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There’s a blank space near the top of nearly every university application form that asks for the applicant’s citizenship. For some students with precarious immigration status, that question has kept them from even applying to university.

But there’s a growing path that aims to allow young people in this position to attend university. Two Toronto schools have created special streams, and advocates hope others will follow.

Toronto Metropolitan University launched its Sanctuary Scholars program in fall with 21 students enrolled. The program is run by Tanya Aberman, who also runs the Sanctuary Scholars program at York University. The York program launched in 2017 and now has more than 200 students, some of them in a bridging stream that helps them to qualify for degree courses. The two programs are believed to be the only ones of their kind operating in Canada – for now.

Ms. Aberman, whose PhD work was on migration, said the need for such programs became evident to her while working at a Toronto refugee centre, and over the years, she saw young people and community members pushing to create a way into the university.

“Young people with precarious status express the desire to go to university almost immediately,” Ms. Aberman said. “It’s their main goal and aspiration.”

As many as 600,000 people in Canada live with precarious status, according to estimates used by the federal government. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, but they include, among others, people without status; people awaiting a decision on a refugee claim; those who’ve made an application to stay on humanitarian and compassionate grounds; as well as those who entered on a temporary permit and never left.

The federal government recently announced its intention to create a program to allow people without documents to apply for permanent residency. Immigration Minister Marc Miller said it makes no sense that people who have lived in Canada for decades and raised children here don’t have such a pathway. The program would likely start with construction workers, he added.

It’s often the teenage children of these families who find their educational path blocked after high school. Provincial governments typically make elementary and high schools open to all regardless of immigration status. At university, though, it’s citizens and permanent residents who are the intended targets of subsidized domestic tuition rates. The international fees, which in Ontario are usually more than $30,000 annually, are far beyond the means of most people with precarious status, who are also ineligible for many loan and grant programs.

But a university education is life-changing. In 2017, Statscan reported that a university degree was worth about $25,000 more in annual earnings compared with a high school diploma.

In October, Ms. Aberman was introduced to a student who was desperate and running out of time.

The second-year student at TMU had been told she could go to class without paying her $33,000 international tuition bill only until the end of December. Unable to pay both her school fees and her rent on minimum-wage jobs, the life she had dreamed of was slipping away.

Ms. Aberman offered her a lifeline, telling her she could stay at TMU and would only have to pay the domestic fees of a little more than $7,000.

More than two-thirds of the students who enrolled at TMU’s Sanctuary Scholars program this fall are 18 or 19 years old and able to study at the same time as their peers.

It’s Ms. Aberman’s responsibility to work with the registrar’s office to enable the university to admit the students, while also protecting their identities and keeping their status confidential. She also works with academic departments to ensure they don’t unwittingly create barriers. A student might not have the right to work legally, for example, which could be an issue if their program has a work placement, or if a course might involve an international trip, difficult for those without a passport.

“They tend to be very, very motivated. They really want to be here,” Ms. Aberman said. “I met with most of the students who started at TMU this year and they talked about wanting to get involved, volunteer, make friends, really wanting to become part of the community.”

There can be barriers to creating such programs at universities, which are wary of falling afoul of the governments that fund them. Students, too, run the risk of exposing themselves to immigration authorities.

Audrey Macklin, a University of Toronto law professor, is part of a group that has pushed for several years to bring such a program to U of T. She says attempts to convince the university administration haven’t been entirely successful.

Dwayne Benjamin, a vice-provost responsible for strategic enrolment management, said U of T will launch a pilot program for some students with precarious status in 2024-2025. But the program will only target the small subset of students who, in addition to living with precarious status, are eligible for a study permit. Those students will get a grant to cover some of their tuition and living costs as well as help making a study permit application.

“We are intentionally starting small to make sure we have the right model with the right resources,” Mr. Benjamin said.

Queen’s University does not have a full program but has, for two years, had a policy of working with community organizations to facilitate the admission of students with precarious status and allow them to pay domestic tuition rates. It said a very small number of students have been admitted, but could not specify how many owing to privacy concerns.

The University of British Columbia does not have such a program and said it has not emerged as a significant concern among students or potential applicants.

Prof. Macklin says the students who would benefit from opening the doors of the university are largely already embedded in Canadian communities.

As Canada has shifted to a two-step immigration process, whereby a growing portion of prospective immigrants arrive first as temporary residents, it’s almost inevitable that some people will fall into precarious status, she said. More than 2.5 million non-permanent residents are now in the country, according to Statistics Canada estimates, three times more than a decade ago.

In her view, U of T is being cautious for fear of drawing the attention of the provincial or federal governments. But it’s doubtful a provincial government would take any action to stop a university from admitting these students at domestic rates, she said.

The group at U of T commissioned a law firm to provide an opinion on the matter. It found that such a program, which has already been in place and not created issues at York, is unlikely to pose a major legal risk, Prof. Macklin said.

Liz Tuomi, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Minister of Colleges and Universities Jill Dunlop, said the government welcomes initiatives to help students who have faced hardship, and added that universities and colleges are autonomous and make their own decisions about student support.

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