The massive refugee crisis demands a proper response

On 18 September 2015 Philip Altbach and I wrote a University World News commentary about the slow reaction by higher education to the refugee crisis in Europe. Since then both the crisis itself and the response by universities and higher education organisations in Europe and beyond have escalated rapidly, the latter a positive sign of the commitment and engagement of the higher education community.

In Times Higher Education, reporter Jack Groves described several ways universities in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe have tried to support refugees, and Anna Notaro in University World News did the same.

In her effort to give an answer about what universities can do in response to the refugees knocking louder on Europe’ s door, she called on universities to become “generous intellectual benefactors”, acting in solidarity with the refugees. She cites positive initiatives such as those of Alan Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, or IIE, and others who provided scholarships for refugees.

However well intended such initiatives are, most remain nice words and intentions, and as Yannick Du Pont, the director of SPARK, quoted by Anna Notaro, states, it is frustrating to see a lack of real higher education opportunities for refugees.

My own institution, Boston College, has for several years been active in providing education in refugee camps in Africa in collaboration with other Jesuit universities in the US, but when asked to respond to the IIE initiative to give a scholarship to a Syrian refugee, it said it could not because rules and regulations made it impossible.

Minor contributions

Of course, it is good that we are discussing the issue of how universities can help in the refugee crisis, for instance, in events like the policy seminar at the Academic Cooperation Association, planned for December this year, or a panel debate that I am invited to speak at by the American Educational Research Association in Washington in April next year, but this does not address the real pressing needs of the refugees.

It is no doubt good that national agencies such as the German Academic Exchange, or DAAD, and EP-Nuffic in Europe and World Education Services in the US and Canada are looking into overcoming obstacles for refugee students with language training and credential evaluations. And, of course, it is great to see how universities from Oslo via East London to Siena are all looking to help refugees to study.

But all these initiatives can only be very minor contributions and expressions of solidarity to a massive wave of refugees knocking on the doors of Europe.

Worse: those refugees are spending several months, even years, doing nothing in refugee camps, waiting for decisions on whether they will be expelled or allowed to stay.

Why not allow and stimulate them to be educated, to learn and teach and work on their future, in Europe or back home? In a recent edition of The Atlantic, writer Heather Horn talks about the lost Syrian generation and rightly fears that the positive offer of European universities to help its refugees is only a very minor contribution at a time when the whole university infrastructure of Syria is at risk.

It is time that politicians recognise the opportunities education offers for a solution to the refugee crisis. It is positive to hear the Dutch minister of education making a call to universities to do their utmost to welcome refugees and not isolate them but integrate them. But those nice words fall short of her own contribution, just 40 (!) scholarships to the universities of applied sciences for refugees. Four thousand for the whole education sector would have been a better start.

Instead of spending billions of euros on border protection and massive refugee camps, the European Union and its member states should invest in education as this will provide both short-term and long-term opportunities both for the refugees who are allowed to stay and those forced to return, both for those in Europe and in the camps in border countries.

The broad solidarity of the higher education community with the refugees in Europe and elsewhere can only become effective if there is coordinated support from the European Union, national governments and international bodies such as the UN and the World Bank. If they were to invest in massive scholarships and pathway programmes for refugees, this would make an enormous difference.

Then indeed it might become a realistic proposition to have each educational institution (universities, community colleges, vocational schools) take several refugees in, as students, and as teachers and researchers.

We cannot leave the solution to the German universities, which because of the numbers of refugees they are dealing with, will face serious problems with accommodation and pathway programmes. We have to spread the refugees across Europe and the rest of the world and avoid too high concentrations in any one region and the potential risks for integration.

A response that fits the scale of the crisis

The long-term work by NGOs in providing education in refugee camps and scholarships for refugee students is impressive and much needed, but the current crisis calls for different and more substantive answers and can provide lessons for refugee crises elsewhere and in the future.

Organisations such as the European University Association, or EUA, have been rather silent on the issue, but now the EUA has come out with a call to convince politicians that education for refugees is not a cost or challenge but an opportunity they should invest in.

The EUA is calling on the European Union and EU member states “to demonstrate leadership and accept responsibility for managing the ongoing refugee crisis” and has made recommendations about how the responsibilities of the education sector are to contribute support and help.

EUA President Rolf Tarrach formulates those responsibilities as follows: “Access to higher education is surely one of the best ways of helping student refugees to gain qualifications, enabling them to seek employment and pursue a career and thus build a life for themselves and their families.”

I could not agree more.

Of course, there are many obstacles to access to higher education for refugee students, such as recognition of degrees, language and so on. And not all refugees will be qualified for higher education training or jobs. But if all actors work together, there are ways to overcome these problems by creating pathway programmes, intensive language training opportunities and so on.

Am I naĂŻve to think this is possible? Maybe, but no more so than those who think that nice words of solidarity and small initiatives here and there can make a real difference. It is time for substantial concrete actions to support these small initiatives.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, USA. Email: