University leaders must collaborate as humanitarian actors

Universities in the United Kingdom have done a great deal to support people swept up in humanitarian crises, natural and man-made, the International Higher Education Forum 2023 heard this week. But conspicuously missing is collaboration between university leaders, which will be crucial to boosting education for refugees.

There is a “lot of great stuff” being done to support refugees by professors, civil society and student groups, said Frankie Randle, connected higher education specialist at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the refugee agency. “But for it to be sustainable, it has to involve university leadership.”

He was speaking at a panel on “Global leadership through humanitarian crisis – What lessons can we learn?” at the International Higher Education Forum, an annual gathering hosted by Universities UK and Universities UK International. This year’s event was held online on 28 February and 1 March, titled “Global universities, global responsibilities, global leadership”.

Professor Sir Robin Grimes, foreign secretary at the Royal Society – the UK’s national academy of sciences – and chair of energy materials at Imperial College London, said he had been struck by an extraordinary uplift in levels of humanitarian support because of Ukraine. This was also worrying as it implied somewhat less concern about crises in other parts of the world.

“But let’s turn that into something, where we maintain the momentum and we learn,” he said, so that going forward, assistance is delivered more effectively and impactfully.

Universities need to see humanitarian assistance not as charity but as enlightened self-interest, said Professor ’Funmi Olonisakin, vice-president for international, engagement and service at King’s College London. Regions that house most refugees are also regions that generate alternative sources of revenue for UK universities.

Institutions need to redesign their approach to refugee higher education, becoming better at providing accreditation and qualifications to refugee students and at working in partnership with universities in regions of crisis, in order to strengthen them.

Further, said Olonisakin, if universities are going to continue being successful globally, there needs to be duality in their business models. One, towards students present in institutions who pay high fees. “Two, reaching out to the rest of the world, not at a loss but not for high commercial gain, and in partnership among ourselves as a consortium.”

Providing sanctuary and support

Professor Cara Aitchison, vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Wales, chaired the panel from Gulf College in Oman, where Cardiff Met has a transnational education partnership encompassing 2,500 students.

She said she would “take on as a personal challenge with my colleagues” Frankie Randle’s call for collaboration between university leaders.

Aitchison leads an institution that is deeply involved in supporting people engulfed in humanitarian crises. It is a designated ‘university of sanctuary’, as are a growing number of UK institutions. “We provide bursaries for refugee and asylum seeker students, and we’ve supported staff who have arrived in the UK as refugees and asylum seekers.”

With Aitchison in Oman was a colleague, a refugee who fled Albania during the war in Kosovo. “She arrived in the UK around 20 years ago, with no English. Today she has a higher national diploma, a degree, two masters degrees and a PhD.” She is a Cardiff Met lecturer, specialising in supply chain management.

“We’ve recently funded two women academics from Afghanistan, economics lecturers, as fellows of CARA, the Council for At-Risk Academics. Its Executive Director Stephen Wordsworth is Cardiff Met’s chancellor,” she said.

Teacher education at Cardiff Met has a project that helps to sustain a primary school in Rwanda and provides international opportunities for students, including to develop a global mindset.

Cardiff Met is twinned with Skovoroda Kharkiv National Pedagogical University in Kharkiv, Ukraine. “Our aim is to prevent brain drain. We support education and research in Ukraine, including by hosting visiting staff and students.” Aitchison chairs the Wales-Ukraine Higher Education Group. “It is helping to develop a coordinated approach to our efforts.”

“And as we continue to work to integrate a humanitarian approach, it is important that we do so within our curriculum. And it is also important that we do so not just in Europe and the Near East, but that we look at the entire world – that we take a global approach,” she said.

“Our task is great, if we are to cover the entire globe. But so is our knowledge, our skills base, our resources and our will.”

The panel’s keynote speaker was Saleh Saeed OBE, chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which brings together 15 leading aid charities to raise funds quickly at times of crisis overseas, and helps to coordinate the UK’s public response. It also has media and governments as partners.

Since Saeed’s tenure at the DEC began in 2012, the DEC has launched 13 national emergency appeals, raising more than £900 million (US$1 billion) for crises around the world. Its Ukraine appeal alone has raised some £400 million, while the appeal following earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria have raised more than £100 million in just over two weeks.

