Higher education has key role in integrating refugees

“The Syrian conflict is having a devastating and lasting impact on Syria and across the region…”. Since the start of the conflict we got sadly accustomed to this refrain in virtually all policy initiatives and pieces of research addressing the Syrian crisis. Yet, today the issue is far from regional. Europe has not witnessed population shifts of this scale since World War II.

At the same time, deadly terror attacks worldwide and (air) military interventions in Syria operated by different alliances have wrought a conflict that by far exceeds a civil war. For example, after Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane near the Turkish-Syrian border last year, former CNN correspondent Frida Ghitis asked herself: “How is this not World War III?”.

What started as a 'spin-off' of the so-called Arab Spring has developed into an unprecedented global crisis.

Host countries across the world seem to be addressing this global crisis primarily (if not solely) from two perspectives. They fret that refugees represent a net economic burden, and they emphasise the need to prepare for a post-conflict order. Both these points are legitimate.

There is evidence of increases in the cost of public services in all neighbouring countries, although there are also positive returns; and nobody gainsays that post-war Syria will need a cadre of leaders at different levels to run the country.

The European Commission, for example, has already launched the Tahdir or 'preparation' programme to train post-war leaders among the Syrian diaspora.

But is that the whole story?

Both these approaches also have an underlying flaw: they do not seriously consider the long-term nature of the 'crisis'. Especially in Europe, policy-makers think about refugees when they leave their country of origin and present a problem of influx in another country. However, in reality that crisis will continue in some form for each individual for another 17 years on average.

This raises key questions on how to ensure civic integration of refugees in their hosting communities – and what form of civic integration. Civic integration can include so-called 'domestic politics' such as immigrants participating in civil organisations or associations in the host society; 'immigrant politics', for instance the mobilisation of migrants on socio-economic issues such as discrimination; and 'homeland politics', for example lobbying the host government on issues related to the country of origin.

I argue that higher education is fundamental to ensuring integration of refugees. For example, Jessica Magaziner of the World Education News & Reviews stresses that engagement in higher education is a form of protection from conflict and reduces the likelihood of youth involvement in violence or terrorism.

This argument shows the role higher education can play in promoting 'homeland politics'. Several countries in Europe, for instance Germany, see the refugee influx as an opportunity to halt demographic decline and thus maintain a long-term sustainable social welfare system – in this case, higher education can support the 'domestic politics' dimension.

Therefore, enabling refugees’ access to higher education is a strategic decision besides a humanitarian and social justice question. Last week University World News reported that refugee access to higher education is less than 1% against a 32% average across the world. But to date, national strategies are often inconsistent and are not conducive to full higher education access for refugees, especially because most countries did not foresee them remaining for years or decades.

For example, Jordan has no clear policy on Syrian higher education-eligible students and a key concern is that helping Syrians only – for example through a dedicated fund – would disadvantage eligible Jordanians. Moreover, the degree to which Syrian refugees are integrated into host societies varies from country to country depending on several antecedent factors such as cultural proximity and the nature of diplomatic relationships.

Refugees face a number of needs, including financial, regulatory, usability of education acquired as a refugee, curricula differences between the host country and their prior education, learning options and lack of information.

Across the world a number of initiatives are taking place to support access to higher education for Syrian refugees, for example (see, inter alia, World Education News & Reviews):
  • • The European Union is providing €12 million (US$13 million) for scholarships and short-term higher education programmes for Syrians in the Middle East. Kiron University, an online university based in Germany, will offer free online courses to 1,000 refugee students. The University of York in England has promised US$750,000 to help Syrian refugees;

  • • Many Canadian universities have responded to the need for aid in this crisis through scholarship programmes;

  • • Turkey still has among the lowest percentage of Syrian refugees enrolled in higher education, currently about 3% of the eligible cohort of between 40,000 and 50,000 – and it should be noted that in pre-war Syria access was just over 26%. Language is one of the main barriers for Syrian applicants, leading to a number of Syrian-only institutions. However, they are not officially accredited, which puts in question the value of the qualifications attained (for example, on the labour market);

  • • Lebanon, with more than 1.1 million refugees, has the highest ratio of refugee population to host. Here there are a number of initiatives, some of which are designed for the longer term. For example, the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research’s Syrian programme provides scholarships for Syrians under certain conditions. It supports majors that will enable Syrians to subsequently work in Lebanon, and requires students to take capacity building training (for example, language training) in addition to regular classes;

  • • In 2014 Queen Rania of Jordan launched Edraak, a not-for-profit platform for MOOCs in Arabic. The platform is meant to offer Arab learners (not only Syrians) access to courses taught at universities such as Harvard, MIT and the University of California Berkeley, among others, at no cost to the learner, with the potential to earn certificates of mastery for certain courses.
What’s next?

It is increasingly evident that, no matter the outcome of the Syrian crisis, the world will have to grapple with refugees for some time. Therefore, their integration in the host communities is crucial.

Integration demands fair treatment; fair treatment means equal opportunities and chances to succeed in life. Higher education policy has a key part to play in promoting integration of refugees but must not – and need not – do so at the expense of the national system and local population as so often feared.

Different experiences from around the world suggest that mixed approaches are necessary. Different contexts call for different solutions but in general any policy must take into account both the need for immediate action and the long-term perspective. Immediate action might include ad hoc facilities to cater for a sudden rise in demand – for example educational facilities in refugee camps in Jordan, or online facilities to support e-learning alternatives.

Actions that aim at longer term sustainability should include a number of elements such as:
  • • Flexibility, for example, through smoother transition to tertiary education via recognition of prior learning, different modes of provision, etc;
  • • Relevance, for example by prioritising support for certain fields of study according to the needs of the host country; and
  • • Enabling access to the labour market.
Perhaps three (interrelated) key lessons from the Syrian crisis are that higher education is a necessary (as opposed to supplementary) element to ensure civic integration; that civic integration should not be seen as something that applies only to 'regular' immigrants arriving through 'planned migration'; and that higher education is an integral element of humanitarian assistance, as was emphasised by Arnaud Borchard the head of the development section of the European Union delegation to Syria, during a conference organised by the Global Platform for Syrian Students in December 2014.

Leon Cremonini is a researcher at the University of Twente’s Center for Higher Education Policy Studies in the Netherlands. He works on several aspects of higher education policy across the world and has co-authored a study to design an EU programme to enhance access to further and higher education for young Syrians who had to abandon formal education because of the war.

The second part of this Special Report on higher education for refugees will be published in next week’s issue of University World News.