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Immigrants value education – so we should value them

Ross Finnie is a professor and director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa. Richard Mueller is a professor of economics at the University of Lethbridge and associate director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa. The research reported here was undertaken with their colleague Stephen Childs.


In the past month, Canadians have witnessed the arrival of the first of 25,000 Syrian refugees expected to make a new home here by the end of February. More may be arriving after that.

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The main theme in the news media so far has been the debate about the short-term costs and challenges of bringing such a substantial number of immigrants from a war-torn region, as well as longer-term concerns about the possibility of raising future generations of "home-grown" terrorists.

In our recent research on this subject, we take a different longer-term perspective in addressing how the children of immigrants perform in terms of postsecondary education (PSE) in Canada. This is important because PSE is critical, not only to an individual's economic and social success, but also to the country's prosperity.

Our analysis shows that first- and second-generation children of immigrants access PSE at much higher rates than non-immigrant youth. By the age of 21, 86 per cent of first-generation children of immigrants (that is, those who themselves immigrated to Canada along with their parents) obtained postsecondary education, with 84 per cent of second-generation immigrants (those born in Canada to immigrant parents) doing the same.

This record on the part of the children of immigrants compares favourably to the 72-per-cent PSE participation rate among non-immigrant youth. For those from the region that includes Syria, 93 per cent and 96 per cent of first- and second-generation children of immigrants, respectively, had moved into postsecondary education by the age of 21, with most having attended university rather than college or trade school.

What is the reason for these high participation rates? To some degree, they are the result of adult immigrants to Canada tending to have relatively high levels of PSE (due to our immigrant-selection criteria). Their children are, therefore, also more likely to pursue postsecondary education, as PSE participation has a large "inherited" component (for immigrants and non-immigrants alike). Interestingly, having a low family income is rarely an obstacle to PSE for these youth.

But even after controlling for such factors as parental education and family income, immigrants still pursue PSE at much higher rates than non-immigrant Canadian youth. The most likely reason is that education is valued as the key to future success, and the family pulls together to help ensure their children take full advantage of the opportunities that Canada offers. It is all about motivation.

Children of immigrants are more likely to attend university (rather than college) than their Canadian-born counterparts, and more likely to major in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the so-called STEM fields) – the very areas in which policy makers say Canada needs more talent. Thus, when we talk about meeting "skills shortages," the development of "very highly skilled workers," or the country's innovation agenda, the children of immigrants generally fit the bill.

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The PSE success of Canadian children of immigrants stands in sharp contrast to that of most European countries, where they generally have low levels of PSE attainment and often feel unwelcome, thus stalling their integration into mainstream society, and sowing the seeds of resentment and social unrest. Canada's record in this regard is a testament to the country's attitudes and institutions which generally welcome immigrants and provide them with the means to succeed. Which they then do.

Four decades ago, more than 50,000 Vietnamese refugees started arriving in Canada. Alarms were sounded about security and the country's ability to absorb such a large number of newcomers. The population of Canada in 1980 was about two-thirds of what it is today and most Vietnamese did not speak English or French, nor did they have the kind of family and community settlement supports that exist for Syrian refugees now arriving.

Still, few today would argue that Canada was not comfortably able to absorb the Vietnamese refugees. In particular, Vietnamese youth have high rates of PSE participation, meaning that the success of this community and their ongoing contributions to Canada are very likely to continue into the future.

Many of the Syrian refugees are well-educated, speak one or both official languages, and will be entering a more diverse and tolerant Canada that is better equipped to deal with large numbers of immigrants than in the past. And Canadians are enthusiastically embracing these short-term challenges and longer-term opportunities. This bodes well for their successful integration into Canadian society.

Adopting a longer-term perspective about refugees is essential for an accurate accounting of their likely contribution to Canadian society.The past is never a perfect predictor of what will happen in the future, but decades from now, Canadians will likely be viewing the admission of Syrians and the children of these immigrants in the same positive way as the Vietnamese community is viewed today.

We may be welcoming Syrian refugees as a humanitarian act, but it is a humanitarian act from which we will also likely benefit in the long run. Rather than asking how many refugees we should accept, perhaps Canadians should be asking how many we can get.

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