Saeed said higher education had important roles to play in responding to major crises that inevitably lie ahead. “We hope that together with your reach and your influence, we can tackle some of these challenges in the future together.”

Learning the lessons from past crises

Robin Grimes told the forum that higher education faced the important questions of how to make the work of universities a funder’s priority, and how to prioritise projects. There had been a “massive uplift in universities’ reaction due to the war in Ukraine”.

“I and many others are thinking about why we did not do more in previous crises, although there was important effort. Going forward, it is going to be important to learn lessons from our response to Ukraine and use that experience to be more impactful and active in future crises, whatever they may be. We need to reflect.”

The response to Ukraine shows that assistance from British higher education is extensive and comes in different forms. Supporting displaced people who come to the UK and the efforts of CARA in supporting academics at risk are but two examples.

“Looking forward, what happens when those displaced academics return? That’s more challenging, perhaps even more important.” A programme making connections between UK and Ukrainian universities is a remarkable development, and one that takes a long view.

From 15-16 May the Royal Society and partners will hold a conference to support Ukraine’s reconstruction and recovery by showcasing UK research and expertise, providing a forum to strengthen networks and identifying avenues for collaboration, said Grimes. The society is calling for researchers with relevant evidence and expertise to submit expressions of interest by 19 March 2023.

Grimes also described an important international initiative to support Ukrainian academics. Poland has more displaced Ukrainian academics than anywhere else because people like to stay close to their homes geographically, and return readily when the situation changes.

The Royal Society, the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, Leopoldina – Germany’s national academy of sciences – and the Danish academy have been working with the Polish Academy of Sciences to develop programmes.

The need has been for Ukrainian academics and their families to be supported at universities. “Now the programme has morphed over to the question of how to support people so they can be effective in providing the rebuilding that Ukraine requires from its academic community.”

The Ukrainian academics are mostly engineers and scientists. “We’re thinking very much about capabilities that have been destroyed by Russian aggression, like optoelectronics and microwave communications, all the way to developing different sorts of materials.”

“Of course, you need a range of different opportunities and types of programmes. This is one end of that, for a very specific purpose.”

Reimagining educational assistance

There were three messages offered by Olonisakin. The first was that delivering education to society and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive. But it requires that universities design quality education that is able to reach people in need, wherever they are located.

The imperative to support people who seek refugee status in other countries and institutions is understandable, she said – “and many of us have already done that”. But universities need to reimagine educational assistance, if they are to respond to the growing scale of the problem.

Secondly, why do universities in the Global North need to do this? “The fact is that the way we do things at the moment inordinately disadvantages partners in the Global South, which more often than not are in countries where the problem of displacement is most magnified.

“This requires us to think about enlightened self-interest,” Olonisakin said. “It requires a different approach that would either complement or provide an alternative to our marketised responses to global education.”

Thirdly, something needs to change radically in the UK’s approach to the rest of the world. The conflict in Ukraine and the vast challenges of Africa exemplify the scale of need and the reasons why universities must now think collectively.

The COVID experience provided an opportunity to change profoundly, Olonisakin said. “We see ourselves thinking in hybrid ways, and about how to reach different parts of the world without having people there.”

Universities now have experience in how to provide learning flexibly and online, and how to deliver transnational education and qualifications through multi-institutional partnerships.

Between 2017 and 2022, for example, King’s College London and partners helped deliver education to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as to local people. At the end of 2022, online education had been provided in those countries to more than a million young people.

“What if we had given qualifications to those young people?” It would have helped them to pass into employment or higher education. “That is an example of the kind of flexibility we need to bring. That, for me, was the big learning from our experience in the programme.”

She argued for two actions: deliver quality education, on site, that will be life changing for refugees; and train thousands of teachers and academics to teach refugees where they are. Many of those new teachers will go on to find permanent jobs with their qualifications.

“Are we writing ourselves out of business? No, we’re not. We’re contributing to those societies by building quality that looks like ours because our campuses will still be full of students at the end of the day; it just means new thinking.”

