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Migrant Inequality and Education: The Case of Slovenia

18. 11. 13
Source: migrationonline.cz
Country: Slovenia
The article discusses equality in the context of education opportunities for migrants in Slovenia. Our aim is to present the dilemmas about (in)equality of migrants, whose lives, work, and educational opportunities are largely determined by their status, i.e. citizenship, visas, work permits, residence permits. We discuss narratives of migrants (based on interviews) that on one hand reflect practical experiences related to inequality in education, and on the other show the dimensions of structural inequality generated through specific policies, discourse, and practices. We show how migrants as foreigners with temporary statuses and in precarious positions face discrimination and find themselves at the 'edge' of human rights. We pursue the argument that it's necessary that migrants are involved in the deliberation of policies pertaining to equality.

By Mojca Pajnik

In schools and education, approaches to equality are various and arise from different traditions of thought. Some of the classics of sociology (Gellner 1983, Anderson 1983) draw attention to the homogenization and nationalization effects of educational systems, which are especially evident in the example of migrant populations. The results of our previous studies (Pajnik et al., 2010; Pajnik and Campani, 2011; Anthias, Kontos, Morokvasic-Müller, 2013) show that migrants – especially those coming from the so-called third-world countries – face inequalities due to protectionist labour market policies that emphasize ‘the need to protect domestic workers’, as well as inequalities generated though migration and integration policies in general. Our analysis of educational opportunities for migrants in European countries (Bajt in Pajnik) showed that European policies, paradoxically, express the utilitarian need for highly educated and flexible migrant workers, while simultaneously create a number of intricate and long-lasting procedures for educational opportunities and the recognition of previously acquired education. 

The discussion is based on the findings of international research projects at the Peace Institute [1], which include 44 in-depth narrative interviews conducted with migrants in Slovenia between the years 2007 and 2010. The interviews focus on migrants' experiences with precarious labour and their reflections on the process of education. Our aim is to present the dilemmas about (in)equality of migrants, whose lives, work and educational opportunities are largely determined by their status, i.e. citizenship, visas, work permits, residence permits. Narratives of migrants include information on both their own experience and the experience of their children – both aspects were also considered in the analysis. On the one hand, narratives reflect practical experiences related to inequality in education, and on the other, they also show the dimensions of structural inequality generated through specific policies, discourse and practices. The analysis shows that inequality as a ‘living experience’ is generated at the intersection of various structural but also personal aspects and circumstances. We argue that it’s necessary that migrants are involved in the deliberation on policies pertaining to equality. [2]

Non-Citizenship and the Difficult Material Situation 

Quite often migration is associated with split families, in which children remain in the country of birth, while parents, or one of the parents, leave to work in a different country. The migrant narratives on this topic are alike in the sense that migrants express the need for reunification with their family, and, related to this, the possibility of educating their children, which is usually not possible due to financial constraints. The narrative below illustrates a situation in which such a need is difficult to fulfil due to distance and to material reasons.

Of course, I'd like my wife and my children to be with me, of course. I wanted my children to go to school here and my wife to get a job here – after all, I'd made the decision to work in Slovenia. But, look, I just couldn't make it work. It was too difficult because of the papers ... And even if I'd succeeded with the papers, I couldn't bring them here with my salary. I couldn't school my children here, I couldn't support them. We just couldn't survive on my salary, that's how it is. (Fikret, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 40). [3]

For migrants, obtaining documentation (‘getting the papers’) is, for various reasons, often a traumatic experience. Their lack of language skills, unfamiliarity with the country's legislation, general lack of information, as well as complex, long-lasting and excessively expensive procedures are some of the reasons migrants and their children find themselves in unequal situations. For instance, parents want to enroll their child in school, but this is not possible because they have not yet obtained the required documents. Consequently, the child stays at home, sometimes for a whole year or more. The documents required from foreigners, migrants, and non-citizens of Slovenia are often not the sole reason – the family may also lack the required information and live in a difficult material situation. The parents who successfully enroll their children in school equate the successful outcome to ‘getting lucky’.

The problem was with the papers. They took terribly long. We had the refugee status. That took a long time. The children were supposed to go to school ... When I tried enrolling my daughter, they asked me to pay tuition. This was a huge amount of money for us, we'd lost everything, had no property, no money, no work. Both of us. But the tuition was unavoidable, so my child had to stay at home for a year ... After a year, my husband was told, you have every right to stay ... I don't know what happened, such a change ... my husband got his ID card. The children as his children, of course, now had the right to go to school. (Ivana, Croatia, 46)

The narratives show that the migrant status can represent a great obstacle in choosing the desired study programme. The interviews also mention cases of parents not enrolling their children into a secondary school because they could not afford the school requisites needed for their children to be integrated into the educational process as equals. Also recorded are cases of migrants not being admitted as full-time students: a migrant who had not received the information on different grading systems in time had no other choice but to start saving for a part-time (tuition-based) study programme. Vladimir's parents could not afford the tuition fee for foreign citizens required by his faculty of choice. They enrolled him into a tuition-free programme.

