Scholarships for refugees create hope for inclusive HE

University authorities in Africa have lauded scholarship initiatives that permit refugees and landlocked-area students seeking higher education studies to find opportunities.

Following multiple conflicts in Africa, millions of families continue to be displaced, and surging refugee numbers include students, according to a press statement UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) released earlier in 2022.

However, the past three decades have seen multiple scholarship efforts giving refugee students the chance to earn a university degree, providing the gifts of education, hope and a brighter future, according to the release. These scholarship efforts, experts say, are giving hope for a more inclusive university education in Africa.

Calls for more refugee students to be admitted

At the International Colloquium on African Pedagogical Innovation (CIPA in the French abbreviation) in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, experts lauded the efforts made thus far by some international organisations and governments but called for increased support and synergistic efforts to increase refugee enrolment, especially in tertiary education, globally.

According to the UNHCR, refugee enrolment in tertiary education globally rose by 5% in the academic year 2020-21. This represents a welcome increase from the 1% increase just a few years ago but still falls well short of the target of 15% higher education enrolment by 2030 set by UNHCR, under its ‘15by30’ campaign. The figures reflect a pervasive inequality whereby refugees suffer enrolment rates that are lower than those in even the poorest sections of society at every level of education: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

The colloquium brought together experts in higher education from Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Chad in October 2022, providing the opportunity to examine the road covered in university education support for refugees and students from landlocked areas and the challenges ahead.

Look wider than your own country

Professor Annie Sylvie Wakata, director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure of the University of Yaoundé I, said that students from landlocked or remote areas as well as refugees in most African countries do not have equal learning opportunities as do nationals or those living in urban zones. The paper she presented was titled ‘Adaptation, Resilience and Innovation in higher education teaching and learning in the context of crises in the digital era’.

“We cannot address the issue of quality education in our universities and colleges without looking at the concerns of students from landlocked areas as well as displaced families in Africa,” Wakata pointed out. She said that, if colleges and universities are to serve as instruments for creating and expanding opportunities, then higher education must be more profound and inclusive, reaching out to students in remote and landlocked areas and those from refugee families.

Several other speakers, including Professor Ntuda Ebode, head of the Political Research and Strategy Centre at the University of Yaoundé II, also called for the decentralisation of university infrastructures with some faculties located in rural areas for ease of access.

“Our higher education institutions should not be limited to the cities or urban areas. The government needs to decentralise its infrastructure to reach out to the rural or remote areas as well,” he said.

Governments can reform HE

He said education infrastructure plays a critical role in society as it is the foundation for development and, because it is built to last and make an impact in the future, the rural areas should not be left out in government planning of these projects.

Ebode added that African governments can reform higher education to address the problems of systemic inequalities. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the infrastructure and financial limitations of many universities in Africa, revealing vast inequalities and a lack of technological capacity.

“Fixing higher education on the continent requires greater investment in scientific research and placing social justice at the centre of universities’ teaching and research agendas,” Ebode said.

In Cameroon, many universities have opened their doors to refugees from Niger, Chad and the Central African Republic, university authorities say.

“Our doors are open to refugee students, especially from our neighbouring countries. With the conflict in the Central African Republic, over 300 of their students are enrolled here in the University of Yaounde I,” said Professor Aurélien Soso, rector of the University of Yaounde I. This is in line with the commitment by the Cameroon government to facilitate higher education for refugees in the Central African region.

In a news release on 11 May 2022, UNHCR said that a joint roadmap for the next three years was developed by each country delegation in the West and Central African regions in a workshop in Dakar in March 2022 to translate commitments to facilitate higher education for refugees into concrete actions.

“Refugees face many challenges in accessing tertiary education, and access to quality and certified connected learning programmes presents an opportunity to overcome some of these challenges,” the agency said.