Learning Endures: Creating Educational and Workforce Opportunities for Migrant Students

By Michael Nettles

“Migration is a powerful driver of economic growth, dynamism and understanding. It allows millions of people to seek new opportunities, benefiting communities of origin and destination alike.”      — United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres

Secretary-General Guterres is correct. I recently co-chaired Salzburg Global Seminar® 630, “Education and Workforce Opportunities for Refugees and Migrants.” It provided me with an opportunity to reflect on his insight and on the role of education in improving the health, welfare, economic opportunities and quality of life of migrants around the world.

That is especially so with regard to the large and rising number of forcibly displaced people, who in addition to the hardship of relocation too often suffer the indignity of vilification and the despair of foreclosed opportunity, especially the opportunity to learn.

There are 272 million migrants in the world today, almost 20 percent more than in 2010, according to the United Nations. Among them are 38 million children. Statistics can be anesthetizing, but beneath every number is a solitary individual with a personal experience of life, unique aspirations and unbound potential. To unlock that potential, we know where to begin: education.

Education and training systems are the primary ways for young immigrants to acquire the language, workplace skills and cultural knowledge necessary for well-being and success in their new communities.

Effective acculturation is also important to their native-born peers. School is where native and immigrant students encounter one another most frequently, and where native students are likely to form long-lasting opinions about immigrants and foreign cultures.

To their credit, most nations committed themselves to effective integration of migrant students in the “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants” of 2016, reaffirmed two years later in the “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.” As the Compact notes, education can help empower migrants and societies to achieve inclusion and social cohesion — and to prevent racism, xenophobia and intolerance.

It would be a tragedy not to live up to our own international conventions on the treatment of migrants. As Secretary-General Guterres noted, doing so would shortchange both immigrants and host communities. It would also risk creating a new generation of the under-educated, the under-skilled and the stateless. That is a bill that always comes due.

Like everyone else on our shared planet, migrants are entitled to the best possible education. That is why initiatives promoting the portability of academic degrees and professional credentials are so important. An aspiring doctoral candidate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, an accomplished scientist with hard-won expertise, an experienced educator with a talent for conveying knowledge — all have too much to offer their new communities to be relegated to menial work that deprives society of their skills and knowledge.

We are guaranteed very little in life. We can lose our jobs, our money and our homes. But we can never lose what we have learned, nor the dignity that comes with learning.

At ETS, we are constantly thinking about the contributions that assessment can make to improving education and society, to unlocking human potential and to opening doors. Our mission, in fact, is to advance quality and equity in education for learners worldwide regardless of their wealth, power, background or circumstances, whether native born or migrant.