Blog post by Allison Anderson, SIPA Columbia University, USA and Maia Bix, The Malala Fund

The global movement for refugee education is gaining momentum. Spurred in part by the Syrian crisis, prominent actors from Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai to United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown are centering refugee education within the broader movements for universal primary and secondary education and comprehensive emergency response. Almost entirely missing from the conversation, however, is a call and associated actions to support higher education in crisis contexts.

As highlighted in the first blog in this series from Aaron Benavot, Director of the UNESCO Gem Report, refugees need assistance to enter higher education. Thus, this blog examines the scope of the problem as well as the powerful reasons behind supporting higher education for refugees. In an effort to contribute to the valuable Promising Practices in Refugee Education initiative launched by Save the Children, UNHCR and Pearson, this blog concludes by shining a light on promising practices and recommendations for making higher education more accessible to refugees.

Higher education for refugees: The problem

Although access to education – especially higher education – is extremely uneven across the globe, displaced populations are and historically have been particularly underserved. According to UNHCR, less than one percent of the 16.1 million refugees under its mandate are currently enrolled in higher education programs. By contrast, over one third of university-age young people are enrolled worldwide.[1] Of the many barriers to access that displaced students face, some of the most significant include “the cost of studies or living, the need to work to support oneself or one’s family, language barriers, lack of access to visa, or lack of residency status.”[2]

Source: UNHCR (2016), 31.

Source: UNHCR (2016), 31.

It should also be noted that displaced girls and women are at a significant disadvantage in terms of accessing education.[3] Girls are far less likely to be enrolled in school at any level than boys, and they are also more likely to drop out once they are enrolled. Moreover, boys and men have a far greater chance of resuming their education once it has been interrupted by forced displacement than girls and women do, especially at the tertiary level. For example, in the case of Syrian university students, displaced men are three times more likely to resume their studies than their female counterparts.[4]

The visibility of the Syrian crisis has managed to focus the world’s attention on refugee education in a way that other recent crises have not – hence the global refugee education movement that is currently underway.[5] In practice, this movement is concentrated on primary education and, to a lesser extent, secondary education, mirroring the broader global educational priorities set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).[6] Higher education is firmly relegated to the periphery of this movement, and support for the few higher education initiatives that do exist is woefully insufficient.[7] Thus far, leaders and initiatives in both the refugee and education in emergencies fields have shown little nominal support for higher education and even less in practice. Although prioritizing primary and secondary education may appear to be the self-evident course in refugee and emergency contexts[8], the humanitarian aid community would do well to carefully assess the value of higher education for displaced students and consider what is lost on the road to sustainable development when it is deprioritized. After all, the single-minded focus on primary education seen in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is now considered to be one of their most significant shortcomings.[9]

Powerful benefits of higher education

There is ample evidence that higher education is of substantial social and economic value to displaced students, their host countries, their countries of origin and, ultimately, to global sustainable development. Higher education improves the viability of the three durable solutions for refugees pursued by UNHCR: repatriation, integration into host countries or resettlement to third countries. As outlined by INEE members, among other benefits, “tertiary education serves a protective function while also increasing refugees’ aptitude and capacity, opportunities to be assets to host countries, and to develop skill sets necessary to rebuild their countries.”[10]

Refugee students in classroom at university in Kakuma camp

Refugee students in classroom at university in Kakuma camp

The positive impacts of higher education can be loosely grouped into three categories: helping displaced students rebuild their lives, supporting conflict prevention efforts, and in the long-term, contributing to reconstruction processes in post-conflict societies. The role that higher education plays in preparing refugees to contribute positively to future reconstruction processes in their countries of origin cannot be overstated.[11] Many individuals who do choose this path are active and valuable contributors to statebuilding, peacebuilding, and economic development: in fact, refugees who have accessed higher education tend to move back to their countries of origin more quickly post-conflict, and a majority of them are employed as civil servants or NGO managers.[12] A 15-year review of UNHCR’s DAFI scholarship program found that nearly 70% of DAFI graduates were “successfully employed in sectors relevant to the reconstruction and the development of countries” as of 2007.[13]

Formerly displaced individuals who have accessed higher education can make an additional contribution to reconstruction efforts that is particularly notable in the context of the broader movement for refugee education: training new teachers. There is a high and growing demand for teachers among refugee communities in particular, and this need is reflected in post-conflict societies.[14] A relatively high number of displaced students focus on education-related degrees; for example, in 2014 eight percent of DAFI scholarship recipients were enrolled in “teacher training or related pedagogical studies.”[15] When teacher training is taken into account, it becomes apparent that support for higher education is a necessary part of (re)building robust primary and secondary education systems in post-conflict societies, refugee camps, and other such settings.[16]

Higher education is valued by refugee students

Education, including higher education, is a top priority for the majority of displaced students and their families.[17] As humanitarian practitioners and policy makers, we must listen to and respect the voices of affected populations. Such genuine accountability is not only empowering, but also results in more appropriate and effective aid. One of the central recommendations from refugee youth to come out of the Global Refugee Youth Consultations is for humanitarian actors to “recognise, utilise, and develop refugee youth capacities and skills,” including “enhancing financing to enable more youth to access secondary and tertiary education, vocational training, skills building, and other learning opportunities.” [18]

Refugee youth view higher education as vital to their own security and livelihoods and to the eventual reconstruction of their countries of origin.[19] As Hashem Hatahet, who was forced to flee Syria and now attends the University of Evansville on a scholarship, put it, “Education is the best investment one can make and it is a key for any prosperous society. I am forever blessed that I was able to come to the United States and get the right education to build my future and hopefully rebuild my beloved Syria. […] I believe the only key now to stop the Syrian conflict is to educate its youth and make sure Syrian children are learning. We have already lost a lot and we cannot afford to lose a new generation. We are a society that places a high value on education because we believe it is the most powerful weapon we can use to overcome this catastrophe.”[20] 

Promising practices and recommendations

Building upon promising practices and the recommendation from the Global Refugee Youth Consultations to expand initiatives that make education accessible to refugee youth, including “financial assistance to support access to tertiary education,”[21] the following recommendations are intended for humanitarian and education actors as well as non-traditional actors like the private sector and foundations:

Syrian refugee student on University of Jordan campus in Amman

Syrian refugee student on University of Jordan campus in Amman

  1. Build higher education capacity in host countries and increase displaced students’ access to these institutions
  2. Invest in higher education-focused technology solutions, including online learning and blended learning
  3. Create and fund sustainable scholarship programs for displaced students at third-country universities
  4. (Re)build robust higher education sectors in post-conflict countries

 Before diving into these recommendations, it is important to acknowledge that a number of smaller organizations are already working to expand higher education access for displaced students. At a collaborative workshop held by the Institute of International Education (IIE), the Dutch NGO SPARK, and Al-Fanar Media in October 2015, “international agencies, governmental aid organizations, university presidents, and regional and international NGOs focused on education and entrepreneurship” gathered to discuss best practices for supporting higher education for Syrian refugees specifically.[22] Participants identified the following priorities that must be integrated into each of this blog’s four recommendations: working efficiently and cost-effectively; coordination of action and advocacy; gathering and sharing data; and critically evaluating what approaches are effective.[23]

 1) Build higher education capacity in host countries and increase displaced students’ access to these institutions

First and foremost, donors can support higher education institutions in key host countries – like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq – thereby building their capacity and making it possible for them to offer higher quality education to more displaced students.[24] Education advocates can amplify the impact of donor support by advocating for more inclusive education policies in these same countries. Even if donors choose to support host country universities, many of these institutions will remain inaccessible to displaced students unless admissions requirements – especially concerning documentation – are revised; thus it is essential that financial support and advocacy occur simultaneously.

