Humanism at the heart of international education

Around the world, the question of how to respond to the movement of refugees and migrants is at the centre of national debates. The place and potential of migrants and their intersection with education is an important topic in the current climate.

Even where universities and colleges are enlightened about the positive elements that migration brings – including greater diversity and innovation – they may also be grappling with a host of difficult questions, including how to coordinate efforts to create and launch advocacy efforts to balance often negative public debate.

As Jane Knight and Hans de Wit established in their work in the late 1990s and 2000s, internationalisation incorporates rationales of academic, political, economic and sociocultural factors. To these we must now add a fifth rationale: humanism.

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If we are to be truly responsive to the current global humanitarian crisis, educators must also be prepared to act with a humanitarian motivation.

Refugee and at-risk migrant students are engaging in international education in very different ways than traditional study abroad populations due to mobility that has been forced on them. As such, they have vastly distinct motivations and experience different outcomes.

These students are different from traditional study abroad and international students, who we already know much about but who represent a smaller, more globally elite population.

Migration is a worldwide issue

The globe is currently experiencing the unprecedented migration of 68.5 million displaced people, including 25.4 million refugees, the largest numbers recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since World War II (UNHCR 2018).

Increased migration has been caused by conflicts in Syria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where the Syrian Civil War continues to push even more refugees into the already overloaded neighbouring countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Trouble spots in Asia scatter refugees from Afghanistan into Iran and Pakistan, Rohingya minorities out of Myanmar, and refugees from Bhutan into Nepal.

Instability also rages in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where protracted conflicts in Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Congo, South Sudan and Yemen displace a quarter of the worldwide refugee flow. In Latin America, gang violence, the drug war and autocratic regimes in some countries are driving migration northward.

If we take the current administration in the United States as a bellwether, it is clear that much of the discussion around migrants and refugees does not suggest a mood favouring integration.

Despite a history defined by migration from every continent, the United States at the moment seems more preoccupied with other concerns. Complex issues dominate like setting limits for refugee admissions; crafting arguments to ban citizens from certain countries or religious groups; arguing over how migration will be stopped with walls; defending assumptions about immigrants’ criminality; and staking out domestic positions championing or vilifying migration in an increasingly polarised country.

Only 23% of refugee children will manage to enter secondary education versus the global average of 84% of children of non-refugee background. In higher education, these numbers are much worse; only 1% of refugees will find their way into universities or equivalent educational institutions compared with the global average of 36% of non-refugees.

With over half of the world’s displaced population under the age of 18, their needs will impact not only education systems at primary and secondary levels, but also in the tertiary sector, vocational and career training and lifelong learning.

Integrating refugees and at-risk migrants is a complex undertaking that requires sustained dedication over many years from receiving institutions. For refugee students and scholars, the hurdles are also vast and include working through psychological traumas, completing credential evaluations, often learning a new language, affording tuition, learning how to navigate new academic landscapes and graduating to secure employment.

These hurdles impact on refugee students unaccustomed to the educational system in a new country of residence and should be important considerations for educators working with this population.

Why care about refugee integration?

Research has shown that when refugees acquire new educational opportunities, despite extraordinary odds, they often prove to be resilient and ambitious learners.

Unlike study abroad students who engage in mobility to broaden their horizons and become more informed citizens – what might be termed ‘mobility for enlightenment’ – migrants generally move to other countries to increase their economic and social opportunities.

Migrants are engaging in ‘mobility for opportunity’, while refugees leave their countries out of fear of persecution to simply escape – what we must see as nothing less than ‘mobility for survival’.

These three types of mobility will be discussed in more depth in my forthcoming article in the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education.

In the United States, a robust conversation is not taking place about the challenges of integrating refugees and migrants into higher education. However, the challenges that other countries, such as Germany and Canada, are addressing are problems with which US educators need to grapple.

As the number of new international student enrolments fall – for example in the 2017-18 academic year by as much as 6.6% – we need to work to integrate the many talented refugees and migrants of university age already here and hungry for tertiary education.

As international educators, we serve as positive role models for the entire academy by being at the forefront of diversifying our higher education system, embracing refugees and migrants and helping to integrate them into our student bodies.

What can be done?

The model of the newly established University Alliance for Refugees and at-Risk Migrants (UARRM) lays out a helpful roadmap for ways the tertiary education sector can be harnessed for the empowerment and protection of refugees and at-risk migrants. This initiative is led by Rutgers University and works in collaboration with numerous partners.

