational laws are not enough; they must be followed up with action.

Abamosa's master's thesis (summary)