Higher education for refugees – A call for action

At a time when issues related to refugees and the integration of immigrants are becoming key policy questions across different countries and regions, the international community needs to focus on establishing guidelines and support for refugee and immigrant education.

This includes the recognition of refugee qualifications and support for refugee education and integration programmes and the infrastructure necessary for lifelong learning. A number of initiatives have been undertaken by governments and transnational organisations. These should be highlighted, supported and expanded to increase their impact and effectiveness.

Refugee challenge

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2016 publication Global Trends: Forced displacement in 2015, there were at least 65.3 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the world, including 3.7 million who were stateless.

Of this figure, 21.3 million were refugees, while 40.8 million were internally displaced persons and 3.8 million were asylum seekers. In 2015 alone, an estimated 12.4 million were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution and more than one million arrived in Europe by sea.

In 2015, the total number of refugees and forcibly displaced persons represented 0.9% of the world’s 7.3 billion population. This fragile population, their education and careers halted in spite of their educational attainment and-or potential to further their own education and live a normal life, deserves the attention, empathy and support of the international community.

Considering it took the United Nations 15 years to end extreme poverty for a billion people, the international community should be proactive in supporting initiatives that help normalise the lives of refugees and forcibly displaced persons.

This is especially important as the situation is exacerbated by the ongoing European refugee crisis. Failure to address these issues also contributes to an increase in extreme poverty, social unrest, the disappearance of cultural heritage and even reduces the opportunities for future scientists and leaders to contribute to peace and prosperity in our shared world.

Aside from offering food and shelter, the international community should focus on refugee education. Education has enormous potential to facilitate integration of refugees, foster self-sufficiency, build their capacity to lead a normal life and contribute to the global community.

Recognising refugees’ qualifications and ensuring they can further their education would significantly contribute to reducing the socio-economic costs to host countries and the rest of the world. It would also enable refugees and forcibly displaced persons to contribute to social, economic, cultural and scientific developments that may secure a peaceful, sustainable and progressive global community.

Refugee education initiatives

Governments and the international development community should support initiatives that recognise the educational attainment of displaced persons, including refugees. Efforts should also be made to support their education and streamline their integration into their host communities.

A few of these initiatives include: Recognition of Prior Learning; the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees; the European University Association Refugees Welcome Map and an overview of government and university scholarships targeting refugees (for example, the European Union’s Science4Refugees programme).

However, the main challenge in refugee education is the need for more comprehensive measures to support refugees, from their arrival, during the integration period, through their education in their host countries up to their eventual return to their home country, where applicable.

Furthermore, UNESCO’s ongoing initiative to draft a Global Convention on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications not only enhances existing Regional Conventions on the Recognition of Higher Education Qualifications, but it also reiterates the need to recognise refugee qualifications. A recognition of foreign qualifications is a moral duty and this applies particularly to refugees.

In some countries, Recognition of Prior Learning or RPL (also called Validation of Prior Learning) has been used to recognise acquired learning. This is especially true in informal and non-formal settings, which facilitate entry to the formal education sector and-or the labour market.

RPL covers the process of assessing, documenting and giving recognition to prior learning irrespective of when, where and how learning has taken place. It involves various elements including law, financing, institutional structures and support.

In Europe, the University Recognition of Prior Learning Centres – Bridging Higher Education with Vocational Education and Training project and Validation of Prior Learning in seven European countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Netherlands, Norway, Austria and the United Kingdom) are examples of such practices.

The European Qualifications Passport for Refugees is a project with a particular outreach. The methodology was successfully tested in Norway in 2016. It is now being tested in Greece in a pilot project run by the Council of Europe, the Greek authorities and in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ENIC-NARIC recognition offices from Greece, Italy, Norway and the United Kingdom. The first documents were issued in March 2017.

The methodology is based on the combination of a document analysis and the use of a structured interview by qualified credential evaluators. It aims to be a tool that can facilitate the assessment process even for newly arrived refugees, provided that the outcome of this assessment process – a standardised document called the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees – is known and widely accepted across borders in Europe and possibly beyond.

Many organisations across Europe and beyond are responding to refugees by providing them with shelter, advice and support in dealing with the authorities and engaging them in cultural and sporting activities. Higher education institutions are also developing initiatives tailored to refugee students and university staff, and have incorporated subjects concerning migration and refugees into teaching and research.

The European University Association Refugees Welcome Map showcases and documents the commitment of higher education institutions and organisations to supporting refugees. One example is the comprehensive Akademisk Dugnad at the University of Oslo, which lists more than 250 initiatives for refugees from 31 countries.

In addition, other relevant international organisations, like the European Association for International Education, have specifically addressed this issue over time.

Finally, government-sponsored programmes focusing on refugee education, such as the European Union’s Science4Refugees, and various organisations' and institutional scholarships for refugee education should be expanded. It is important to ensure that a future generation of potential leaders, scientists and global citizens will not be lost due to their current refugee and-or displaced status.

A comprehensive approach to refugee education

Aside from supporting and expanding the above-mentioned initiatives to support refugee education, there is a need for a global, or at least a regional, comprehensive approach to address refugee education.

It is not enough to recognise refugees’ qualifications. There is also a need to address their status, ensure their human rights (which are not limited to education), facilitate their integration into host communities and ensure their self-sufficiency and capacity to contribute to society and the world at large.

New approaches, like the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, are needed. Such multinational initiatives might prove to be very cost-efficient, since the development of tools for this purpose are normally very costly and time-consuming.

A comprehensive approach to refugee education, resources and the opportunity to effectively educate and integrate refugees and displaced persons is needed. Without it, individuals may never attain the self-sufficiency and confidence they need to become global citizens.

Without a comprehensive approach, we also waste (financial and non-financial) resources and our ability to contribute to the world’s sustainable cultural, economic, scientific and social development. We also reduce the possibility of attaining a sustainable, peaceful and progressive global community.

In addition, such an approach may reduce the risk of social, political and economic alienation among the refugee populations in host countries.

The international community needs to develop a comprehensive global solution to the refugee crisis by addressing refugee education, ensuring refugees’ human rights and seeking the sustainable development of a peaceful and progressive world.

Roger Chao Jr is senior consultant of UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China. Stig Arne Skjerven is director of foreign education in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC), Norway.