Global fund needed for higher education in emergencies

A global fund for higher education in emergencies should be established to enable alternative provision to be made during times of war and other disasters, participants at the British Council’s Going Global conference for leaders of international education were told on 2 June.

The call came from Helena Barroco, adviser to the former president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, who has led an ambitious initiative to provide scholarships to enable students who are refugees or internally displaced as a result of the war in Syria to continue their studies in other countries.

There are thousands of Syrian students in need of academic assistance. In their homeland their education system has broken up, the security situation is dire in many places, and even in neighbouring countries, Syrian refugees have no means to enrol at university, she said.

But Barroco is working with a network of non-governmental organisations and universities from around the world – and other partners such as the Council of Europe and the League of Arab States – and knows how to get things done when urgency is required.

Scholarships for Syrians

This network launched a call for applications from Syrians for scholarships in Portugal and received 2,500 applications within two weeks. It whittled those down to the first 45 places, based on academic excellence and prioritising those who were close to finishing their degrees, women and ethnic minorities such as Palestinian Syrians.

“How they were affected by the conflict was not a criteria,” Barroco said, “because they all had a tragic story to tell – their universities had closed, their family was scattered.”

Many of them were forced to move from country to country – Egypt, Gulf states, Lebanon, or maybe Turkey – and some were still in Syria.

The call was made in early 2014 and time was running out to get the first 45 students a visa before the start of Spring term.

“The candidates were scattered in Syria, Lebanon and Gulf countries so we realised that the only way for them to come on time was to organise a mission to pick them up in Lebanon,” Barroco told University World News. “So we decided to use the air force.”

The rendezvous was set at Lebanon’s international airport. Syrian students queued up at military checkpoints to cross the border and Barroco flew in on a C-130 troop carrier complete with border officials to screen passports and issue visas.

“It was emotional,” she says. “The military plane also created lots of questions among students.”

But now four students have already finished their degrees and more will do so this December. The aim, though, is for as many as possible to go back to help rebuild their country when the conflict subsides.

In the meantime Barroco is trying to find internships, especially in civil engineering, that will prepare them for life back home. They are also given soft skills training in peace-building and negotiation.

She stressed that students in this situation are very vulnerable and often need “educational care” and “psychological support”.


Osman Babury, deputy minister for academic affairs at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education, said a wide range of emergencies can quickly create crises for higher education, whether they involve war, fast spreading diseases, hunger, floods, earthquakes or nuclear accidents.

In a fragile state these were likely to cause damage to infrastructure, loss of staff, closure of institutions, mental health problems, political interference and a need for outside assistance.

“In 30 years of war in Afghanistan all of these effects were felt: damage to infrastructure, loss of staff and students, a major loss of quality, closure of some institutions, isolation of faculty members; political interference, intimidation, arrests and violence; growing financial crises, and a break-down in the sense of community,” he said.

“This led to a deterioration in the quality of facilities, teaching and the end of almost all research."

He said there were serious mental health problems affecting at least 40% of college age students. “Depression and anxiety disorders were high, especially among women and children.”

He said the initial reaction during a crisis is to go into survival mode, but as the crisis is prolonged there are different phases of response.

He said it was important for higher education to be supportive and integrative and contribute academically to preparation for emergencies, rather than stand back.

During emergencies higher education can be helpful in the mediation situation and in finding solutions to the problem – or it could be a source of criticism of the government’s response, or a source of opposition to the conflict, or play no role at all.

He argued that it was vital for universities to show leadership and have plans and mechanisms in place to protect faculty members in war and ensure that critical research can be continued.

“There should be a plan for war and violence – and prepositioned supplies in place to deal with refugees, hunger, shelter, basic and higher education,” he said.

He also called for an end to the military use of facilities, which can make them a target for attack, and an acceptance of the neutrality of education institutions.

After emergencies, it was important to create a transformation agenda, a new legal framework, quality priorities, revise the curriculum, resume research, work towards gender equity, establish partnerships and international cooperation, establish extracurricular activities for students, re-establish the academic community and “build mental and ethical strength throughout the curriculum”.

Scholar Rescue Fund

Clare Banks, assistant director of international partnerships and initiatives at the Institute of International Education or IIE, New York, said her organisation had for a long time been protecting students and scholars. Its Scholar Rescue Fund has a network of more than 300 partner universities who provide fellowships to scholars for a year.

“This allows them to continue research, teach and contribute to the local scholar community,” she said.

They have rescued scholars from 53 countries, but mostly from Iraq, Iran and Syria in recent years. Most recently they have launched an Artists Rescue Fund to help threatened artists.

She pointed to the impact that international links can have. Myanmar, for instance, had a flourishing higher education system which fell into disrepair during the years of dictatorship and isolation. When the country opened up, delegates from the IIE and US universities visited and recognised there was a strong need to open up international offices in the institutions there.

These could play a pivotal role in receiving trainers, exchange of faculty, exchange of funding and receiving aid.

“We ran a training course on developing and managing an office on campus,” Banks said. “We hope to train the trainers.”

She said the key to helping higher education in emergencies was to leverage funding and networks and to act fast.

Assuming that distance learning online was a means of provision in emergencies was too simplistic, Barroco said. Students in conflict situations often feel isolated and live in very poor conditions moving from place to place, she said.

“I don’t believe only MOOCs can work. People really need support and a sense of being part of a community, but maybe combining [online delivery] and presented courses could work.”

Babury said in Afghanistan the academic culture was “critically destroyed” during years of fighting – and trying to get those academics who had left to return to the country and enhancing the role of schools and institutions should be a “main focus of the recovery period”.

Members of the audience questioned why education was a low priority in humanitarian intervention and what case could be put to the international community to give higher education a place.

Clare Banks said: “Higher education really is a neglected issue.”

She argued that the development of the post-2015 UN agenda presented an opportunity to create a rapid response mechanism, bringing partners together who could help students.