“Icelandic is such a big barrier”

Ína Dögg Eyþórsdóttir, foreign transcript evaluation specialist at UI.  Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Ína Dögg Eyþórsdóttir, foreign transcript evaluation specialist at UI. Stúdentablaðið/Eydís María Ólafsdóttir

Translation: Julie Summers

The greatest barrier keeping asylum seekers and refugees from diving into studies at the University of Iceland (UI) is the language issue, says Ína Dögg Eyþórsdóttir, foreign transcript evaluation specialist at UI.

“The problem is that there really aren’t many programs in English. Refugees are welcome in all the same programs as any other international students, but the problem is language. As long as they don’t know Icelandic, there aren’t many options. It’s mostly international programs in education studies or Icelandic as a Second Language that are taught in English. Now the TOEFL test is also required to get into any English-language programs here.”

But Icelandic isn’t the only language that poses a problem, because a large number of refugees and asylum seekers don’t have a strong grasp of English either. “English can be a big barrier for a lot of people. Many refugees in Iceland come from a French- or Spanish-speaking background, and as a result, they often don’t have much of a foundation in English.”

No solution without language skills

Students who know neither Icelandic nor English have no options, not even Icelandic as a Second Language, which is taught in English. “They really need to learn English first in order to then learn Icelandic, but of course they can also learn Icelandic elsewhere, not just at the university.”

Ína says the number of refugees studying at UI is unknown. “It’s hard to say, because of course people aren’t always labeling themselves as refugees. It’s difficult for me to know who’s an immigrant, who’s a refugee and who’s an asylum seeker unless they tell me.”

Proof of prior education difficult to obtain

As a result, refugees do not receive any special support in school. “Everyone receives the same treatment, and we don’t concern ourselves with people’s status in the country. We treat everyone the same, the one exception being if someone has been granted the protections of refugee status. In that case, we can provide slightly different services, for example if they’re unable to obtain proof of prior education because of their situation.

“We had a student who was a political refugee and didn’t want to let their home country’s government, and in the process their former university, know where they were. This individual just had a photocopy of part of their transcript. So we wrote up a report where we interviewed the student and got them to describe their studies in detail, which courses they took, who taught them, what they wrote about in their essays and so on.”

Going through such a process is a tremendous amount of work, so it’s only done for those who have been granted refugee status in Iceland. “It’s really an intense process that they have to go through, and from that process and conversations with the applicant, we can get a sense of what their background is like. Then we use databases we have access to and send it out, check with our colleagues to see if they find it convincing, whether there’s reason to think that the individual in question is credible. Then we can write a report about what sort of background the person has, which will grant them access to the university. We’ve admitted a few individuals to the university on these grounds.”

Evaluation varies by department

Asked how different departments at the University of Iceland evaluate refugees’ and asylum seekers’ educational backgrounds, Ína says it varies. “It’s something that each department makes a decision about, and every single department is different. It depends how well the student’s prior education fits into the program in question and how much information the individual is able to access.

“Course descriptions and such are not always readily available, but there’s nothing to prevent the previous courses from being accepted and evaluated as long as the institution is accredited. I don’t think refugees are having any more problems than anyone else as long as they can produce some sort of documentation.”

As previously noted, refugees and asylum seekers are not specifically labeled as such upon admission, but an effort is underway to ensure that people in this position are better supported. “We don’t really have any way to flag them. There are two academic advisors who are aware of these people’s status and know what needs to be considered in these situations.

“If we know we’ve got refugees or asylum seekers coming to talk to us, we try to find a time when I can be there as well as one of these academic advisors in order to provide better information.

“We’re well on our way to creating a policy specifically for refugees at the University of Iceland. It’s basically everything that we’re doing today, but the policy will make it official. The problem is always the same, really, that we don’t know which students are in this position unless they tell us.”

Special language-learning programs in other Nordic countries

Ína says refugees in nearby countries sometimes receive special support within the educational system. “Because they’ve taken in so many refugees, they’ve set up special systems, each one different from the next. They’re doing all kinds of things, like getting refugees into these sort of ‘open’ universities where there are no credits and the entrance requirements are much more lenient.

“These open universities are intended to get refugees into the educational system so that they have something to do, learn the language and learn how the system works. The Germans have been doing that, and the time refugees spend in this system, which is two years, gives them time to obtain documentation that proves they meet the admission requirements.

“If they can do that, then they can get the credits that they’re taking transferred to other schools. There are all kinds of similar systems in place. Some of the Nordic countries have special language programs especially for refugees that help them transition into the university system. We have so few refugees here, we don’t really have the manpower to create that sort of special program. Instead, we can create individualized plans for each person as they come.”

Couldn’t afford to study

Ína says over the past two years there’s been increased awareness surrounding education for refugees and asylum seekers. For example, late last year, the student loan system was opened up to refugees. “Before, that was a huge barrier. I’ve had people here who had already been admitted but couldn’t actually start their studies because they couldn’t afford it.”

When asked if the university has the capacity to welcome more refugees, Ína says the answer is unquestionably yes. “There’s no reason we can’t, because we’re really just talking about foreign students. They’re just students; we’re not slapping labels on people.”

Still, there are definite benefits to taking the situation of refugees and asylum seekers into account. “We want to be able to provide additional support to those who need it and want it, for instance with academic advisors who take into account these delicate situations. There are ongoing efforts to improve students’ mental health. We want to encourage people to be aware of refugees in that context. It’s just about this education and awareness. We’re never going to get thousands of refugees here.”

Stepping into the classroom means losing support

Ína says there are all sorts of reasons that refugees choose not to pursue higher education here. “There’s growing awareness and sort of more positivity, but there are a variety of reasons people aren’t coming. Both because they come from a different educational system and don’t meet the entrance requirements, they don’t have the necessary language skills, and they’re also in a bad position financially and can’t afford to stop working. Then there’s those who are receiving government support. They can’t attend the university because if they do, they forfeit that support.”

Over the ten years that Ína has worked as a foreign transcript evaluation specialist, the job has grown dramatically. Ína says the most important thing for refugees and asylum seekers who want to attend university here in Iceland is that language instruction be improved.

“The language is number one, two and three. We see clearly that those immigrants who learn the language do much better. We simply have to do a better job of teaching Icelandic. As soon as you’ve got Icelandic, it opens up a lot of other opportunities.

“If your education isn’t fully recognized, for instance if you have an undergraduate degree that isn’t considered equivalent to an undergraduate degree in Iceland, and you really just need one year to make up the difference, you won’t get very far. Even if the department accepts your previous courses, you can’t complete the remaining required courses if you don’t know Icelandic. Icelandic is such a big barrier; you just have to learn it. But the Icelandic system also needs to do a better job of teaching the language and giving people opportunities to learn.”