Suzanne Fortier: supporting refugees and addressing racism

Suzanne Fortier believes the big issue coming down the line for universities is how they can support young refugees and displaced people. The principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University steps down in August this year and here, in the latest in our Talking Leadership series, she reflects on the future of the sector, as well as the highs and leading lows of her nine years one of Canada’s top institutions.

“We all know that there are smart young people with dreams and dreams, and they have no way of realizing their dreams in the situation they’re in. And then the question is: what can we do for them?” the professor of crystallography says.

McGill, which has students from more than 150 countries, runs several scholarship schemes for overseas students. One of these, a program run with the charity World University Service of Canada (WUSC), young people in refugee camps to study at the university via financial sponsorship and social support. It is funded by a C$4 (£2.50) levy collected from all McGill students every semester. In the past 10 years, the program has supported more than 30 refugees from Somalia, Congo, Malawi, Syria, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and Sri Lanka. In the coming year, the institution will take seven more, with two of the spots reserved for students from Afghanistan.

McGill is also part of the University of the People, which offers free online education for those in refugee camps or other difficult situations. Students start a course online, then attend McGill for two years to finish it.

Since Russia started the war in Ukraine, the university has been preparing to support Ukrainian refugees when they are ready to attend university. It is offering immigration advice for Ukrainians outside Canada, as well as free dental, legal and financial support to refugees living in the city.

Fortier has participated in the global university leaders’ forum of the World Economic Forum, and via this work she says she has come to realise that casting a wider net for social inclusion is the way forward.

“The big, big issue in front of us is to realise our role as the mortar of social inclusion,” she says. “Many of us have really done a lot of work in this area locally. It’s much more difficult to do it globally.”

The challenge is not simply bringing such students to the university; it is enabling them to flourish once they get there. “You’ve got to support them fully. Everything, they need everything, they don’t have any money, they don’t have anything,” she says.

The associated costs mean the number of such students that institutions can enroll is limited. “You get the feeling this is a drop in the bucket,” Fortier says. But if all universities contribute, she continues, they can have more of an impact.

Fortier admits that supporting refugees involves a supportive government and she is clearly enormously proud of Canada’s approach to refugees: “We [Canada and McGill] are still places that are able to open their doors to people, regardless of their socio-economic situation. Each university has to look at their own networks, their own friends and supporters and alumni to figure out how to do it.”

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