Time to make the world a fairer place for refugees in HE

Policy-makers across the world have embraced the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a symbol of action and refer to them in political discourse. Encompassing almost every aspect of human and planetary well-being, the SDGs, if met, will provide a more fair, stable and prosperous life for individuals, society and the planet.

With the COVID-19 pandemic unleashing an unprecedented crisis, the SDGs’ progress may be put at risk, affecting the world’s most vulnerable people.

There is no doubt that the pandemic presents an enormous challenge for reaching the United Nations 2030 Agenda. On the other hand, the current crisis teaches us that the challenges we face can’t be dealt with in isolation. The pandemic, by its very nature, calls for coordinated action, solidarity and commitment to the pledge to leave no one behind.

“No-one is safe until everyone is safe,” said the World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Learning from the past

The world has seen many crises over the past years, including the refugee crisis of 2015-16. Globally, the education sector has shown great commitment to the issue of forced migration by launching numerous local, national and multinational initiatives to make education accessible to refugees and people in a refugee-like situation.

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Multinational and collaborative initiatives based on the Qualifications Passport methodology have been successfully tested and implemented in several countries, including Armenia, France, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Norway, the Netherlands, Turkey and Zambia. These initiatives helped hundreds of refugees to get their qualifications evaluated so they can apply for further studies and work.

Since 2017, the methodology has been successfully implemented by the Council of Europe in the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) project, bringing together the national information centres on recognition from ENIC-NARIC networks in more than 10 countries, the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, public authorities and universities.

The UNESCO Qualifications Passport for Refugees and Vulnerable Migrants (UQP) brings the concept to a global level with the potential to become a powerful worldwide tool for recognising refugees’ qualifications.

High commitment, collaboration and coordinated action have contributed to raising awareness of the challenges connected to recognition of refugees’ qualifications and refugees’ access to higher education and the labour market and have promoted good practice.

The Recommendation to the Lisbon Recognition Convention on Article VII refers to the Council of Europe’s European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR) as an initiative which has already had a substantial impact and which aims to make recognition and mobility possible.

Another example mentioned in the recommendation is the Toolkit for Recognition of Refugees’ Qualifications, financed by the European Commission (Erasmus+).

The second cycle of the REACT – Refugees and Recognition project included ENIC-NARIC recognition offices from Norway, Ireland, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, selected higher education institutions, the European University Association, the European Students’ Union and KIRON Open Higher Education for Refugees.

By identifying and addressing the challenges related to the assessment of refugees’ qualifications for admission purposes, the project has highlighted possible pathways for the admission and inclusion of students with a refugee background to higher education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA).

As a result of the successful testing of the Toolkit for Recognition of Refugees’ Qualifications, a final set of recommendations has been established and compiled in the REACT Q-card for Admission Officers.

These projects have positively contributed to a strengthened mutual understanding and widened cooperation between recognition centres and higher education institutions and other stakeholders at national levels and across borders, giving hope for potential future collaboration and coordinated action around more efficient recognition and admission solutions.

Prepared for the future?

Although progress has been made over the past few years, significant steps are still required to overcome the obstacles refugees face in having their qualifications recognised and in gaining access to further studies.

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a new urgency – how to sustain the results that have been achieved and ensure that refugees and vulnerable migrants are not left behind, while moving towards the aim of ensuring “inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning for all” by 2030, as articulated in SDG4.

One of the lessons learned in the current pandemic is that progress in these collaborative projects is still possible by building on the network, achievements and experiences of past years.

In 2020, within the framework of the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees (EQPR), significant attention was drawn to the assessment of health-related qualifications held by refugees located in Greece, Italy and France, while stepping up online interviews as the pandemic continued. Among other achievements is the development of the EQPR online evaluation platform and a specialised training course for evaluators.

The UNESCO Qualifications Passport (UQP) project continued its activities online, focusing on training for UQP ambassador volunteers to ensure the second phase of the Zambian pilot with the support of the project stakeholders, colleagues from UNHCR, the Zambia Qualifications Authority (ZAQA), the Norwegian Agency for Quality Assurance of Education (NOKUT) and the UNESCO Lusaka office. Training of evaluators, capacity building and the development of digital evaluation tools are among other priorities for 2020.

Qualifications Passport projects are growing and attracting more official participants, recently being joined by Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania in the EQPR project and South Africa in the UQP.

To sustain and build on the results of the previous projects, a further upscaling and testing of the successful methodology is essential as is identifying successful pathways for Qualifications Passport holders.

The third cycle of the NOKUT-led Erasmus+ Refugees and Recognition – ARENA project was successfully launched in 2020 and collaborators include the ENIC-NARIC offices and universities from Italy, Malta, Greece, the Netherlands and the European University Association, the European Students’ Union, the European Association for International Education and the Council of Europe.

One of the main objectives of the project is to involve more higher education institutions in activities related to inclusion of students with refugee backgrounds in higher education and to provide sustainable pathways to study and work for Qualifications Passport holders.

Even in its initial phase, the project looks promising and exploits the natural synergies between the established initiatives and the experiences within higher education networks to provide the best way forward for individuals and societies.

Solidarity, collaboration and coordinated action among various actors with regard to the achievement of the SDGs is becoming more important and provides us with a timely opportunity to reflect on the role and the interplay of various participants at local, regional, national and international levels.

Higher education as a sector, representing the progressive forces in society, must play a major role in helping to shape the post-COVID-19 world and do so by keeping in mind its social responsibility for furthering sustainable development.

Marina Malgina is head of interview-based evaluations in NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC). Dag Hovdhaugen is director of foreign education at NOKUT (Norwegian ENIC-NARIC).