How can universities respond to the refugee crisis?

A political crisis is engulfing Europe as a result of the rising number of refugees queuing at the European Union’s borders and making their way across the continent in search of a place to rebuild their lives.

The EU migration minister has described it as the worst refugee crisis since World War Two. But it is also true that this type of problem is nothing new.

For as long as there have been wars and threats of persecution there have been populations on the move in different parts of the world, forced to resettle in whichever country will take them.

The world’s biggest refugee camp complex, for instance, is not found outside the Channel Tunnel at Calais or at the border fence between Greece and Macedonia. It is located in Africa at Dadaab in eastern Kenya, 90 kilometres from Somalia and has been there for 25 years. Dadaab accommodates 350,000 refugees. That’s roughly the size of Pittsburgh, Cardiff or Bilbao.

While the United Kingdom has quibbled over taking in any more than 4,000 Syrian refugees a year over the next five years, Jordan was estimated by the UN Refugee Agency, or UNCHR, to have more than 800,000 refugees last month, compared to its population of nearly 6.9 million. Next door, in Lebanon, the 1.4 million estimated refugees actually outnumber the national population of nearly 1.2 million.

Across the world the total number of people forcibly displaced from their homes reached 59.5 million by the end of 2014, a figure which UNCHR described as “staggering”. In 2014 alone, 13.9 million people became newly displaced – four times the number of the previous year.

The current crisis is being fuelled by the exodus from Syria, where 7.6 million were forcibly displaced inside its borders and a further 4.27 million were estimated to have fled the country by the end of 2015. But there are also high numbers of refugees from Afghanistan and Somalia (2.59 million and 1.1 million respectively at the end of 2014).

Grand challenge

Many university leaders are in no doubt that this is one of the grand challenges of our time. But what is the role of higher education in responding to this crisis?

This question will be debated by education leaders at the British Council’s Going Global 2016 conference in Cape Town in May.

The issue matters because so little attention is paid to – and still less aid spent on – the role of education in humanitarian situations. A large proportion of the world’s refugees are stuck in indefinite limbo in host countries that deny them the right to work outside of the camps and where, for young people of university age, there is little opportunity of higher education.

While access to higher education is 32% on average across the world, among refugees it is less than 1%. With refugees spending 17 years on average in exile, this is a gaping social injustice.

It may also be further fuelling conflict. Increases in education inequality correlate strongly with increases in the probability of conflict, a UNESCO study has shown. Education is the key to development of marginalised communities and could play a critical role in helping young people resist the lure of joining militant groups or extremist causes.

So what can be done about it?

One of the speakers at Going Global 2016 will be Brian Cantor, vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford, UK. He believes there has to be a two-pronged approach of contributing to building peace through education and research, and secondly of looking at the options for providing higher education to refugees.

His university – which includes what is thought to be the oldest peace studies department in the world, established 42 years ago – has a long history of contributing to the former approach, with a strong focus on disarmament.

Universities of sanctuary

But also, being based in Bradford, a city of sanctuary – which means it is committed to welcoming ‘refugees from war and persecution’ – he wants to turn his institution into a 'university of sanctuary’, supporting academics who face persecution, working with the students' union to develop student action for refugees and exploring, with other universities, how to take action collectively to provide higher education for refugees.

“The power of a group of universities working together across the world can be very high, and we can then approach other collaborators including UN agencies,” Cantor told University World News.

An idea he wants to present at Going Global 2016 and also at the World Technology University Congress, which Bradford University is hosting later this year, is the notion of universities providing ‘sanctuary’ by a variety of routes and being recognised for that.

“Could there be a kitemark saying you are a university doing its best to support [refugees and asylum seekers]?” he muses.

But what could those routes to sanctuary be?

The obvious one, and the first one that most higher education leaders naturally think of, is offering places at their own university. Some universities, like Bradford, are already offering a smattering of scholarships and funded placements to threatened students and scholars with the help of organisations such as the New York-based Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund or the UK-based Council for At-Risk Academics, or CARA.

Bradford, for instance, supports a Syrian post-doctoral researcher in pharmacy and a peace studies masters student from Eritrea, and would like to see its scholarships programme grow, according to Cantor.

The efforts in the UK and in the US seem ad hoc and piecemeal, however, compared to Germany, where universities are expected to accept tens of thousands of refugees this year, or to the EU Trust Fund’s Further and Higher Education Programme for Vulnerable Syrian Youth, which aims to assist 20,000 young Syrians through a combination of full-time scholarships and full-time enrolment in short-cycle higher education courses.

Important questions

Several important questions have been raised about scholarship schemes that go beyond targeting specific threatened individuals and are open to refugees in general.

One is whether there is a mechanism to ensure or encourage the return of students to contribute to their country or community in exile once they graduate. In Germany, for instance, a political argument being used for accepting refugees into the country is the opposite notion, that they will plug a talent gap caused by falling birth rates by staying on when they graduate.

Another question is whether their effect is to support only students from wealthy families because in many cases scholarships cover tuition but not living costs. How does this help tackle inequity – which in some cases is one of the causes of the conflict from which the refugees are fleeing in the first place?

An alternative approach is to look at ways of providing higher education in the camps and urban settings where refugees are being hosted in the region of their conflict.

A number of university alliances and partnerships such as Borderless Higher Education for Refugees, and individual institutions, such as the Australian Catholic University, and InZone, a centre at the University of Geneva, are attempting to do this using ‘connected learning’.

This is a form of blended learning in which students gather as a learning community in one resource centre, but learn online, with their studies supported by provision of laptops, a local facilitator and visiting lecturers, as well as academics online.

This has the advantage of being significantly cheaper than providing scholarships – one 20th of the cost on average, according to UNCHR – and therefore has the potential to reach many more potential students and particularly those from marginalised communities who could not afford to pay the living costs of attending a Western university.

There are important questions to raise about blended learning too, however.

“One of the dangers of distance learning,” Cantor points out, “is it can provide opportunities for many but opportunities for failure.” He cautions that any social intervention should have a research programme attached to ensure policy-making is driven by evidence.

But he is open to the idea of working with universities that are “closer to some of the problems with refugee camps” and thinks all options – including scholarships and connected learning, should be looked at.

Satisfying the need for an evidence-based approach is the common goal of a group of institutions and higher education alliances working with UNCHR to try to establish a consortium for connected learning in higher education for refugees. The idea is to have a common group of organisations that will set standards and exchange best practice to ensure good quality provision in, and encourage the scaling up of, connected learning for refugees.

“We want to see this moving into many countries where at the moment many refugees have very little access to opportunities in higher education,” says Ita Sheehy, senior education officer at UNCHR, which initially brought the group together – with InZone, now taking the leading role.

“We see it as the most viable way of expanding [provision] to give refugee students, particularly in isolated settings, access to fully certified university courses which will help them access other opportunities in their lives,” Sheehy says.

Brendan O’Malley works as an independent consultant on issues related to higher education for refugees and other aspects of education in conflict, particularly attacks on education. He is also chairman and managing editor of University World News. Email:

University World News will be running a Special Report on higher education for refugees on 13 March.