2) Invest in higher education-focused technology tools, including online learning and blended learning

Kenya. Studying at InZone's MOOC Learning Center in Kakuma

Kenya. Studying at InZone's MOOC Learning Center in Kakuma

Second, donors and investors alike can support existing education technology tools and invest in further innovation in this sector as a supplement to (rather than a replacement for) traditional education. A survey of participants in a 2015 workshop focused on youth and the Syrian crisis[25] indicated that “online and blended learning with refugees was believed to be the most important topic for future discussion” in terms of making higher education widely accessible to displaced students.[26] Other forms of digital support – including online social networks supported by mobile technology – can also support bridge programs to post-secondary and higher education access and learning.[27] Multiple NGOs are already doing valuable work in the education technology field, including Kiron (a Germany-based NGO that offers online degrees), InZone (a blended learning program implemented in refugee camps), and University of the People (the first online, tuition-free American university).

Moreover, education technology is a particularly promising gateway to increased private sector support for refugee education, including higher education. The British education company Pearson, for example, has partnered with NGO Save the Children to create new, technology-based education centers for refugees in Jordan.[28] To ensure that these technology innovations reach their full potential, it is imperative that programs incorporate lessons learned and insights from previous work on digital learning, such as the need to increase access to internet and technological devices; increase coordination and monitoring and evaluation of programs; offer offline meet-ups and opportunities for interaction through live discussions rather than online learning alone; ensure credibility of programs through accreditation; and work within the policy and economic constraints of the host labor market.[29] It is also important for education advocates to push for wider recognition of online degrees by education ministries and widely promote positive perceptions of online learning.[30]

3) Create and fund sustainable scholarship programs for displaced students at third-country universities

Third, higher education institutions in third countries – like the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada – can independently establish sustainable scholarships specifically for displaced students. IIE’s Syria Consortium is currently at the forefront of this work: to date, over 60 higher education institutions (primarily in the United States) have committed to offering at least one scholarship for displaced Syrian students through this consortium. The Books Not Bombs campaign, which was created to support the Syria Consortium, is comprised of over 185 campus chapters that petition their respective universities or colleges to create scholarships. Although the Syria Consortium is an admirable and necessary response to the Syria crisis, in the long-term, this model should be broadened to include scholarships that support all displaced students, regardless of nationality.

Syrian refugee studying at Al-Albayt University on a DAFI scholarship

Syrian refugee studying at Al-Albayt University on a DAFI scholarship

As the co-author of this blog has learned from her experience spearheading the establishment of the Ann and Andrew Tisch Scholarship for Refugee Women at Barnard College[31], the grassroots movement to establish scholarships at third country higher education institutions is particularly promising. First, scholarships are appealing to school administrators and donors because they provide a direct, specific way for higher education institutions to respond meaningfully to global crises. Alongside this impact, the promise of positive press can also be a powerful incentive for institutions and donors alike. Moreover, as xenophobic attitudes and actions continue to escalate across the United States and around the world, creating scholarships is a tangible way for colleges and universities reaffirm their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Finally, thanks to efforts like the Books Not Bombs campaign, it is relatively easy for any student, administrator, or faculty or staff member to begin a scholarship initiative on their own campus. It should be noted that scholarships of this nature should be comprehensive by design[32], and are therefore likely to be very expensive. So although they may be of enormous benefit to the students who receive them, they are far from being the most efficient solution. That said, there are over 20,000 higher education institutions worldwide; thus, if this scholarship movement can be expanded to even half of these institutions, there is potential to create impact at scale.[33]

As an alternative to supporting scholarships offered by individual institutions, and mirroring the recommendations from the Global Refugee Youth Consultations, donors, and UNHCR in particular, should expand financial assistance to support youth access to tertiary education. This could include expanded support to NGO and foundation-operated scholarship programs such as the Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians (HOPES) program, the Al Fakhoora scholarship program, various programs run by SPARK, the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), the Windle Trust, and the DAFI scholarship program operated by UNHCR.[34]

4) (Re)build robust higher education sectors in post-conflict countries

Refugee students at Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) learning center in Dadaab

Refugee students at Borderless Higher Education for Refugees (BHER) learning center in Dadaab

Fourth, in the long-term, humanitarian stakeholders, including donors, must help to rebuild higher education capacity in post-conflict countries. Supporting robust higher education institutions in these contexts can contribute significantly to stabilization and securitization, peacebuilding, statebuilding and other reconstruction efforts.[35] Refugees, especially those who have benefited from higher education, should be empowered and valued as assets in the rebuilding process.