Providing HE in refugee communities

Aside from his work in the higher education team at UNHCR, in Copenhagen, Frankie Randle co-leads the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium, which is a group of dozens of higher education institutions that work in the field of connected – or digital – learning for refugees.

This is about taking higher education into refugee communities, creating learning communities in situ, rather than taking individual refugees out to attend higher education institutions elsewhere, and it is provided through online learning and where possible face-to-face teaching or programme support in learning centres. It is important because securing refugees’ places in higher education institutions in countries they flee to will only ever reach a small proportion of refugees.

In connected higher education, if partnerships are established between universities in the UK and a major refugee hosting country, for example, refugee organisations and NGOs as well as UNHCR may be brought in to provide support and guidance.

“We’re not just talking about mass enrolment in the easiest courses to deliver. We must think about holistic accredited programmes that lead to livelihoods.”

Randle pointed out that last year the world reached 100 million displaced people overall, including 32 million refugees – well over double what it was 10 years ago. The numbers also reflect the length of time in displacement, which is growing longer.

“Many children born into situations of displacement will spend their whole cycle of education outside their home countries. As a result, UNHCR is committed to achieve inclusion into national education systems for refugees. This is a shift from the past, when UNHCR and partners used to operate parallel systems of education.

“With the numbers being so significant and the length of time and displacement so long, our role has pivoted to really try and support national systems where we can.”

Unfortunately, at all levels of education the rate of enrolment of refugees is lower than that of nationals. “And the gap between nationals and refugees increases as you go up the education ladder,” said Randle. In 2019, UNHCR and its partners set a goal of trying to enrol 15% of young refugees into higher education by the year 2030.

“At the time the target was set in 2019, the global rate of enrolment was 1%. It is now recorded as 6%. So that is progress.” But to be honest about the progress, Randle said, one factor is finding more data, and the 6% is not evenly spread. In West Africa, enrolment for refugees is still 1%, and there are countries that bar refugees from accessing university.

Most refugees attend universities in the countries that host them, and most refugees are based in countries neighbouring their home country. “Often these are low-income countries where the university system is already under strain,” Randle said.

“We see in so many major refugee-hosting countries really inclusive policies and fantastic practices that we need to learn from and support.”

Randle said that UNHCR is a great first port of call for universities that are interested in developing higher education courses for refugees and would like some direction. “We’ve been working in higher education for refugees for more than 30 years.”

Based on the depth of its experience, UNHCR offers important advice. For instance, the importance, when setting up higher education opportunities in refugee hosting communities, of co-designing with the students. Linked to that is the need to provide courses that can lead to job opportunities.

“We recommend building partnerships with refugee-led organisations and local universities, as well as learning from the many institutions that have been involved in this work over many years.”

Funding and students

Randle said the UK government does not appear to have much appetite for funding scholarships for higher education. Another problem is that donors generally give funding only for three to four years. “How do we develop long-term sustainable programming?”

This has proved to be a difficult challenge for universities. But Randle pointed to great examples of universities that offer sustainable support to refugee students, such as the extraordinary Southern New Hampshire University in the United States, with its Global Education Movement, and the Jesuit Worldwide Learning programme, which has graduated hundreds of thousands of ‘at the margin’ students around the world, including in refugee hosting communities.

UNHCR launched a campaign called Aiming Higher two years ago, to fund higher education places for gifted young refugees. It was aimed at high net worth individuals.

“We smashed our annual campaign target in terms of money raised within two weeks because there was such a huge level of interest from high net worth individuals in funding higher education for refugees,” Randle said.

Regarding advocacy, he also said: “The most fantastic thing about higher education for refugees is the students. At UNHCR we’ve set up a leadership and diplomacy programme for some of our graduates so that it’s not us advocating on behalf of the refugees, it’s refugees advocating on behalf of themselves.”

Many refugee students are brilliant and have incredible stories. Randle encouraged universities to engage refugee students as public speakers and diplomats for what both the students and universities want to achieve.

He also spoke about STAR – Student Action for Refugees – a national network of students dedicated to building a society where refugees are welcome. STAR helps to secure scholarships for refugee students. In the UK, Randle said, “civil society plays an incredible role in access to higher education for refugees”.