Improving access to higher education for refugees

In commemoration of World Refugee Day, universities and governments have been urged not to lose sight of the higher education needs of the world’s 43.7 million forcibly displaced migrants, by improving their access to higher education as a tool for the economic development of both home and host countries.

“Refugees have human resources, skills and energy. It’s important to let them do something for their new communities,” said Peter Balleis SJ, international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, in a message for World Refugee day on 20 June.

In a report released on Wednesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, revealed that four-fifths of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Its Global Trends report showed that of the 43.7 million, there are 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million displaced in their own country by conflict and nearly 850,000 asylum seekers.

The report found that the refugee experience is of increasing length, with a large number of people in exile for longer than five years – some up to 30 years – and shrinking numbers able to return home. Higher education has a role in supporting both short- and long-term refugees.

Earlier this year the UNHCR launched a five-year plan from 2012-16, which included doubling the number of refugees attending tertiary education.

This could be achieved by, among other actions, increasing the number of scholarships, enhancing the innovative use of open and distance learning using ICT, reducing barriers to access at local institutions, and ensuring continuity and sustainable education.

In terms of the plan, tertiary education scholarships for refugees in host countries will be expanded through partnerships with donors, foundations and academic institutions.

The UNHCR will also support access to courses through open and distance learning and ICT, which open up opportunities to vastly expand the reach of tertiary education among refugees. Community technology access centres already provide important resources for this work.

There will be greater investment in computer access for refugees and in certified distance learning programmes, and UN organisations will support e-books to improve refugee access to learning materials and broaden access to professional and para-professional training.

Further, UNHCR said it would work with education ministries to mainstream refugee education within national tertiary systems, and with education organisations with technical expertise in education.

There will be efforts to reduce barriers to access to local institutions, through advocacy with host country education ministries in areas such as nationality requirements, school certificates and other documentation.

In order to help refugee students to continue university study and contribute in a meaningful way to the rebuilding of their home countries, the UNHCR will also support the return of refugees when it is possible for them to do so safely.

Concrete ways to reduce access barriers

There are several concrete ways in which governments, universities and support agencies can reduce barriers currently impeding asylum seeker and refugee access to higher education, according to a February report, I Just Want to Study: Access to higher education for young refugees and asylum seekers, by the UK-based Refugee Support Network’s higher education programme.

It helps young refugees and asylum seekers progress to university.

Governments should ensure that home fees and student finance are available for young people, with ‘discretionary leave to remain’, so that no asylum-seeking youngster wishing to study is excluded by insurmountable financial barriers, said the report.

Immigration controls should also be adjusted to ensure that they do not prevent young people from completing university courses.

Universities should facilitate access by granting more fee waivers for asylum seekers. Some in the UK are already doing this, but more participation in such schemes is needed. Further education colleges and refugee support groups should also ensure that accurate advice on higher education rights and entitlements is available to young asylum seekers and refugees.

Sarah Lyall, one of the authors of the report and a higher education support worker for the Refugee Support Network, said: “This is a hugely important issue, which is preventing talented young people seeking sanctuary in the UK from progressing in their education.

“We want to see barriers removed and young people enabled to fulfil their potential, making the contributions to society that they are so keen to give,” she told University World News.

“We seek to partner with other organisations to see access improve, as well as supporting young people in the UK on an individual basis to overcome the barriers they face.”

In 2010, the Refugee Support Network began a pilot programme providing advice, support and individual case work for young people who had the academic potential but faced significant barriers to higher education due to their immigration status. In 2011 the pilot was extended into a three-year programme funded by John Lyon’s Charity.

Plan welcomed

Hassanuddeen Abd Aziz, dean of the centre for postgraduate studies at the International Islamic University Malaysia, welcomed the new UNHCR strategy and said it offered a promise not only to improve extremely limited access to higher education through the efficient use of ICT, but could also lay the foundation for measuring learning outcomes.

“This is a rescue plan for refugee students, from being drawn into risky ventures to a safe developmental road that can help them become integrated in the host country,” Abd Aziz told University World News.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo's National Research Centre in Egypt, said a global online network for refugees was needed to generate and mobilise knowledge in the higher education sector and among policy-makers and organisations such as the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Canada and its projects.

The centre’s Borderless Higher Education for Refugees initiative improves tertiary opportunities for long-term refugees by strengthening local higher education provision strategies. It also explores the creation and delivery of online qualifications that meet international standards and are ‘portable’ within the unique circumstances of refugee camps.

Besides help for refugees from educational organisations and universities around the world, Abdelhamid told University World News, refugees “must help themselves by joining forces and setting up higher education institutions in the land of immigration".

A good example is the Iraqi academic refugees who put their money together and opened the Syrian International University for Sciences and Technology, outside the capital Damascus, which employs mostly Iraqi scientists and professors, Abdelhamid pointed out.

However, the new UNHCR figures show that four in five refugees are in developing countries – those nations least able to provide higher education to the displaced – and that is where such support is most needed.