Glendon Professor and Acting Director at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies Jean Michel Montsion, has undertaken some compelling research on Ontario universities’ service delivery to Indigenous and international students, focusing on three universities. He argues that the spatiality – that is, any property relating to or occupying space – of the information hubs created to support these two groups differs significantly. This is because certain institutional assumptions have been made about these student groups, the social presence and activities hosted, and the lived experiences of the students utilizing these services.
“My study of information hubs reveals not only how Indigenous and international students are thought to become contributors to Ontario society, but also raises questions about the framing of traditional and mainstream students,” Montsion explained.
In this original article, he reflects on the differences between the two models and brings to light the spatial politics of information hubs in Ontario universities.
This research was supported by the provincial government via the Ontario Human Capital Research and Innovation Fund; key findings were published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education (2018).
Two populations recently targeted in universities’ recruitment efforts
Recruitment is vital to all universities; connecting with and attracting potential students is paramount. One key challenge for Ontario universities, Montsion argues, is to remain competitive in recruiting incoming students while still meeting the institution’s mandate of accessibility, especially for historically under-represented groups. To do this, Ontario’s institutions of higher education are increasingly targeting two populations: Indigenous and international students.
In this new research, Montsion focused on three universities and looked at how they were providing services to these two student groups.
Universities have historically failed these two student populations
Current higher education strategies to recruit and retain Indigenous students are mindful of public debates about Indigenous rights and historical injustices. Administrators are caught between two approaches: (1) Indigenous education on Indigenous terms; and (2) integration or bringing Indigenous students into the mainstream. Universities usually find a middle ground, which Montsion describes as “combining activities that address discrimination, make Indigeneity visible in curricula and through partnerships with local Indigenous organizations, and launch initiatives aimed at mitigating the lack of traditional social support.”
Universities also struggle with serving the needs of international students. They often fail to provide a way for these students to fight isolation and racism, or to help these students to integrate into their new communities.
Fieldwork in three universities
Building on existing research and theories in this area, Montsion conducted qualitative fieldwork from December 2014 to February 2015. “These three universities were selected based on their proximity to the researcher and the institutions’ public reputations in their recent efforts to meet the needs of either Indigenous or international students,” he explained.
Through interviews and observations, Montsion determined how students and university staffers felt about these locations. The information that was gained from this was corroborated with searches on university websites – where formal communications pieces reside.
Resource centres for Indigenous students; experience desks for international students
Montsion’s research revealed that Indigenous student services are organized as a resource centre. This is done to create a separate space for Indigeneity on campuses, with activities celebrating Indigeneity and connecting with the students’ cultural well-being.
A recent graduate explains the multiple roles his university’s resource centre played for him:
“When I was in first year, it was nice to know that it [the resource centre] was there and that there were other students around so I can have that kind of camaraderie and collegial kind of togetherness, and also allow me to be proud of who I am, and not be afraid of who I am, because it is kind of intimidating of being like, ‘I’m Métis and I don’t know what that really means and I am not fully Native.'”
Conversely, Montsion found that international student services take the form of an experience desk to emphasize rapid integration into the mainstream. Here, programs focus on language and cultural training and student success stories – that is, finding post-graduation employment.
Key findings raise important questions about framing
These consistent configurations, resource centres and experience desks say a lot about how Indigenous and international students are thought to become contributors to Ontario society. This also raises important questions about the framing of traditional and mainstream students.
“Indigenous students are framed in contrast to non-Indigenous students and their unspoken relationship to their settler identity. International students are framed in contrast to domestic students and their unquestioned ability to have unproblematic cross-cultural encounters,” Montsion explained.
He believes that such assumptions should be acknowledged, as part of a larger discussion around questioning how spaces are produced to deliver services to various student groups. This is an important first step, Montsion emphasizes.
By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, firstname.lastname@example.org