Consortium to show how to scale up HE for refugees

In Kakuma refugee camp north-west Kenya, around a dozen students are sitting in a white pre-fab learning hub the size of a lorry container, with their backs to their computers, having a discussion.

The hub is cramped but it is one of the few institutions providing post-secondary education in the camp, which is home to 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers living in rows of huts on the dry dusty landscape.

On the roof of the hub is a row of solar panels to power the computers and the air-conditioning system, vital for the learners but also important for maintaining computers in the extreme climate of these lowlands where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees.

This is the InZone-University of Geneva learning hub, which provides virtual courses and allows enrolled students to interact with students from around the world and learn through collaboration.

This type of arrangement – gathering students in a single place to learn together but using online courses and a mixture of online tutoring and face to face tutoring – is called “connected learning” and has been pioneered in refugee settings by a number of universities and partnerships of universities for a number of years.

“The case for using connected learning is strong,” says Barbara Moser-Mercer, director of InZone, “because there is both a social component as well as an individual private component to learning.

“In the refugee context meaning is created through collaboration, discussion, working together. It’s about refining your ideas and arguments not just with peers and fellow refugees in the learning hub, but also with students who are not necessarily in a refugee context but are taking the same course at other universities elsewhere.”

Crucially, it also offers a cost-effective way to provide short-cycle or foundational courses and degree or part-degree equivalent courses – accredited as either a degree, degree credits or diplomas by universities – to refugees living on the margins.

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, many more students could be supported via connected learning than via scholarships because of the difference in cost.

Refugee student support on traditional courses costs on average US$6,000 per student per year, that is for tuition fees, indirect study costs and subsistence allowance; and management of the programme globally, with the average cost in MENA – Middle East and North African – countries being US$3,660, but US$15,000 in Jordan.

But the cost of connected learning in higher education for refugees can be as little as US$300 a year per student and there are no extra living costs because students are living with their families.

Consortium for connected learning

Recognising the potential to scale up provision of good quality accredited higher education to refugees that connected learning offers, pioneering institutions, with the encouragement of UNHCR, are forming a consortium of connected learning in higher education for refugees.

A workshop was hosted by UNHCR and InZone in Geneva in December – funded by the Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict or PEIC, programme of Qatari-based NGO Education Above All – to agree the framework of the consortium.

The institutions and organisations attending included Australian Catholic University or ACU; Borderless Higher Education for Refugees or BHER, InZone-University of Geneva, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, Kenyatta University, Kepler, Moi University (remotely), PEIC, UNHCR and the VodaFone Foundation.

Rapid progress was made in agreeing the aims, objectives and timeframe of the establishment of the consortium. The search is now on for funding to support its development, with the hope of being able to give it some international momentum by promoting it at the first World Humanitarian Summit on 23-24 May and officially launching it in June.

Jacqueline Strecker, UNHCR Innovations’ Learn Lab Manager, says a pressing reason for creating the consortium is the fact that different connected learning programmes have merged quite quickly over the past five years and there is increasing interest but a lack of systematic, in-depth sharing of experiences.

“So we find a lot of people going on their own working in silos, coming up against the same challenges and unaware of how other programmes have addressed them.”

In Geneva the organisations agreed strongly that the priorities of the consortium should be to coordinate and collaborate on provision of higher education in areas of conflict and displacement using connected learning; develop innovative and good practice, quality standards and sustainable solutions; develop and share scientific evidence of the effectiveness of technological innovations that enable new pedagogical approaches using connected learning; and raise awareness about connected learning.

Mapping credentials

Another key objective is to map credentials provided by different institutions and partners and establish agreement on mutual recognition of credentials, which would widen possibilities for refugees to move between provider, creating greater choice in the higher education pathways they can take.

“The consortium adds a number of very important dimensions to connected learning pedagogies,” says Moser-Mercer, whose organisation has taken on the leadership role for the consortium until it is formally established.

“It allows us to pool experience and expertise and work towards an understanding of what is good quality in higher education for refugees provided via connected learning and how that can be developed and measured.

“It will also widen opportunities for refugees because collaboration may enable them to navigate from one provider to another knowing that credentials obtained with one provider will be recognised by another. So it creates virtual mobility, making credits portable, and guaranteeing new learning pathways.”

It is not just about pooling resources, she says, but about exposing refugee students to a diverse learning experience that will make for a more balanced understanding of the world.

“Some of them may never otherwise be exposed to such variety of experience, because they may be in the camps for ever; others will get resettled quickly but will leave camp with a very good foundation.”

Challenge of recognition

The consortium members recognise that a significant challenge for online programmes, even though they blend online and face to face tuition, is recognition of the qualifications awarded, and setting standards is critical to the credibility of those awards.

Strecker says there has particularly been a lack of recognition in southern ministries, for instance, in the MENA region digital or online university credits are not valued by some ministries, and setting standards and publicising them as a consortium would help, as would having partnerships with local universities.

One of the most ambitious connected learning programmes is run by the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees or BHER. It is targeted mainly at untrained Somali refugee teachers, but also Eritreans and Ethiopians, in Dadaab refugee camp in north-eastern Kenya – the world’s largest refugee camp complex, home to 350,000 refugees and asylum seekers – and the host community.

Funded by the Canadian government, BHER’s key focus has been on improving the quality of teaching in the camps, where 70% of teachers were untrained, and thereby raise the educational attainment of primary and secondary students.

The BHER Consortium currently includes four universities, two of them from Canada (York University and the University of British Colombia) and two from Kenya (Moi University and Kenyatta University); and one NGO, Windle Trust Kenya; and it supports around 250 students.

BHER has created a three-stage pathway, offering a non-credit course preparing students for university education; followed by an international accredited two-year diploma in teacher education either in primary or secondary education; followed by the opportunity to go on and take a bachelor degree in community health education, education in science/arts, or geography.

According to BHER Project Manager Aida Orgocka, a key factor in its credibility is that it offers internationally recognised university programmes at the level of certificates, diplomas, degrees in education and social sciences from accredited institutions.

So the students in Dadaab (see picture, left) are taking exactly the same courses as students enrolled in the Canadian or Kenyan universities, members of the BHER Consortium. Assessment is carried out by the relevant university, with instructors teaching and grading just as they would at the institution itself.

Similarly, a programme run by the Australian Catholic University, or ACU, for refugees and migrants in Thailand on the Myanmar border offers an 18-month foundational liberal studies diploma – equivalent to one year of a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree – in eight broad subjects; and a half-course four-unit certificate.

It claims to be the only provider in Thailand that offers a full internationally accredited course that is accepted in other universities. Many of the students do not have a recognised high school diploma but universities take them on because they have completed the ACU diploma.

Advantages over scholarships

With fewer than 1% of refugees of university-going age currently having access to higher education worldwide, there is plenty of scope for both scholarships and connected learning programmes to make a valuable contribution to extending provision. However, there is less awareness of the advantages of connected learning.

Ita Sheehy, senior education officer for UNHCR, says the UN agency has been helping scholars through universities for more than 20 years, but while this provides valuable support for them to access higher education, it has been very difficult to expand the number of students who can go to university in any substantial way.

One of the difficulties is that, to take up a scholarship, students must leave home to go to university.

“In many cases females in particular have difficulty [leaving home], because of family customs, and avail [themselves] less of the opportunities,” says Sheehy.

“While we will still support university scholarships and feel it is an area that needs to be expanded, we are looking at massive expansion of connected learning at lower cost for students who could not otherwise go to university.”

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: