The importance of learning from data on education, migration and displacement

by Manos Antoninis, Director, Global Education Monitoring Report
Francesca Borgonovi, Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Migration and displacement are complex phenomena which play an important role in – but can also pose challenges to – development. These phenomena also pose particularly important challenges for education and training systems. Firstly, they can rapidly increase the number of people that require education services, thus challenging both richer countries, which until now had been adjusting to shrinking student populations, and poorer countries, where provision is already stretched, especially in remote areas or slums where migrants and refugees often converge.

Secondly, migration and displacement make classrooms more diverse. This means that the range of strategies teachers need to deploy increases in order to cater for a student population with larger differences in background characteristics, such as the language they speak at home.

Thirdly, education is an important means through which migration and displacement can be managed since school often acts as societies’ main instrument for transmitting the social and cultural codes that forge a community spirit.

Information of good quality is crucial to develop the right policy responses, which is why the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 17.18 calls on countries to “increase significantly the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by … migratory status … and other characteristics relevant in national contexts” by 2020. Yet, collecting statistics on migrants and displaced people to ensure that education and training systems have the capacity to meet their needs is complicated. Population movements take very different forms: international vs. internal; temporary vs. permanent; those moving in successive stages vs. those returning; documented vs. undocumented; voluntary vs. forced, including internally displaced and refugee populations; students vs. workers, and, in the latter case, skilled or unskilled, and so on. Migrants and displaced people themselves may be in different stages in their life cycle or may differ in their circumstances, for example adults vs. children or individuals vs. families.

To address these issues, as part of the Strength Through Diversity project, a two-day forum on data about education, migration and displacement is being held in Paris, organised by the OECD and the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, whose next edition is focusing on migration and displacement. Such issues refer to at least two levels.

At the macro level, demographic data often do not capture the education profiles of migrants and refugees. The ideal data source, which provides information on both stocks and flows of migration by gender, age, and education, does not yet exist. These questions were addressed last month at the International Forum on Migration Statistics, which also looked at one other dimension of  the education-migration nexus: international student mobility.

At the micro level, which is the focus of this two-day event, a range of data sources are important:
  • Multi-purpose household surveys that contain information on internal and, in high income countries, international migration via questions concerning the place of previous residence or duration of current residence, such as the World Bank Living Standard Measurement Survey and the European Union Survey of Income and Living Conditions. Longitudinal surveys provide further insights.
  • School surveys of learning achievement which can link detailed student background to educational outcomes. For example, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) asks questions on the student’s country of birth, age of arrival in the host country, and language spoken at home. PISA also assess aspects of student well-being, such as integration and sense of belonging in the school community.
  • Surveys on values and attitudes that can relate education to perceptions of the host population concerning migrants and refugees. For example, three waves of the International Social Survey Programme, six waves of the World Values Survey and two waves of the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study tackled relevant questions on this topic. These studies can assess how education systems build values, attitudes, norms and beliefs that improve interpersonal trust and increase civic engagement, which are pillars of democracy.
  • Teacher surveys, such as the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and national surveys that ask questions on teacher preparation for diversity and attitudes towards a diverse student population.
Given the challenges of education systems, the complex forms of population movements, the differences in background characteristics of migrants and displaced people, the different outcomes of education, and the different sources of information available, there is a patchwork of issues, and this requires coordination between researchers and practitioners working in multiple different fields.

The idea of collecting data on education by migratory status that is comparable across countries may be an unattainable goal due to the extreme diversity of migrants and displaced populations. However, the need for documenting and understanding differences in participation, attainment, learning and attitudes between migrants/refugees and host populations for policy purposes remains urgent.

In this context, this two-day forum in Paris has the following aims:
  • Provide an inventory of existing data sources and ones that are under development
  • Showcase good practices in data and measurement that approach effectively particular aspects of the migration-education relationship and improve understanding of social phenomena
  • Identify data and measurement aspects of the migration-education relationship that require urgent attention in order for social phenomena to be better understood
  • Assess the merits of equity-oriented migration and education indicators, looking at both intra- and inter-generational issues
  • Make recommendations on potential questionnaire items for key areas of interventions the migration-education relationship


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