The other one per cent
To reach university education level, a young refugee has to overcome significant barriers and only one in 100 makes it. By comparison, just over one-third of young people of university age around the world are in tertiary education. Despite their potential, young refugees are greatly disadvantaged in accessing university education as well as technical and vocational training.
Highly educated refugees can become leaders in their communities, creating businesses and social enterprises, or building infrastructure as engineers, scientists and technology specialists. They can lobby for improvements to public services as politicians and campaigners, and demand a better future through education, employment, and the protection and nurturing of youth. In doing so, they support and contribute to peace and stability, at a local, national and regional level. Refugees with good qualifications have a better chance of finding work and contributing to the economy of their host countries or wherever they might end up living, gaining valuable experience as well as increasing their self-sufficiency and their ability to support their families and relatives.
For all these reasons, higher and further education form an integral part of UNHCR’s mandate to protect and support the world’s refugees. Increasing opportunity is a priority, since there is a major shortage of options. The scholarships, courses and connected learning programmes that are available are being seized with both hands and the move to tertiary education for refugees should be regarded as a natural progression, not an exception.
Finding ways to innovate and connect
Refugees may sometimes find themselves in remote places but that does not mean they have to be cut off from the rest of the world. Besides the communications available in towns and cities, many refugee camps are equipped with internet access, allowing e-learning in addition to face-to-face teaching in the classroom.
Universities around the world are increasingly using the internet – for example, by putting lectures and other material online to be viewed before a student arrives for lessons. Some institutions are taking online learning even further, facilitating courses that allow students from different countries and backgrounds, including refugee camps, to study together.
In partnership with universities, donors and other organizations, UNHCR, the University of Geneva and others formed the Connected Learning Consortium for Higher Education for Refugees. Connected courses combine digital access with face-to-face learning. Since 2004, these initiatives have provided accredited programmes for more than 5,000 refugee students in nine countries. In 2016 alone, an expected 350 new students will benefit from connected learning degree and diploma programmes, with accreditation from institutions in Australia, Canada, Germany, Kenya, Switzerland and the United States of America.
Highly educated refugees can become leaders in their communities.
E-learning is an important way to bring flexible learning to refugees. However, it cannot replace face-to-face teaching, especially if it does not ensure certification. The key point about digital learning is that it leads to, or supports, accredited qualifications and should accompany but not replace on-site support, mentoring and tutoring. Yet it is still a valuable resource, for both refugees and nationals of the host country.
The use of technology and the internet is not restricted to tertiary education. Using mobile phones, laptops, e-readers and tablets allows young people to study at home, even if they have family and domestic obligations. Digital books help to develop literacy skills and a love of reading at an early age, particularly in places where it is difficult to provide enough printed copies to go round. The ability to pack thousands of educational resources into a single device makes tools such as e-readers and tablets well suited to refugee environments, helping teachers develop lessons where children learn through play and exploration.
Language learning, teacher training and support networks, certified connected learning programmes and the wealth of information on the internet, such as documentaries, lectures, news channels, educational games and online libraries, can all make education better for refugees. As one teacher put it, explaining rainfall cycles to children born in arid zones is made easier when pupils see videos showing them mountains and oceans for the first time.
Examples of innovation and the use of connectivity in the education of refugees abound. In Kenya, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and United Republic of Tanzania, UNHCR is working with the Vodafone Foundation, equipping existing classrooms with Instant Classroom kits that provide localized digital content, tablets, projectors and audio systems, powered by solar batteries and using satellite or mobile networks. Similarly, across the globe from Burundi to Lebanon to Malaysia, UNHCR is working with partner organizations to test new resources and approaches for learning. Examples include the Ideas Box, a portable multimedia resource that can turn any space into a cultural centre allowing both children and adults to access news and information, read books and play games, and even create their own newspapers and edit their own films. Another programme is Teachers for Teachers, which enables refugees working as teachers to communicate with experienced educators worldwide using mobile phones, helping them deal with problems related to classroom management such as teaching to classes of 80 children or more. And TIGER, or These Inspiring Girls Enjoy Reading, is a community-led mentoring scheme for adolescent girls in Jordan that encourages them to stay in school.
Focus on: Higher Education programmes
DAFI scholarships (DAFI is a German acronym for the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) play an integral part in enabling refugees worldwide to access higher education. Inclusion in recognized systems is the principle underlying the DAFI programme, so that refugees can study on campuses in their countries of asylum alongside nationals. Awards cover a wide range of costs, from tuition fees and study materials, to food, transport, accommodation and other allowances.
Since it began in 1992, the DAFI programme has sponsored more than 8,000 refugee students to attend university in 42 countries. In 2015, 2,324 refugee students were on DAFI scholarships and a further 2,560 young refugees will be able to attend universities in their first country of asylum thanks to an expansion of the programme between 2016 and 2020, with support from the German government and other donors.
UNHCR’s efforts to support opportunities for refugee girls are also bearing fruit. The proportion of female DAFI scholars has increased to 43 per cent. Many graduates work in refugee camps, particularly as teachers and community workers, and act as role models for other refugee students. In the case of girls, having female DAFI scholars to emulate is a huge motivational boost.
These results, taken over more than two decades of the DAFI programme, mark a lasting contribution to peace and stability in regions of conflict and displacement.
UNHCR’s systematic efforts to support opportunities for refugee girls are also bearing fruit.
Clearly, the number of scholarships provided by DAFI and other UNHCR partners cannot solve the crisis in higher education for refugees, but it demonstrates the demand and shows what can be done. In 2014, despite their often difficult living and learning conditions, only a handful of DAFI students dropped out: 2 per cent because of resettlement in a third country, and 2 per cent for medical and personal reasons. This shows an extraordinary level of persistence and dedication.
Even as UNESCO estimates that there could be a shortage of 40 million tertiary-educated workers worldwide by 2020, too many eligible young refugees do not have the opportunity to go to university. For them, tertiary education is the exception, not the norm. It is vital that governments and higher education institutions provide more schemes allowing refugees to attend universities under the same conditions as nationals. To facilitate this, secondary school students need more academic support through extra- curricular programming and tutoring so they meet the standards for higher education. And before that, we need to ensure that the millions of refugee children not in primary or secondary school are given the chance to get there. The journey may be long and sometimes arduous, but the prize of higher education at the end of it can act as a powerful motivation.
Continue to Section 5: The Struggle for Equality