Vladimir finished a lyceum for mathematics and physics in Moldova. At first we hoped he could study at the Faculty of Medicine. They wouldn't let him because he was a foreigner. We'd have to pay the tuition because he’s not a citizen of Slovenia ... Then we went to the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics but they said 3,500 euros a year. We knew we couldn't afford it, we could never afford to pay this much money ... We were in shock, we thought we wouldn't be able to afford our child's education because we didn't have the money ... Then we found out that the Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Arts required no tuition. Economy is close to mathematics ... So they admitted him as they do Slovenes. It was similar with Andrej. We wanted him to study at the Educational Centre for Postal Services, Economics and Telecommunication but they told us it was impossible because he was a foreigner, and they wouldn't admit him although he finished a Slovene primary school. Finally he went to a pastry school. (Frosja, Moldova, 45)

The legal status, for instance the status based on a work permit, determines the educational opportunities of migrants and their children. Frosja talks about the tensions in the family at the time when they were awaiting the decision on the possibility to stay in Slovenia. She keeps telling her children how important their studies are, that their residency depends on their student visas, and that if they do not study, they will have to leave Slovenia.

I'm worried that the children will have to leave because they aren't citizens. That they won't be able to find work ... I'm afraid because they are here on student visas. They'll have to extend their period of study. We'll have to make them go on with their studies because their residency depends on their student visas. They'll have to enrol into a post-graduate programme ... If they refuse to study, they'll have to leave the country ... Every time my husband applies for a visa, we are tense for months. First the work permit, then the visa. We all wait – ok, father just got it, so mother is next; ok, mother got it, now the children. It's all so nerve-racking. (Frosja, Moldova, 45) 

(Non-)Recognition of Education and Discrimination 

Migrants often mention their experiences with education recognition procedures, which many individuals find complex. Inequality that results from such procedures often pertains to the long-lasting recognition process that forces migrants to wait for official recognition, and this renders their position precarious. There are cases of migrants travelling to and from Slovenia on a tourist or student visa to tackle these procedures, which involve expenses that are often impossible to manage. Even after the recognition of education, migrants often work illegally to survive and only rarely find work that fits their qualifications. We recorded a story of a migrant who had been unable to obtain recognition of her education due to the differences between the study programmes. The resulting inequality was she was not able to apply for employment in the public sector (another contributing factor was the non-recognition of her work experience in the sector).

The recognition of education is only one of many procedures that migrants have to work through. They also have to obtain their residency permits, work permits, and health insurance; some also apply for citizenship and thus face other related procedures. The migrant narratives are the expression of numerous inequalities that they face as a result of their foreigner status. Some mention their fear of recognition procedures, of having to face the bureaucracy again.

A clearly recognizable pattern in the narrative is that of having to face discrimination through which—also in relation to the educational process—inequality is reproduced on the basis of ethnicity, country of birth, and other similar criteria. Ada, a law graduate from Bosnia and Herzegovina, talks about her job interviewers expressing surprise at the fact that it is possible to study law in her country of birth. Multiple instances of discrimination occurred when the employers were suspicious of her education and simultaneously felt the need to mention that she would never get a job with her (Bosnian) surname. Another example is inequality in school marking: a child born outside Slovenia received a lower mark for producing the same work as her Slovene peers.

Children got used to it [school] quickly. There’s a memory that my daughter and I will never forget. One of the teachers said to my daughter, openly, right to her face: ‘You can’t get a 5 [the highest mark] for your Slovene Language course, you’re not Slovene.’ This stayed with her to this day … I don’t talk to her about it anymore, but I see that it stayed with her. She came home, and cried, cried terribly, and I couldn’t calm her down, and I tried to console her saying it’s not that important, but then she got angry and she said: ‘Mum, why? My test was just like other children’s tests. Others got their 5s and I didn’t. Why is that?’ (Ivana, Croatia, 46)


The lives of migrants, their work, and educational (non-)opportunities are largely determined by their citizenship or the absence of ‘proper citizenship’, and their ‘foreignness’ in the political, social, economic, and cultural senses. Furthermore, migrants are defined by their legal status, work permits, residency permits, student visas, and their rights to work and residency, which determine their educational opportunities or lack of such opportunities. We also find that the discrimination against migrants as foreigners often leads to the reproduction of inequalities. The main obstacles are systemic inequalities and the hierarchical relationships that reproduce the invisibility of migrants and their exclusion from any deliberation about the subject matter and policies that pertain to their lives.


Anthias, F., Kontos, M., Morokvasic-Müller, M., eds. (2013). Paradoxes of Integration: Female Migrants in Europe, London: Springer.

Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London – New York: Verso.

Bajt, V., Pajnik, M., in press. Migrant Education and Skills: Officially Coveted, Factually Negated. In: Brown, E L, Gorski, P C, Lazaridis, G (eds.), Vol. 7. Poverty and Social Class. Information Age Publishing.

Gellner, E. (1983). Nations and Nationalism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Pajnik, M., Bajt, V., Herič, S. (2010). Migranti na trgu dela v Sloveniji. Dve domovini / Two Homelands, 32, 151‒167.

[1] PRIMTS – Prospects for Integration of Migrants from ‘Third Countries’ and their Labour Market Situations: Towards Policies and Action, (EC, 2008-2010), FeMiPol - Integration of Female Immigrants in Labour Market and Society, 2006-2008 7th Framework programme (EC, 2006‒2008).

[2] More empirical findings will be included in the essay by the same author entitled ‘Pristop radikalne kritike enakosti: neenakost migrantov in izobraževanje’ (Approach of the Radical Critique of Equality: Inequality of Migrants and Education), Šolsko polje / School Field (in print).

[3] Pseudonym, country of emigration, age

Pajnik, M., Campani, G. (eds.). (2011). Precarious migrant labour across Europe, Ljubljana: Mirovni inštitut.

Mojca Pajnik
Mojca Pajnik is assistant professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana, and senior research associate at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, Slovenia. She works on topics of citizenship, (in)equality, migration and gender. Currently she is engaged in several international projects on populism, racism and citizenship.



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