The alliance is pursuing six distinct action areas to facilitate integration into higher education opportunity:

  • • Creating safe, legal pathways for entry into the United States and other safe third countries;

  • • Overcoming barriers to higher education access;

  • • Providing on-campus assistance, protection and in-community support;

  • • Advocacy and awareness-raising;

  • • Research and evidence-based policy-making, humanitarian intervention and public influence; and

  • • Media, communications and dialogue.

As concerned scholars and practitioners, we have a moral obligation to reach beyond the academy.

The US can learn from some recently established initiatives in other countries targeted at helping migrants and refugees who seek higher education opportunity.

In Germany, for example, the need to accommodate refugee populations became acute four years ago when an exodus of over one million refugees, primarily from the ongoing Syrian Civil War, began fleeing to Western Europe.

In response, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research allocated €100 million (US$112 million) to the German Academic Exchange Service to enable universities to establish ‘Integra’ language and preparatory courses aimed explicitly at helping refugees integrate into higher education.

Based on its initial success, the funding was recently renewed. Although undeniably the migration issue has significantly strained German politics, the higher education sector’s response has both demonstrated the power of the education sector to be responsive, and in doing so has yielded positive results.

In another example, the World University Service of Canada has long been helping refugees resettle into higher education through its Student Refugee Program. This initiative is primarily run by students and supported through funds raised on a voluntary basis. It has placed more than 130 students at 80 different campuses around the country.

This intersection of the work of governmental agencies and the tertiary sector serves to foster innovation and establish best practices that can potentially be successfully borrowed by one system from another, or adapted from one context to the benefit of another with appropriate modifications.

Some positive initiatives have also grown out of a range of partnerships established in the United States between universities, international satellite campuses and cross-border exchanges.

For example, Bard College in Berlin’s Program for International Education and Social Change hosts students from Afghanistan, Brazil, Eritrea, Iraq, Palestine and Syria to bypass travel restrictions and open alternative pathways for students to continue their educations conflict-free.

Columbia University’s Scholarship for Displaced Persons provides Syrian students displaced through the civil war with four years of full scholarship support to earn a degree in the School of General Studies.

The University of California, Davis’s Ford Foundation-funded Article 26 Backpack “blends digital technology, face-to-face counselling and cloud-based credential assessment” to enable refugees to safely share their documents with universities, evaluators, employers and agencies seeking to sponsor and provide educational opportunities.

Finally, the 2016 Vassar Refugee Solidarity initiative of the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education works to create bridges between communities and vulnerable groups.

Through its network of educators, Bennington College, Bard College (and Bard Berlin), Sarah Lawrence College and Vassar College have collaborated to teach students about forced migration through a transnational classroom initiative, in which refugees serve as teachers through video chats.

These exemplary initiatives represent only a fraction of current activities aimed at helping refugees to integrate into higher education.

Whether they are top-down, large-scale federal initiatives or bottom-up initiatives by single institutions or consortia working together, these initiatives clearly demonstrate not only that there is robust interest in capturing the potential that migrants can bring, but even more importantly attest to a genuine, humanitarian interest in educational institutions serving their local and global communities.


As international educators, we need to acknowledge, incorporate, enable and encourage the participation of a much larger tent of students. This newer, updated and more inclusive view must also include students who represent today’s unprecedented numbers of refugees and economic migrants.

Higher education opportunities can give refugees and at-risk migrants the tools they need to enhance their existing qualifications. Engaging them in further training enables them to make substantial contributions to their host societies.

Looking at these students within the wider tent of participants in international education also means that we need to be cognisant of today’s political, and in some contexts increasingly polarised, environment and how it impacts our roles and responsibilities as international educators and concerned citizens.

Future estimates do not see international migration declining any time soon. The higher education sector, and those engaged in international education, must think broadly and with humanistic sensitivity about how to counter nationalist, isolationist and radical tendencies and remain the inclusive sites we need to be for all of our students.

Bernhard T Streitwieser is assistant professor of international education and international affairs and co-chair, UNESCO Chair in International Education for Development. He is based at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University, United States. An edited version of this article was first published under the title “Why Migrants and Refugees Have a Place in International Education” in Trends & Insights: Internationalization in a Time of Global Disruption, (March, 2019), 11-14. Reproduced with permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. Copyright ©2019 by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.