Humanitarian organizations and partnerships like UNHCR and INEE should support all of the aforementioned efforts by drawing attention to the many benefits of higher education and advocating for stronger support of higher education for displaced students on the part of donors and within their own organizations. 

                There are undoubtedly other valuable contributions to be made in terms of increasing displaced students’ access to higher education, including the essential step of recognizing refugees’ existing credentials.[36] The recommendations laid out above are merely a starting point to this discussion; rigorous monitoring and evaluation of existing efforts and thoughtful innovation are both essential going forward. Ultimately, however, the first step forward is for the global education movement to aim higher and prioritize higher education for refugees. 

 

[1] UNHCR (2016), 30.

[2] UNHCR (2014), 9.

[3] UNHCR (2016), 21–23, 42–45.

[4] “Jusoor, IIE Launch Scholarships for Syrian University Women.” 

[5] Dickenson (2016).

[6] “Sustainable Development Goal 4.”

[7] Milton and Barakat (2016), 403; AlAhmad (2016), 3.

[8] Dobbinset al. (2007), 152.

[9] Mekonen (2010), 46; Tarabini (2010).

[10] Virtually Educated: The Case for and Conundrum of Online Higher Education for Refugees,  World Education Blog. Martha K. Ferede, Consultant GEM Report, Lecturer in International and Comparative Higher Education, Sciences-Po. May 24, 2016.

[11] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 15.

[12] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 15.

[13] Morlang and Watson (2007), 6.

[14] UNHCR (2016), 21; Lindsey (2016), 12.

[15] UNHCR (2016), 21.

[16] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 15.

[17] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 14-15.

[18] We Believe in Youth, Global Refugee Youth Consultation Final Report, UN High Commissioner for RefugeesWomen's Refugee Commission, September 2016. The Global Refugee Youth Consultations included 1,267 young people who participated in 56 national or sub-national consultations held in 22 countries between October 2015 and June 2016 (youth is defined as young people aged 15-24 years old).

[19] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 12-13.

[20] Hatahet (2017).

[21] We Believe in Youth, Global Refugee Youth Consultation Final Report, UN High Commissioner for RefugeesWomen's Refugee Commission, September 2016.

[22] Lindsey (2016), 2.

[23] Lindsey (2016), 3-4.

[24] Lindsey (2016), 1.

[25] See page six for a brief discussion of key findings derived from this workshop, held by IIE, SPARK, and Al-Fanar Media. 

[26] Lindsey (2016), 1.

[27] Dahya and Dryden-Peterson (2016).  See also: Exploring the Potential of Technology to Deliver Education & Skills to Syrian Refugee Youth, Global Business Coalition for Education, February 2016.

[28] Dickinson (2016).

[29] Exploring the Potential of Technology to Deliver Education & Skills to Syrian Refugee Youth, Global Business Coalition for Education, February 2016. See also:  Insights from using Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in Refugee Camps. Dina Bokai. OpenIdeo. Feb 08, 2016.

[30] Lindsey (2016), 10.

[31] “Barnard Responds to Syrian Crisis Through Creation of the Ann and Andrew Tisch Scholarship for Refugee Women.” (2017)

[32] Feldmann and Lind (2016).

[33] Goodman (2016).

[34] Dryden-Peterson (2011), 13; Lindsey (2016), 5.

[35] Milton and Barakat (2016), 406-415; Barakat and Sansom (2015).

[36] Virtually Educated: The Case for and Conundrum of Online Higher Education for Refugees,  World Education Blog. Martha K. Ferede, Consultant GEM Report, Lecturer in International and Comparative Higher Education, Sciences-Po. May 24, 2016.